The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns exposed existing faultlines, especially the issues regarding migrant workers. This blog highlights reasons for reverse migration, broad trends and perspectives of those who made the journey back, those who couldn’t and those who continued to stay in cities. It also offers recommendations to support migrant workers across the country. The insights are extracted from YUVA’s recently launched report.
Data collected on migrant workers
Our team collected data from nearly 13,801 traveling migrant workers between 13 and 23 May 2020. Due to the lockdown, many of them were forced to make the unsafe and uncertain journey home. Raman, a young man living in a slum in Malad in Mumbai’s Western Suburbs said, ‘People are very scared. They don’t know until when the lockdown will continue. People are very worried about what is going to happen. Some have taken taxis, or gone by truck, private vehicles, etc’.
Our report found that the highest number were returning to Uttar Pradesh (19.14 per cent), followed by Rajasthan (6.38 per cent) and other places within Maharashtra (2.38 per cent).
Travelling back to villages was also filled with hurdles with many using several modes of transport based on availability, cost effectiveness and urgency. These included trains, trucks, and buses if available; to more extreme measures such as travelling thousands of kilometres on foot, by auto-rickshaw or in big containers. Four workers reported attempting to walk all the way to Assam, covering a distance of over 2900 kilometres, and 24 workers reported walking all the way to Nepal (check image 2 for more details).
Loss of livelihoods
‘Most of our people here have gone to the village. About 700–800 labourers have gone to their villages, and 200 remain. What is one to do without work? People’s jobs have been adversely affected. The situation is not as it was before. Everybody is tense, and is always thinking about when they should leave for the village’ said Gangaram a naka worker from a gaothan in Panvel.
The lockdown has resulted in the loss of livelihoods for a large proportion of these workers, forcing them to return to their villages for multiple reasons, ranging from the inability to pay for the cost of living in the city to the fear of contracting the virus. Some were contemplating going back to their villages in the future if the situation worsened; many have nowhere or nothing to go back to. Some who returned to their villages expressed their willingness to come back if things ‘returned to normal’.
Inability to meet basic expenses in the city
‘I wondered, till when should I remain hungry? The person who collects electricity charges was harassing me. He was saying that if I do not pay him he will disconnect the electricity. I had no money so how could we give him any? So I lived in darkness for 15 days’ shared Nandan, a migrant worker from Jogeshwari in Mumbai’s Western Suburbs who was not getting ration and hence asked his family to send money so that he could return to his village.
Explaining what pushed them to make individual choices to migrate back to their villages, participants commented on basic expenses that were suddenly beyond their reach and fears that took over.
Barriers faced while returning to villages
‘We left our room (house) twice but had to come back because we did not get the truck. When we left for a third time, we got one truck that cost 3,000 rupees. This was money my parents had borrowed from someone in the village. We did not get a police pass. We had to come illegally’ shared Nandan, from a village 20 km away from Balrampur city in Uttar Pradesh.
Those who attempted to make the journey, were not always successful, they narrated the bureaucratic ordeal it was to even attempt the journey. Furthermore, travel bans, governmental indecisiveness along with rapidly running out resources and spread of misinformation disproportionately affected these workers.
‘Our village is also facing difficulty of food. There is no provision for food in the trains that are taking migrants back to their villages. That is why we are not going back’ said Yasmeen, a domestic worker from West Bengal.
There are many who cannot earn at this time but have stayed on. The reasons for this have largely been linked to the travel procedure being expensive, bureaucratic and unpredictable; their fear of being a burden on their families in the village; having no land or home in the village and the city as their only ‘home’.
Restarting work during partial lockdowns
‘At least now we are getting small jobs, we are able to go and do it. In the initial days of the lockdown there was absolutely nothing possible’ said Kisan, a young naka worker from Nalasopara in Vasai– Virar.
By June some workers reported that they had begun getting work. But not everyone is able to secure work. Daily wage naka workers shared that they had been going to the naka everyday since June 1, however for as long as 14 days they did not get work as almost no contractors came to the nakas.
Recommendations to support migrant workers across the country
- Universalise the public distribution system and provide emergency ration cards: Each ration shop should have an area jurisdiction. This will enable fast-track emergency ration card preparation and can curb risk of duplication. Fair Price Shops should be allowed to register individuals, families or groups of migrant workers living together and issue a single emergency ration card for them.
- Ensure legal and social protection: It is important to include the migrant workforce in the social and economic protection mechanisms. Existing legal provisions, such as the setting up of a Social Security Board for unorganised workers under the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 are currently absent in Maharashtra. The board needs to be set up on an urgent basis and the unutilised as well as additional funds should be allocated under the National Social Security Fund for unorganised workers in order to provide immediate relief and support the schemes mentioned in the Act.
- Ease access to entitlements and protection: Self registration and digitisation of registration should also be done to ensure portability of benefits and reduction of bureaucratic delays. Additionally, awareness amongst workers regarding their rights needs to be prioritised by the state and local governments.
- Use the census database of migrant workers: Home states should use databases of their migrating populations to be collected during the general Census. This will be needed to negotiate provisions of social and economic security stated under the Inter State Workmen Act with the destination states. This includes minimum wages, journey allowance, displacement allowance, housing, healthcare, etc. This database would be effective in formulating future social welfare initiatives. Profiling must be strictly avoided in this process.
- Enable health security for migrant workers: Schemes such as Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, applicable for unorganised workers from Below Poverty Level (BPL) families that allows portability of benefits and a cover of INR 30,000 per family (unit of five), should be extended to include all unorganised workers, providing universal access to healthcare without domicile restrictions.
- For migrant workers’ children: Going forward, provisions for migrant workers’ children should be included in the annual Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan plans to ensure their inclusion and the realisation of their rights.
As the lockdown eases, more work possibilities are opening up, but the availability of work remains challenging and is dependent on various social and economic factors. Each kind of work has its peculiar challenges with regard to an ongoing pandemic — while some can be carried out with physical distancing, many do not have this luxury. It is for these workers that availability of work remains irrelevant and social security gains are of increased significance.
Our report ‘Living with Multiple Vulnerabilities: Impact of Covid-19 on the Urban Poor in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region’ contains in-depth research and recommendations to support the rights and needs of other marginalised communities among the urban poor like — women headed households, domestic and sanitation workers, street vendors, children, etc.
Read the complete report in English.
Extracted and compiled from the original report by Mohammed Anajwalla