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There is little clarity on the number of state-wise returnees and on the migrant population who stayed back at their workplaces, more than two months after the reverse migration of India’s floating workforce began from across the country.

Finally, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court set a 15-day deadline to states to facilitate the return of all migrants who remained stranded. “At least 4 million inter-state workers are still stuck," said Amitabh Kundu, a fellow at Delhi-based think tank Research and Information System for Developing Countries. Kundu is one among many researchers who are attempting to estimate the scale of the reverse migration.

Several private surveys now broadly converge, estimating that 30-35 million had taken the arduous journey home. “The exodus has been even bigger than what we witnessed during the Syrian war," said Priya Deshingkar, a professor of migration and development, University of Sussex.

According to official records, about 12 million travelled in state-run buses and trains, and another 2 million were at halfway homes.

New migration trail
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New migration trail

In effect, the government was able to assist about 30% of those who needed help. The bigger worry, however, is that more than 30 million people, a significant chunk of the labour force, have almost remained invisible to governments.

“India desperately needs a large-scale migration survey," said Deshingkar. “The very fact that people are trying to find estimates beyond the National Sample Survey (last captured work-related migration in 2007) and the Census (of 2011) shows there is a gap."

Some elementary errors were also made because of the lack of relevant data. An obvious way to prioritize the railways’ services over the past few weeks would have been to target districts with a large number of short-duration, long-distance migrants, who were generally more vulnerable and poorer. However, there was little relevant, real-time data available to identify the target group.

There was also enough indication that India’s migration pathways were shifting. Gurugram and Surat, for instance, have a greater proportion of short-term or “new" migrants, who stayed in the city for less than a year, than Mumbai or Delhi. In May, more migrant workers boarded trains from Gujarat than Maharashtra, a state twice as populous.

“It’s all complicated and we know little about migration flows," said Benoy Peter of the Kerala-based Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, an independent non-profit that advocates for and promotes the social inclusion of migrants and other socially disadvantaged populations.

Even in a state such as Kerala, which has made efforts to register migrants to extend basic social security, only one-fourth of the estimated 2.5 million workers were accounted for.

“India’s development trajectory shows migration is only going to increase. We need to reduce distress migration and improve safe migration. Migration should be an informed choice," Peter said.

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