Home >News >India >Why isn’t Mumbai seeing an exodus of migrant workers?

Mumbai: The Maximum city is providing a counterpoint to the images of thousands of migrant workers walking from urban centres back home to their villages as the nationwide lockdown plays havoc with livelihoods. Mumbai, among India’s largest settlements of migrant labour, has remained relatively—and uncannily—quiet.

The reasons are multi-layered and complex.

One of the main reasons is that a bulk of the labour in the city is from Maharashtra. The other is that the state was ahead of the curve. When the state government announced its own curfew, it was before the one-day Janata curfew or the subsequent 21-day lockdown.

As a result, a lot of migrants, including those from outside the state, were able to leave the state much earlier.

Indeed, many Maharashtrian workers employed with construction sites are still walking towards their villages, having started before the lockdown.

“The main reason why Maharashtra is not seeing an exodus right now is because many workers from Bihar, Odisha, UP and from within Maharashtra managed to leave Mumbai before the lockdown. There were trains and buses full of such workers who left en masse. You do not see a lot of inter-state movement right now because Maharastra has sealed its borders," said Marina Joseph, of YUVA, an organization working with migrant workers.

In the interim period between the Janata curfew on 21 March and the lockdown beginning 25 March, trains leaving Mumbai’s Lokmanya Tilak Terminus saw an unprecedented rush. Videos of a crush of human bodies trying to find seats on long-distance trains went viral, forcing the Maharashtra government to impose a curfew.

There are other reasons as well.

Many migrant workers from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh in Mumbai have built businesses and business networks which find customers even in these times of restricted movement—such as milk supply, grocery stores, vegetable and fruit vending, cigarette kiosks and private security. These businesses are still yielding cash flows and entrepreneurs do not want to abandon them.

In addition, strong social networks have emerged in the city’s suburbs, lubricated by robust political patronage networks, that take care of many unemployed labourers from northern states. There are also many non-government organizations such as YUVA or Aajeevika Bureau that have been working with these labour settlements.

Corporate India is also doing its bit by managing contract labourers. Some from India Inc are taking care of their accommodation in shelters and food requirements.

Construction giant Larsen & Toubro Ltd said it is taking care of food, accommodation and wage requirement of its 160,000 migrant workers and has allocated 500 crore per month towards expenses.

Godrej group, which runs Godrej Properties Ltd, said it is particularly concerned about the plight of migrant workers. “Godrej has ensured that the company’s project sites across eight cities are being sanitized frequently, and have health screenings and adequate food and hygiene supplies. The company has also set up isolation facilities for labour accommodation," said a spokesperson for Godrej group.

Shapoor P. Mistry, chairman of Shapoorji Pallonji group, in an internal letter to its employees said that it is taking care of its 110,000-strong workforce. “This is our investment in our committed workforce, also ensuring that migrant labour stays put at their workplaces and does not need to return to their homes," said Mistry.

The group has 45,000 workers manning 430 sites in India, and 25,000 workers at 130 sites abroad. These workers are supported by 40,000 subcontracted workers, taking the total worker strength to 110,000.

“We have now made provisions to ensure that, for the entire coming month of April, all personnel in our camps get adequate food and water visits by trained medical staff and medicines as required. And in major camps, isolation facilities for special medical care are created if needed," he added.

The Lodha group, which has one of the largest inventories of under-construction homes and properties, said it is ensuring daily wage earners are not left helpless.

“Lodha Group took up this responsibility and ensured sufficient food supply arrangements are in place for tens of thousands of workers who are currently staying at their sites. Further, they also provided advance salaries for the month of March 2020 to all their employees from lower to mid management level, so that they can take care of their daily needs and families in such a scenario," it said in a press statement.

The permanent and temporary workers employed by the Pune belt’s manufacturing industry, largely automobile and auto ancillary companies, also appear to be doing better than their counterparts elsewhere.

Dilip Pawar, president of Pune-based Shramik Ekta Mahasangh, an umbrella group of small labour unions, said, “Companies like Bajaj Auto Ltd, Tata Motors, Mahindra & Mahindra and others were very transparent about the incoming crisis with their employees. They had given a clear notice to all before closing down their plants. While they have paid salaries to all the workers, irrespective of the factory shutdown, they have also assured that no job would be lost during this crisis."

Meanwhile, the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) is taking care of 11,000 workers working on Mumbai’s metro project, the trans-harbour link and other road projects.

“All labourers staying in labour camps are given all necessary medical facilities including food. Sanitation in labour camps is maintained, regular health check-ups are also conducted," said RA Rajeev, Metropolitan Commissioner, MMRDA.

But living conditions in the labour shelters still need massive improvement.

A quick round of labour camps in Sion, a central Mumbai suburb, portrays a grim picture of zero social distancing and visible lack of hygiene, which is an open invitation for trouble during the current pandemic.

Many workers employed in far-away construction sites are continuing to face hardships due to lack of food and uncertainty about their future employment. This is particularly prevalent in the multitudes of under-construction real estate projects.

These labourers are reaching out to non-profit organisations for help through handwritten notes sent through WhatsApp messages.

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