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In Ahmedabad’s upmarket Paldi area, 41-year-old Jaswant Parmar has been noticing a dip in the city’s sanitation workforce during his daily door-to-door waste collection rounds, which begins at 7am. A huge proportion of the solid waste staff join work via a migration trail that traces back to Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, roughly 250 km away.

“They (sanitation workers) began leaving two days after the lockdown. Now, some of the men are coming back, but the women aren’t," Parmar said.

During the lockdown, local daily wage labourers and construction workers stepped in to clear the waste since the rest of the economy was shut and no work was available, said Meghna Malhotra of Urban Management Centre, which acts as a consultant to the Ahmedabad municipal corporation. “But they are now pulling back as things are opening up. Nobody wants to work in waste," she said. “City services are critical and will be managed somehow. It is the private sector which is going to be hit hard," Malhotra added.

As the migrant/guest worker exodus continues all across India, cities along the country’s most contiguous in-migration belt – starting from Ahmedabad and extending all the way up to Thane via south Gujarat – are waking up to a new reality. Chinmay Tumbe, a migration researcher at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, estimates that at least 15-20% of urban India’s total workforce might have left.

Ironically, just months after state governments introduced legislation to promote preferential hiring of “locals" through quotas, the pandemic has suddenly forced a rethink. Maharashtra, for instance, is contemplating a clawback – from an initial plan to reserve 80% of jobs for locals to 60% now. Bihar, meanwhile, is distributing condoms to the millions of returnees in order to prevent a sudden population spike next year.

What lasting changes, if any, this unprecedented mass movement of workers will result in remains to be seen. But, for now, some key sectors of the economy like garments, textile and construction may face persistent labour shortages, said Amit Basole, a labour economist at the Azim Premji University. “These people are going to eventually find a way back, but it could still be months."

“The key unknown variable is the effectiveness of the skill mapping exercise that states are undertaking. Odisha and Himachal Pradesh have also started urban employment guarantee programmes. Other states are also thinking along these lines," Basole added.

Already, in construction sites on the suburbs of Ahmedabad, the daily wage for unskilled workers has gone up slightly from 350 to 400, according to local activists.

However, since a demand slump and a likely recession will play out simultaneously, the possibility of wage spikes will be very sector-and city-specific, IIM-A’s Tumbe said. “Mumbai, Delhi and Surat will be the key cities to watch out for. Those employed as drivers in Mumbai, for example, all come from outside. This (worker exodus) is going to really pinch in June and July."

In Surat, the power loom and embroidery hubs are almost at a standstill despite the slow easing of lockdown restrictions. The last major shock was the 1994 plague, which took about three months to recover from. But this time, inter-state quarantine restrictions may remain in place for many months.

Employers will try to de-risk by trying to hire within an eight-hour radius of travel, said Chirag Virani, who owns a mid-sized diamond firm in Surat. “It is easier to leave as well as come back then. Many of our employees are anyway from Saurashtra," he said. Worker wages also won’t automatically rise, Virani said. “If demand (in the economy) increases, let’s see."

The memory of the plague, which is deeply embedded in Surat, has strands which are being invoked now – more special trains to Odisha (800,000 Odiyas work in Surat); ration cards for migrants. Both of those were measures used in the mid-1990s to get workers to come back. But Vipul Pandya, a labour organizer with the Bandhkam Mazdoor Sangathan, has a more sober outlook.

“Not much will change as long as there are no jobs in the village. No revolution is going to come," Pandya said. “We’ve been trying to get builders (in Ahmedabad) to improve worksite accomodation to make social distancing possible. But they say: ‘We don’t have working capital, why would we spend on this’."

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