Coronavirus may have long lasting impact on inter-state migration

MP Yasar aka Yachu is well known in Perumbavoor, Kerala, for his philanthropic work. Yachu collects surplus food from weddings and parties and distributes it to the needy. These days he has added another task. Every day at 5 am he starts his vehicle which has a loudspeaker mounted on top and slowly winds through crowds of migrant labourers who gather in the morning looking for work. He broadcasts taped awareness messages on fighting the nCovid19 pandemic in the native languages of the workers—mostly Bengali and Hindi speaking.

“Their condition is quite bad,’’ Yasar told ET over phone. “They don’t have work and live together in large numbers which means the risk of disease spreading fast among them should anyone get infected is very high,’’ he said. Yasar says recently a large cohort of construction workers returned from Pathanamthitta district where a family that returned from Italy is suspected to have infected several people with novel Coronavirus.

Unskilled and semi-skilled migrant labourers are some of the worst hit by the shutdowns enforced by pandemic controlling protocols. It has tightened the squeeze from a scarce-jobs economy to a no-work economy. Scores of them are heading home. Many who had gone to their native villages for Holi have not returned and are unlikely to return soon as transport services have been disrupted and several states are enforcing shutdowns.

Three of seven workers at a small garment unit in Mumbai’s Dharavi have fled for their native Bihar. Feroze Alam, 46, who has stayed back, says there is panic all around and many workers are fleeing. With Ramzan just a couple of months away the unit should have been in full swing but is barely functioning now.

While a decent meal would cost Rs 50 in a city like Mumbai, that amount can sustain an entire family for a couple of days in a Bihar village. But if the shutdown prolongs, those who have returned home would be under pressure to earn. With few livelihood options in villages, they would want to return to the cities again. As states began enforcing lockdowns and public transport and inter-state travel halted, lakhs of workers are stranded in cities where shops are shut and essential services are badly hit.

“Mobility is severely affected but poor people cannot sit at home,’’ says S Irudaya Rajan, professor at Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Irudaya Rajan, who oversees the annual Kerala Migration Survey, says although it cannot be measured now, the pandemic will have long lasting behavioural impact on the migrant economy.

Using unreserved train ticket sales, the Economic Survey 2016-17 had estimated that at least nine million people migrate annually within the country, most of them in search of work. That number does not include those who travel less than 200 km. While the top destination for migrants is Delhi, followed by Mumbai, the southern states have become a migrant magnet in recent years. The largest number of migrants to other states are from Bihar, UP, Bengal and Assam. The Survey estimated that remittances by these workers alone added up to about Rs 1.5 lakh crore.

“It is too early to measure the impact of the nCovid19 on migrants but it certainly would be significant,’’ says Chinmay Tumbe who teaches economics at IIM, Ahmedabad. Tumbe, author of the India Moving: A History of Migration, estimates that remittances could fall by at least between 10 and 20 per cent.

Based on his studies and observations from the industrial city of Surat in Gujarat, Tumbe says migrant labour typically returns home in a downturn. While the better skilled ones such as drivers and salespeople would also be financially better off, the unskilled workers who typically work in the construction sector lead a hand-to-mouth existence and depend on welfare schemes such as the rural job guarantee scheme, MGNREGA, when they return home.

Previous years’ data on MGNREGA, which promises 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work, shows that demand for work peaks in the month of May and June. The unseasonal disruption in January and February means demand may spike earlier this year. However, the government is less prepared than ever. It reduced the budget for the scheme to Rs 60,000 crore in budget 2020-21 despite the fact that it had to spend Rs 71,002 crore or Rs 11,002 crore more than its estimate in the previous year.

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