COVID-19 virus took the world by surprise affecting nearly every country in the world. By March 23, 2020, the Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, declared a nationwide lockdown that caused panic amongst the general public. As of August 23, 2020, Coronavirus cases have risen to 23,467,593 and the death toll has surpassed 810,180 across the world. India is in the top 4 in terms of the number of cases reported. The first case of the virus in India was reported on January 30, 2020, and as of July 3, 2020, confirmed cases have reached 646,924with more than 18,656 deaths recorded.
The whole world came to a halt as the governments geared up to quickly respond to this sudden pandemic. The pandemic has affected our lives not only socially but also economically. The effect has been visible across the sectors globally. In India, our economy was hit at the worst possible time as it has been sinking since 2016. The year 2019-20 saw our GDP growth drop down to 4.2 per cent which is the lowest recorded in the last 11 years.
After the pandemic struck, the state has only gotten worse. The unemployment rate has increased up to a record high of 23.8 per cent in April. A record number of $16 billion of foreign capital has been pulled out by foreign investors. Indians exports have also cut down by 60 per cent. This year’s GDP could beat the record plunge of 1979-80 and drop even lower than that. The present economic model has been worrisome and some major steps need to be taken to turn it around, especially after the resultant effects of the pandemic.
While everyone adjusted to the changes of enforced social distancing, 40 million migrant workers in India braced themselves for an entirely different level of hardships. These migrants who work as daily labourers have been hit the hardest as they lost their livelihood overnight. These people have the lowest-paying jobs with no job security and yet carry on their backs major sectors such as construction, hospitality, textiles, manufacturing, transportation services and domestic help. With no alternate sources of income, most of them had no choice but to return to their home states.
This is what is meant by the term ‘reverse migration’, that is, moving from urban areas back to rural areas. Media covered footage of hundreds of panic-stricken migrants and their families including infants, pregnant women and the elderly trying to walk home without any means of transport available to states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha from the states they worked in. Many were later reported to have died due to reasons such as starvation, exhaustion, suicides, road and rail accidents, police brutality and denial of timely medical care. This has weighed heavy on the collective conscience of our country.
Effects of Reverse Migration
- First and foremost, these migrants who are on their way home often travel in large groups that make them all the more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus and can ultimately become the primary reason for its spread. Even the shelter camps and the quarantine homes that they temporarily stay in could become a contamination ground without the due safety measures.
- The seeming lack of future employment opportunities and no financial security adds to their worries. This sudden shock takes a negative toll on their mental health and could further increase suicidal tendencies.
- This has created a lack of labour in the market. Therefore, even though the lockdown has started to relax, industries like agriculture, textile, or construction cannot resume their work since they are entirely dependent on the manpower of these workers. This is going to directly affect the economy of our nation.
- This is going to overburden our rural economy which already has abundant hidden employment with most people directly dependant on agriculture. The rural economy will not be able to fully sustain these migrant workers.
Efforts Made by The Government
The Government of India has made its best efforts to curb the crisis of this reverse migration but it has not been enough. Shelters and Quarantine homes have been put in place by the authorities for the migrants who are deprived of their homes. They are presently looking after 600,000 migrants and providing food to more than 2.2 million individuals.
The Central Government launched the One Nation One Ration Card Scheme with the main objective of the scheme is to introduce nation-wide portability of ration card holders under National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA), to lift their entitlement food grains from any Fair Price Shop in the country without the need to obtain a new ration card, by integrating the existing Public Distribution systems/portals of States/UTs with the Central systems/portals, etc. Basically, under this scheme, families who have food security cards will be able to buy food grains from any shop in the mentioned states at a subsidised price. Further, the Finance Minister has announced the following general measures –
- Free food grains supply to Migrants for 2 months
- Scheme for Affordable Rental Housing Complexes for Migrant Workers and Urban Poor to be launched
- 2% Interest Subvention for 12 months for Shishu MUDRA loanees- Relief of Rs. 1500 crore
- Rs 5000 crore Credit facility for Street Vendors
- Rs70,000 crore boost to the housing sector and middle-income group through the extension of Credit Linked Subsidy Scheme for MIG under PMAY(Urban)
- Rs 6,000 crore for Creating employment using CAMPA funds
- Rs 30,000 crore Additional Emergency Working Capital for farmers through NABARD
- Rs 2 lakh crore concessional credit boost to 2.5 crore farmers under Kisan Credit Card Scheme
Despite, extensive schemes with well-structured plans to curb the focal points of distress in these times, millions of migrants seem to be out of reach of these benefits and they are yet to receive aid.
The challenge seems to be that migrants are usually glossed over and considered an invisible class. Despite their prominent role in contributing to our economy, they don’t get half as much in return in terms of job and health security. There is an imminent need for the Government to come up with specific policy interventions to make sure that migrant workers are aware of their rights and are provided decent working and living conditions in the states they have migrated to. It needs to be made sure that there is no spread of the COVID-19 virus in this community.
They need to be assured of their financial security and should be encouraged to get back to their feet as soon as possible. A policy framework needs to be developed to create a link between Central and State policies on healthcare, education and social security. The workers should be nationally registered to maintain a comprehensive database and track the social benefits due to them in times like the COVID-19 crisis.
District facilitation centres, information centres, education centres and health centres can be set up to further improve the social structure. There is already a National Skill Development Corporation set up which can improve their skill sets, especially for adolescents and young workers. Lastly, politics plays a huge role in strengthening the institution from the ground up. Panchayats and other local authorities should pay better attention to these avenues of our society where the focus is needed immediately.
The speed with which the COVID-19 virus spread; it was an inevitable decision to issue an immediate nationwide lockdown. Unfortunately, prior to this announcement, the gravity of the level at which it would directly affect the migrant workers was not considered. This left this whole sector of people in a vulnerable situation where they had to suddenly take some vital decisions to survive the lockdown. Given the severity of the lockdown rules, a more appropriate approach would have been to devise well-structured schemes keeping in mind the wellbeing of these transient populations before the lockdown.
Second, it should have been considered that these migrant workers often survive only through hand to mouth earnings and hence, a prolonged lockdown would most definitely endanger their lives. There should have been a plan already in place to come in effect the day of the commencement of the lockdown to either maintain migrants in place in their destination cities or make immediate arrangements for them to reach their homes safely without risking them coming in contact with the virus.
Our ambition to become a powerful nation should not be through becoming the richest country. We should strive to become a nation where we give the utmost value to human life and become the prime example of an equitable society. A society where no one has to worry and feel helpless in a crisis without being able to work and not having a source of income, where nobody is discriminated against and no minority feels the insecurity of being a minority.
 “One Nation – One Ration Card Scheme.” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, 26 July 2019, pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1580396.
 Press Information Bureau, Government of India, 14 May 2020, pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1623862.