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Migrant people wait for buses at Anand Vihar bus terminal to go back to their homes during countrywide lockdown amid Coronavirous pandemic, in New Delhi on Sunday. (ANI)
Migrant people wait for buses at Anand Vihar bus terminal to go back to their homes during countrywide lockdown amid Coronavirous pandemic, in New Delhi on Sunday. (ANI)

Lockdown: Bharat should prepare for influx of 13.4 mn returnees

  • As migrant workers trudge back home, rural India is ill-equipped to handle the situation
  • 13.4 million interstate workers in urban centres, says ex-chief statistician Pronab Sen

NEW DELHI : In the days since India went into perhaps the largest lockdown in human history, a steady stream of migrant workers from its major cities has headed for the exit—by foot, or on overcrowded buses and vans.

But the exodus may have only just begun. In the Chinese city of Wuhan, an estimated 7 million people managed to get out—before strict travel restrictions were put in place—carrying with them a virus that seeded a global pandemic. The unfolding mass migration out of India’s cities is expected to be many times larger.

Delhi alone is home to about 1.3 million migrant workers, according to the census conducted in 2011. The total number of interstate workers in India’s urban centres: 13.4 million (almost 12 million of whom are men). And that doesn’t even include migrants from within the state, say, from a neighbouring district.

“We are talking very large numbers here," said Pronab Sen, a former chief statistician of India, adding: “What is unfolding is a disaster."

With a bulk of Covid-19 cases, up to now, restricted to 6-7 cities, Sen says the sensible thing to do would have been to lock down these cities and ensure nobody gets out. “Ideally, food kitchens should have come up. It would have been easier to target medical and essential services in these locations."

“If the pandemic moves to rural India, we will be singularly ill-equipped to handle it. We have lost the plot. We are in deep trouble," Sen added.

Incidentally, India also happens to be in the midst of a peak month in the internal migration calendar, when the volume of migrants in cities is at its highest. Many seasonal migrants usually head home just before June in preparation for the sowing season.

Graphic: Paras Jain/Mint
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Graphic: Paras Jain/Mint

“Pretty much every one of them has to go back now," said Chinmay Tumbe, a migration researcher at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad.

“If the government had said we will do whatever it takes, don’t leave, we wouldn’t have had a crisis," Tumbe said. Even if evacuation was the only option, it could have been handled better, he said. The UK government, for instance, gave a one-week notice for international students to leave and half a million got out. “The numbers are comparable. It was perfectly doable," Tumbe added.

“Hopefully, this should wake everyone up. For governments as well as most of us, migrant workers don’t exist," Tumbe said. “But soon, we are going to realise we need their labour. There might even be a sudden spike in wages for certain jobs. Urban India may need to start preparing for labour shortages."

In the rural hinterland, preparation of a different kind is already afoot. In Jharkhand, Latehar district’s deputy commissioner Zeeshan Qamar has been on the lookout for buildings that can be quickly converted into state quarantine facilities. “People are coming back," he said. “About 2,000 have reached in the last few weeks."

But they had all returned on foot from neighbouring districts. The interstate flow is yet to swamp the district on the western edge of the state, which falls right in the middle of the Delhi-Mumbai migrant origin belt—stretching clockwise from eastern Uttar Pradesh to western Telangana.

“We are trying to do thermal scanning of every returning person. We are operating within constraints," he said.

While isolation and quarantine facilities will be critical, access to food will be the other key short-term concern, said Rajendran Narayanan, an assistant professor at Azim Premji University. “There are 585 lakh tonnes of grains lying in Food Corporation of India godowns. This is the time when food rations must be made universal."

“There are already reports of people in villages in West Bengal who don’t want these workers coming back, particularly from Maharashtra and Kerala. This is going to snowball," he added.

In the medium term, some mechanisms may also need to be quickly evolved to deliver cash directly into the hands of people, instead of routing it through bank accounts, Narayanan said.

While even the country average for bank branches per person (14 branches per 1 lakh resident) is bad, Narayanan says the situation in states like Bihar is worse. “In Bihar, there are 300 people in a (bank) branch at any point," he said. “That cannot be an option. People should not be expected to go to the bank. Over the next few weeks, this is going to hit hard. This shock is going to be long-lasting."

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