Opinion | The return of workers to cities isn’t a sign of normalcy4 min read . Updated: 22 Jul 2020, 08:17 PM IST
Covid-ravaged cities may get a quick boost from returning workers but could yet lose their attraction
As India started to emerge from its lockdown, the exodus of daily-wage labourers from cities to their ancestral homes in rural areas surged. One reason was lack of work, since urban zones faced restrictions on commercial activity. The other was a fear of covid-19. Perhaps as many as 11 million left. As work and economic activity in cities splutters to life, however, we are seeing workers return. This reversal has implications both for the spread of covid and the urban economy.
During the phase when workers were returning to their home states from areas with high prevalence, there were concerns that they would spread covid to rural areas, which had hitherto avoided the epidemic. Receiving states gave returnees a lukewarm embrace. On the one hand, many workers underwent institutional quarantine for 14 days. As the flow became too large to manage, workers were asked to stay under home quarantine. On the other hand, in some instances receiving states paid for train tickets, mapped the skills of returning workers to help match them with jobs available locally, and provided financial assistance.
The outward flow from cities was so large that many feared large-scale “de-urbanization". Casual surveys of slums showed that in some of them, 25-50% of residents had left. This is a challenge for those who remain. Many residents of slums provide goods and services to customers in slums. With a quarter or more gone, so does their income. The reduction in population also reduced slums’ collective bargaining power vis-a-vis authorities, leaving those who remain more vulnerable to evictions. What’s more, cities also depend on the poor for various functions. They provide drivers, cleaners and cooks, for example; they build infrastructure and housing. Cities, in turn, generate most of India’s economic output.
However, it is possible that this concern was premature. The financial support that receiving states currently provide returning workers may prove inadequate to keep them there. Uttar Pradesh (UP) offered returning workers ₹225 a day under an employment guarantee scheme—which is less than a third of what they can make in cities like Mumbai. Alternatively, it is possible that workers were not merely fleeing covid, but returning to agricultural areas for the harvest. Once that is done, they will return to cities, as they have done in the years past. From this perspective, the lockdown merely delayed an annual exodus from cities.
In recent weeks, some of the workers who had left are returning to cities. Many trains from states like UP and Bihar, which had absorbed perhaps 75% of the earlier exodus, to Mumbai, Bangalore and Ahmedabad are running full.
Just as the departure of workers from cities raised alarm bells over covid, so too does their return. But this time, the concern is not that these individuals may bring back infection: prevalence is still higher in urban areas than in rural areas. Rather, the concern is that their return will bring back more people to get infected.
The spread of the infection depends not just on the number of infected, but the fraction who are susceptible. The standard susceptible-infected-recovered (SIR) model that is the workhorse of quantitative epidemiology, shows that the number of infected depends on: one, the probability that contact between an infected and susceptible person leads to infection; two, the number of infected people; and three, the fraction of people who are susceptible. This last factor is the reason that susceptible persons are sometimes called the “fuel" for epidemics.
The upshot is that some cities which felt they had just gotten through the worst of covid may find that infections spike again as workers return.
What, then, is to be done? While it might be tempting to quarantine returning non-infected workers, such a policy does not seem tenable since there are many more non-infected now, and special facilities for quarantining are unlikely to be large enough. Quarantining returnees at home, often in slums, is not much of a quarantine, given how dense slums are. Moreover, it would be a dramatic shift from the prior policy of quarantining the infected.
An alternative is to offer subsidies to keep workers in their home states. The problem is that the cost of this would be quite high. It is hard for states to tell which workers want to return to cities. Hence, state governments may end up offering subsidies to all workers who returned home. States may not have the fiscal capacity to afford such subsidies. The Centre should consider subsidizing this effort by expanding programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to cover more than 100 days of work and offering higher wages.
A complement to these subsidies is to go back to a regime that the Union ministry of home affairs put in place on 4 May 2020 at the beginning of Lockdown 3.0. That policy required workers to get the approval of both departing and receiving states in order to travel. A viable policy may perhaps be to allow cities to bar labourers from returning until the epidemic subsides. This will allow cities to limit the fuel they provide the epidemic. It will also allow them to supplement and manage bed capacity.
Cities are likely to get a short-term boost from returning labourers. But an epidemic-ravaged population may harm the long-term attraction of cities. Those long-term costs may outweigh the short-term benefits from the return of workers.
Anup Malani and Vaidehi Tandel are, respectively, professor at the University of Chicago Law School and Pritzker School of Medicine, and junior fellow at IDFC Institute.