Migrant workers wait under a flyover in Ghazipur on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border before returning to their native Uttar Pradesh state on May 16. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)
After more than 60 days of the Covid-19 lockdown in India, migrant workers continue to flee urban centers to return to their home villages.Soon after the lockdown started on March 25, most migrant workers found themselves jobless because all businesses, services and transport were shut down to stop the coronavirus from spreading. The migrant workers, who had moved to cities from their poverty-stricken villages, became stranded without jobs and income.They lived through traumatic weeks, often not even having enough to eat. India has some 139 million internal migrant workers, most of them daily wage workers in the informal sector. Although lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease, their exodus continues, at the risk of their lives.On the borders of New Delhi, dramatic scenes of men and women walking on the roads, sometimes carrying children in their arms, are repeated. With their meager luggage bags, they walk towards neighboring Uttar Pradesh state or to farway states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Bengal.They had come to Delhi because they failed to find work in their home states. Today, they try to flee the capital by foot, by truck or by bicycle. It is a mass exodus of thousands of people, turning it into human tragedy as they have to walk hundreds of kilometers to their homes, often without enough to eat and drink.
Millions pushed to poverty
Unorganized workers constitute close to 85 percent of India's working population, and they are suffering the worst from the lockdown, which has closed in on them like a trap. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide last year, gave only four hours' notice when he announced the decision at 8pm on March 24 to impose a lockdown on 1.3 billion people.
The migrant workers were humiliated and distressed for several weeks, deprived of their means of subsistence overnight. For them, the fear of hunger initially overtook the fear of the coronavirus. The free meals distributed by authorities in schools and other centers did not always keep them safe. On the pavements of New Delhi, they were also beaten with sticks by police officers, who tried to enforce social distancing norms and move them from the streets or send them to shelters.
The crisis has brought these vulnerable people to their knees. The whole country could take a huge step backward, with millions of Indians thrown into poverty.
A recovery plan and food aid
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is accused of not doing enough to protect migrant workers in this pandemic season. "Migrants are not treated with dignity," says Manish Jha, a migration specialist and professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. "Why has the prime minister not made their plight an immediate priority?" he asked.
Amitabh Kant, head of the government think-tank Niti Ayog, recently acknowledged the poor management of the crisis concerning migrant workers: "We could have done much, much better," he conceded.
Prime Minister Modi has put in place an economic recovery plan worth US$266 billion or 10 percent of GDP. About US$5.6 billion will be injected into a program of subsidized employment in rural areas. And until July, 80 million migrant workers will receive 5kg of rice or flour and 1kg of lentils free of charge every month — a direct admission of the extent of the humanitarian crisis.
While economic activity is gradually resuming in the country, labor is already in short supply in urban centers. How can industry be restarted if the handlers have returned to their villages and are missing?
Political commentator Shivan Vijj on the news website The Print said employers "deserve" this labor shortage. The crisis occurred because they fired employees or refused to pay them wages during the lockdown. "This is Indian capitalism's hour of disgrace," he said.
A report published by the Stranded Workers Action Network estimates that eight out of 10 migrant workers, without social protection or unemployment, did not receive wages during the lockdown.
The labor crisis could affect India for a few months, creating a further blow to an economy that was already facing a slowdown before the pandemic.
For the time being, migrant workers continue to flee cities, hoping never to return.
This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society.