internal migration which mainly comprises daily wage earners who move from villages to cities to find opportunities to work in the cities as domestic helpers, drivers and gardeners, or as daily-wagers on construction sites, building malls, flyovers and homes, or as street vendors. The actual number of migrant laborers’ in the country is not available, but estimates vary from 4 crore to 8 crore. Between 2001 and 2011, while the population grew by 18%, the number of migrants increased by a total of 45%. In 2011, 99% of total migration was internal and immigrants (international migrants) comprised only 1% (4).
With a lack of any kind of regulation and job security in their area of work these migrant workers suddenly not just became jobless, but their sustenance in the present as well as future became a big question mark. For a few days they carried on with their savings, assuming that things will go back to normal in a few weeks, but that did not happen as the lockdown got extended to over 100 days. When the migrant laborer’s savings ran out and the panic surrounding the lockdown struck them, millions of migrants with the looming fear of hunger started fleeing the cities. Without any transportation facility available to them they started walking bare feet towards their hometowns. Sometimes, they got food on the way and other times they went on with their journey without food. Small children ageing one month to 12 years also accompanied their parents. Old people were also not left behind. They also walked and walked towards their destination. Many never made it. Many died on the road. Some of them died in road accidents while others starved to death.
Marginalized people often have to pick the best from several bad choices. When they were left with no other alternative, reverse migration started happening. The process of leaving the land of their employment and fleeing back to their native places without any preparation is called reverse migration.
The Union government estimated that more than a million individuals — migrant workers and their families — have returned to their homes in rural India since the country-wide lockdown was imposed (6). Despite repeated requests by the government, they could not stay at their place of work and started leaving for their respective villages. For a few days, the government provided food and rations to them. But there were more than 40 million migrant workers across the country, and to provide relief to all of them became a difficult task for the government.
The trains and buses through which they could have gone back to their hometowns and villages were suspended due to the lockdown. Soon the highways became overcrowded with migrants pleading the government to safely drop them home. The migration happened at a massive scale, and the impact of the same can be felt in the figure which goes up to 1.8 crore inter-state migrant laborers who lost their jobs and future prospects. The only destination they wanted to reach was their home now as the uncertain nature of events around pandemic and lack of income made the staying back motive blurred. This was the second-largest mass migration after the Partition of India in 1947 when a huge number of people were displaced and migrated to India as well as in Pakistan where more than 14 million people were displaced. In the absence of transport facilities, during the lockdown, the panic-stricken laborers and their families including infants, pregnant women and the elderly walked thousands of kilometers barefoot without food and money. They just carried the life they had built for themselves packed into ragtag bags to reach their native places. “The destination was clear in their head — home, their sweet home’. They did all it took to get there as they had their view that they would be safe at their homes and at least they would be with their families, if something happens to them.. How long could they wait?
There have been instances where the police have treated them inhumanely and have even ended up injuring some of them fatally. These incidents or brutality and apathy have highlighted the plight of millions of poor Indians who migrate from villages to cities in search of livelihood, and how during any kind of calamity they are the ones at the receiving end.
On May 8 2020, a goods train ran over 16 migrants who had stopped to rest on the railway tracks at Aurangabad. Migrant workers have died almost every day between then and now. Several collapsed just hours away from their destinations while others died due to reasons ranging from starvation, suicides, exhaustion, road and police brutality and denial of timely medical care. In another incident, the callousness of the concerned authorities came to the forefront when the bodies of the dead workers were piled on to a truck alongside those who were injured as they were being ferried to their native state. It was only midway when the survivors could no longer bear the stench of the decaying bodies that separate vehicles were arranged for them. Their plight did not end here. After reaching their native places, the migrants were even sprayed by a toxic bleach disinfectant, which is used to clean vehicles. They were also made to stay in unhygienic labour camps and quarantine shelter homes. These shelter homes put migrants at the risk of Covid-19 along with the risk of various other types of infections. The situation of migrants back in their hometowns and villages was no better due to the triggering a climate of hatred against them as people believed them to be carriers of the disease. The stigma associated with them being carriers of a fatal virus-like COVID 19 led them to people rejecting them, denying them food, ration and other basic necessities and nobody wanted to risk coming in contact with them.
M. Chinazzi and C.R.Wells studied the importance of travel bans and complete lockdown in China and border policies. They concluded that Human migration played a significant role in the spread of COVID-19 virus multiplying the transmission rate . Even for the spread of Spanish Flu, transportation of people from Bombay to other parts of India was considered as the main reason. The same is also one of the reasons for the spread of COVID 19 virus too. From the Tables- ‘A’ and ‘B’ (attached in the annexure), we find that in those states in which a large number of reverse migration has taken place, the positive corona cases are on the higher side and the states which have few reverse migrations have very less no of positive cases.
A generic mathematical network approach cannot be employed for disease-spread analyzing for India. Hence, spatial distribution has been used for establishing the relation between migration and the spread of disease. The deadly virus has moved from cities to less active towns and villages, spreading the disease within States quickly. Table ‘A’ shows the influx of migrant workers. And Table ‘B’ depicts the effect of reverse migration in the form of an increased number of infected people along with % increase.
The above effect has been because of the reverse migration of migrant workers which was a result of lack of choice available to them. The places with more migrants coming back have more numbers of COVID 19 positive cases. The blame for the same however cannot be put on poor migrants but on the lack of suitable policies to help the country amid this situation.
The income loss due to 30 million migrant workers returning home is a significant hit to household finances. (Globally, it is likely to lead to a $109 billion drop in global remittances which means a significant part of wages no longer being sent back home to the 800 million people who depend on it.)
It is also expected that due to the lockdown women could be increasingly shut out of the productive economy. For minor girls, it could mean the end of education as families scramble to make ends meet. Post lockdown there has been a surge in such suicide cases committed by minors due to the inability of their parents in facilitating education through the internet. Apart from this, the dropout rate of girls will rise as parents will not be interested in continuing their education because of the economic burden, and more teenage girls will be married off. This will render the achievement of the fifth goal of gender equality set by the United Nations by 2030, difficult.
Handling the compromised mental health of the migrating workers is another challenge. Depressed by the misery around, and lack of future employment opportunities and financial support is likely to result in suicidal tendencies.
The supply chain is also going to get adversely affected. Migrations of workers have disrupted the supply chain. It has battered the supply chain in numerous ways. Shops, businesses that have shut down due to reverse migration, have disrupted the supply chain.
Although construction companies have started working, they will not be able to finish their construction as was scheduled because of disruption in the supply chain. Raw material, other components, and other semi-finished products are delivered through trucks. Trucks and vehicles have started playing back on the roads, but they do not get service centers and repair shops to replace tyres or mechanics for petty repairs. It creates a huge problem in the supply chain. While some suppliers continue working during these unprecedented times while others are completely non-functional due to health and safety precautions.
The world never anticipated the emergence of such a complex challenge which the migrant workers might encounter arising following the preventive measures of lockdown to prevent COVID-19 virus.
This migration is a panic reaction. No one has ever seen such a murky picture of human being and as such it calls for changes in attitudes and practices towards migrant workers whether internal or international. The countries need to adopt a humane approach towards migrant workers, especially during such abnormal conditions. They should be considered for the same benefits which are given to other workers. I feel, the countries should maintain emergency funds for migrant workers which can be used during abnormal situations.
Instead of putting them into starvation, they could have been given some loan either by their employers or government which could have been recovered after general life resumes back. Humanity does not deserve this type of behavior with International or internal migrants.
Proper thought should have been given to the welfare and safety of migrants and other vulnerable groups by the government before declaring a complete lockdown. Transportation and arrangement of other essential services for the survival of migrants should have been more organized and delivered in a dignified way. The unplanned steps taken by the government had adverse effects on not just the migrants and their families but also affected the country as a whole, the effects of which we are going to see in our economic, social and ecological systems in years to come. Migration (both International and internal) deserve better behavior from the government and employer. They are the people who are behind the things such as buildings, food without which human being cannot survive. How can we ignore them when they expect humanity from us? This pandemic is a lesson applicable not just India but to the entire world. It highlighted the need to invest in research and policymaking so that hazards associated with an extraordinary situation like these can be mitigated before it goes out of control. Lastly, it is also true that the plight of low-income migrant workers is generally associated with collective silence in the world.