The lockdowns in 2020 and the resulting misery for millions of labour migrants across Indian cities have now been documented well. With three years behind us, it would be pertinent to ask if there have been any changes in policy and if we have learnt from the crisis.
At the policy level, yes, but with caveats. Multiple central and state governments initiatives were launched during and in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown and these showed political will to change the status quo on labour migration. Among these was the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, announced in March 2020 and said to be one of the largest food security programmes in the world. Its aim was to provide subsidised food through the public distribution system, especially to those entitled to the Antyodaya scheme intended for the poorest. This was over and above the existing National Food Security Act allocations, effectively doubling them.
However, due to concerns about its sustainability due to dwindling Food Corporation of India (FCI) food grain stocks, the scheme was discontinued this January.
Another indication of the push for inclusivity was the launch of the Pradhan Mantri SVANidhi programme, also in 2020, which aimed to get street vendors back on their feet by offering collateral-free working capital loans of up to Rs 10,000. As several street vendors are migrants, this scheme has the potential to benefit them if eligibility criteria do not exclude them.
Not only that, the government has made efforts to register unorganised workers, including migrants, on a database —EShram Portal— in recognition of the fact that many migrant workers were unable to access government welfare programme during the lockdown. The assumption is that once they are registered, access to welfare programmes will be smoother. More than 28 crore workers have been registered on EShram which is roughly a fourth of the total number of unorganised workers in the country. While figures on the number of migrant workers among these were not available, the government portal shows that three of the major sectors employing migrants namely domestic work, construction work, and apparel had relatively high levels of registration.
Problems of a lack of documentation hampering registration continue to emerge from different parts of the country but these data show that progress is being made. Continued monitoring, reporting of problems and awareness among migrant workers should help speed up the process.
Aside from these measures, the government has stepped up efforts to implement already existing programmes like the One Nation One Ration Card launched in 2019 to enable portable access to the PDS for migrants. This has now been adopted by all states across the country. Furthermore, a temporary relief programme, the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan, was also announced in June 2020 specifically for returning migrant workers to generate immediate employment in the major states of origin, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan.
With so many new and existing schemes, one would have thought that migrants would be sure they would never face the same predicament as 2020. However, the events that unfolded in Tamil Nadu recently show that migrants have a continuing sense of extreme precariousness and a lack of trust in the state and employers that have persisted since the lockdown. Although many have returned to cities and industrial centres for work because of limited options at home, they carry this sense of insecurity with them.
Many more men than women have returned to work in the cities, leaving their families behind. This is testament to migration being perceived as highly risky (although fewer work opportunities for women is also a reason). This is a well-known phenomenon as several case studies from diverse contexts have shown that men are often pioneer migrants who take risks to explore a destination and women follow later when they have settled and found some stability and safety. In this case, the destinations may be familiar but the perception of risks has changed.
There are an estimated 34 lakh migrants in Tamil Nadu, with many in manufacturing hubs like Tirupur and Coimbatore originating from Bihar and Jharkhand. Migrants say they chose Tamil Nadu over other manufacturing hubs in the country because the pay is higher and they are treated with respect. This was unsettled by a recent video of a Tamil man thrashing migrants on a train which resulted in xenophobic statements on social media about migrants taking away locals’ jobs. The video of the attack was repeatedly shared among migrants’ networks and the fear of violence against Hindi-speaking migrants in the state escalated.
Despite the governments of Tamil Nadu and those of migrants’ native states reassuring them that their safety would be protected, the wave of panic resulted in migrants stopping work and starting to flee the state to return to their home states. In normal, pre-pandemic times, this incident may have been forgotten as attacks against migrants have happened before. But the continuing sense of precariousness and distrust that has engulfed the lives of migrant workers since the pandemic created a completely different response.
On the second question of have we learnt from the crisis, a more disaggregated look at “we” is necessary. As far as the general public is concerned, their sympathy for the plight of migrant workers was very evident during the lockdown. In fact, had it not been for ordinary people’s charity, many more migrants would have starved on the streets. Their understanding of the challenges that migrants face will no doubt have improved since the beginning of 2020.
Civil society organisations have also increased their efforts to provide migrants with support by generating better evidence on their journeys and the work that they do. A good example is the research being carried out by the Policy and Development Advisory Group headquartered in Delhi and the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, Kerala, which are supporting the Government of Jharkhand’s Safe and Responsible Migration Initiative. They have completed a migration survey and are conducting in-depth qualitative research to understand migration processes in detail. Work like this is absolutely crucial in a context where the lack of data has hitherto hampered efforts to help them. Many migration researchers like myself have expressed concerns about the inadequacy of the census and NSS data to capture important nuances of migration patterns. Other surveys like the CMIE’s Consumer Pyramids Data are trying to gather more comprehensive data on migration, but detailed mixed-methods state-wise studies are very valuable.
It is important to bear in mind that there are many other actors in the broad category of “we” who shape migrant experiences and who have a more instrumental relationship with migrants. These are the many intermediaries who mediate the various markets that migrants encounter at destination. For example, access to employment for domestic workers in the thousands of housing societies and gated communities depends on the notorious residents’ welfare association (RWA). The RWA can decide what the terms and conditions of access to work are, whether workers are segregated in different lifts and entrances and whether they are allowed to enter at all. On the other hand, factory workers deal with intermediaries like contractors who find them work and accommodation. The relationship of both of these very different intermediaries with migrants reflects historically and culturally embedded attitudes about hierarchies, cleanliness, and the right to dignity (or not) of certain social groups.
That said, eliminating intermediaries is not practical or desirable in a situation where many migrants do not know the ways of the city and are deeply wary of the state. Intermediaries persist, even in markets used by the privileged and wealthy. They are of course a double-edged sword — they provide access but can be opaque and exploitative. Until such time that everyone is literate, fully aware of their rights and conversant in the ways of the city, migrants coming from rural areas will continue to depend on intermediaries. Meanwhile civil society, government, and employers should continue to explore innovative ways of making migration less unpredictable and hazardous for workers who are the backbone of the Indian economy.
(Priya Deshingkar is Professor of Migration and Development, University of Sussex. Views expressed are personal to the author.)