Homeward Bound: Villages Are The New Go-to Destinations, But Jobs Will Return to Cities Faster

File photo of migrant workers walking along a road to return to their villages. (Reuters)

File photo of migrant workers walking along a road to return to their villages. (Reuters)

It could well be economically rewarding if the workers managed to get back to work in the cities and towns where they were engaged in before the lockdown, only if appropriate welfare measures reach them.


Gaurav Choudhury

The role of migrant workers in keeping the economic wheels running in India’s biggest urban centres such as the National Capital Region (NCR) and Mumbai cannot be overemphasised.

Their return to these cities is as vital for their income as it is for engineering a rebound in India’s service-led economy. Here’s an explainer.

What is the issue with stranded migrants in India?

On April 29, the Union Home Ministry allowed state governments to transport migrant workers, pilgirms, tourists, students, patients and others stranded due to the lockdown to their respective states from different parts of the country.

How will they travel?

They can travel by buses that some state governments have arranged. From May 1, the Indian Railways has started running special services — Shramik Special trains — to ferry stranded people home. These are point-to-point trains that are run at the request of the state governments.

When did the train service commence?

The first train carrying migrant workers left Lingampally in Telangana for Hatia in Jharkhand. It was followed by trains on other routes, such as Aluva to Bhubaneswar, Nashik to Lucknow, Nashik to Bhopal, Jaipur to Patna, and Kota to Hatia.

How will the passengers be identified?

It is the responsibility of the state governments to identify the stranded people that wish to travel back to their states. Governments have adopted different methods such as dedicated portals, telephone helplines and missed call registries for the purpose.

The railways have designated nodal officers to coordinate with states for “sale of tickets, social distancing and other safety measures to be observed at train stations and within trains".

Are these trains open to public?

No. These are special trains that are for people who are registered by state governments and are not open to the public. Passengers who have been brought to the railway stations by government officials of the sending states will be allowed to board the trains.

What precautions are taken in these trains?

The government has mandated that migrant workers returning home should be placed under home quarantine to protect the local population.

The passengers have to be screened by the sending states and only those found without symptoms would be allowed to travel. Sending state governments have been asked to bring these persons in batches that can be accommodated in the train to the designated railway station in sanitised buses following social distancing norms and other precautions

Meals and drinking water are provided to the passengers by the sending states at the originating station. On longer routes, the railways will provide a meal during the journey.

These trains carry only 60 per cent of the capacity due to social distancing norms. A team of paramedics and railway security officers also accompany the passengers in the train. Around 1,200 people travel on such a train.

What about tickets and who are paying for these?

The Railways Ministry said it was bearing 85 percent of the fares and charging state governments the remaining 15 percent. It was for the respective state governments to bear this cost or get travelling person to pay.

What has the Congress said?

Congress president Sonia Gandhi on May 4 launched a sharp attack on the BJP-led Central government and accused it of forcing migrant workers to pay for tickets. She said, “The Indian National Congress has, therefore, taken a decision that every Pradesh Congress Committee shall bear the cost for the rail travel of every needy worker and migrant labourer”.

Are states paying for the tickets?

At least two chief ministers – Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan have said that their governments will pay for the rail travel of stranded people returning to their states.

What is the protocol after reaching the destination?

The government of the state in which the destination is located is tasked with making all the arrangements for passenger screening and quarantine, if necessary, and provide last-mile connectivity for the people to go home.

What are the risks associated with this exercise?

India’s rural areas have been largely unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a risk that people travelling back from cities, where the incidence of virus cases are very high, may have been infected and unknowingly end up spreading the virus in their villages. There have been several reports where villages have not allowed migrant workers to enter, insisting that they be quarantined.

Why are migrant labourers not staying put in cities and towns they were engaged in before the lockdown?

The lockdown’s effect is very similar to a mechanical hard stop on a device that was running. What happens when the government asks factories to shut down because people have to be confined at home?

What happens when the government asks construction activities to stop overnight because areas with large gatherings have to be emptied out? What happens when restaurants and shops, other than those selling essentials, are ordered to down shutters because people’s physical proximity can add to the disease’s spread?

In such a situation, a restaurant, a retail garment seller, a property builder and a road builder will all show a similar first instinct: to cut costs. The temporary staff working at these establishments have been often the first ones to find themselves out of work.

With many of them suddenly jobless, their incomes have dramatically collapsed. The uncertainty over when economic activity is likely to regain momentum has only deepened anxieties, prompting them to return home.

What is the size of India’s internal migrant worker population?

Of India’s workforce, 90 percent is in the informal sector, millions of whom have migrated from their villages in search of a better living. In terms of sheer numbers, these inter-state migrants make up for a colossal magnitude, underlining their importance in India’s economic structure.

The Census 2011 pegs the total number of internal migrants in the country (accounting for inter- and intra-state movement) at a staggering 139 million.

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest source states, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal; the major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

The Economic Survey of 2017 used monthly data on unreserved railway passenger traffic between every pair of stations in India for the years 2011-2016.

The key idea was to use net annual flows of unreserved passenger travel as a proxy for work-related migrant flow. That data shows that such migration within India is between 5 and 9 million annually.

How does the migrant worker population in urban areas help the rural economy?

The migrant worker population has led to growing domestic remittances market, estimated to exceed Rs. 1.5 lakh crores annually. Effectively, this implies that migrants working in urban areas are sending money back to their families in villages worth two-and-half-times the annual NREGA budget.

These money transfers, from migrant labourers to villages, serve 10 percent of households in rural India and finance over 30 percent of household consumption in remittance-receiving households, buttressing the importance of urban growth for rural families.

Therefore, an out-of-work migrant worker not just brings down his or her own income, but also, at a macro level, worsens prospects of the rural economy, as it brings down their ability to send money home.

What has the government done for such workers?

The Centre has tried to help these people stay put in their current places, through welfare measures.

On March 26, 2020, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman rolled out a Rs 1.7 lakh-crore relief package, in an attempt to limit the economic damage caused by the coronavirus outbreak and tackle the loss of livelihood of millions of poor hit by the lockdown.

The relief package, under a newly framed Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojana, aims to alleviate the financial pain faced by migrant workers, farmers, urban and rural poor and women.

About 800 million people will get 5 kg of wheat or rice each month for three months for free over and above the 5 kg they already get.

A one-time transfer of Rs 500 per month for next three months to the Jan Dhan accounts of 200 million women will be made, of which Rs 10,000 crore has already been deposited. Women of 83 million BPL families have also been provided free cooking gas cylinders for three months under the Ujjwala scheme.

Collateral-free loans provided to women self-help groups have also been doubled to Rs 20 lakh for 6.3 million such groups, which will benefit 70 million households.

The government is also bearing the cost of the provident fund contributions, both of the employer and employees — 12 percent each — until June, which have up to 100 employees and 90 percent of whom are earning less than Rs 15,000 per month as salary. More than 4.1 million people have benefited from this with government transferring about Rs 35,000 crore into the EPFO corpus.

Provident fund scheme regulation have also been amended to allow non-refundable advance of 75 percent from the provident fund for contingency expenditure or three months of wages whichever is lower. Until now, 8.72 lakh people have availed this benefit, withdrawing more than Rs 2,700 crore.

The central government has also directed state governments to use the existing welfare fund with Rs 34,000 crore reserves to provide assistance to 21 million construction workers to protect them from economic disruption.

What needs to be done to make migrant workers stay put in towns and cities?

As the domestic remittances estimate show, it could well be economically rewarding if they managed to get back to work in the cities and towns where they were engaged in before the lockdown, only if appropriate welfare measures reach them.

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