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Nothing Quaint About India's COVID Exodus To Countryside

The pandemic has prompted many city workers to seek refuge back in the countryside roots. For the government, it's an extra challenge, but also an opportunity for long-term rural development.

At Guwahati train station in Assam, India
At Guwahati train station in Assam, India
Vedika Inamdar and Sumati Thusoo*


NEW DELHI — The sudden imposition of the nationwide lockdown in view of the coronavirus pandemic in the last week of March resulted in hundreds and thousands of migrant workers, most of them daily-wagers, losing jobs. And with no means of employment, many of them started returning to their native villages. The result is the second-largest mass migration in the recorded history of India, after the 1947 Partition, where more than 14 million people were displaced.

Because of this COVID-19 triggered migration, otherwise invisible lives and working conditions of migrants were brought to national attention when the unplanned lockdown forced them to walk long distances to reach their homes. But to understand the phenomenon, it is important to look at the specifics of rural-urban migration.

Circular migration forms a majority of rural-urban migration and involves the independent male members of rural households migrating to urban areas while maintaining close links with their villages and towns of origin. They send remittances home and often spend a few months, especially during the harvest season, at their native places.

There are various studies that have analyzed the reasons for rural-urban migration. One, by Kunal Keshir and R.B. Bhagat, stated that people migrate due to poverty, inequality (in access to land) and discrimination, along with the mirage of city life consisting of better resources such as livelihood opportunities, education, housing and health facilities.

In a study on internal migrants in Delhi, Harsh Mander and Gayatri Sahgal find evidence of "distress migration," i.e. migration that takes place due to extreme impoverishment which leaves the individual or family no choice except to migrate in search of livelihood opportunities.

It has been established in studies that rural to urban migration brings about significant social and economic costs in urban areas such as higher unemployment rate, increased environmental costs, strained resources, and unacceptable living conditions. In addition, the movement of able-bodied, young, and perhaps better-educated people from rural areas to urban centers leads to an imbalance in human resources needed for rural development.

A study on internal migrants in Delhi has found evidence of "distress migration".

This imbalanced development between rural and urban areas results in the former often being deprived of resources such as funds and lack of incentives from the government and private actors to develop infrastructure. But that conclusion may also be misleading, as suggested in a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the International Organisation on Migration.

The report states that it is poor urban infrastructure and planning that causes shortages in urban-dwelling, congestion, crowding, and a declining standard of living in urban areas. When urban governance and policy responds to migration and migrants in a hostile manner, it leads to migrants being pushed to low-income, informal residences and such policies result in stigma and prejudice surrounding slums, slum dwellers, and migrants especially in a city like Mumbai.

Advocates of reverse migration often argue that if policymakers aim to improve urban areas, it is pertinent that they focus on improving rural infrastructure to decongest cities. Using the official data from the Ministry of Rural Development, a study found that there was an improvement in the wages and number of days of work offered under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme during the COVID-19 lockdown in Rajasthan.

Waiting outside Guwahati's train station — Photo: David Talukdar/ZUMA

The scheme also witnessed a rise in demand for work in May and June. There were up to 24.2 million rural households that demanded work in August 2020, which is a 66% increase from August 2019. This has been the highest level of demand for since 2013-14, resulting in many districts exceeding their annual job creation targets.

In addition, official data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare has shown a 21% increase in the sowing of Kharif crop across India, compared to the same time period last year, along with an increase in the acreage of other crops. The pandemic-related uncertainty has made even the smallest landholders cultivate their lands to earn, some of which have also solved the labour shortages that rural India was facing because of economic migration to cities.

It is important to ask the government harsh questions.

But there's also a flip side of reverse migration, namely that the highly contagious virus has also started spreading to rural India. In contrast to the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation of one trained doctor for every 1,000 people, India has one trained doctor per 1,404 people.

With more than 50% of the population living in rural areas and a very skewed distribution of trained doctors across rural and urban landscapes, most rural communities rely, rather, on untrained health workers with no formal medical training. It is important, therefore, to expand the pool of trained doctors accessible to the rural population and make careful use of informal health practitioners as they are trusted more than the trained healthcare professionals, especially when there is a stigma of contagion attached to the virus.

Given that India spends less than 1.5 % of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on healthcare, it is important that healthcare spending especially in rural areas be improved. Learnings from a national conference at the World Rural Health Conference suggest that a focus on family-oriented primary healthcare centers, along with state-funded health insurance schemes and training of healthcare professionals would lead to better health outcomes in rural areas.

The pandemic-induced reverse migration presented the government with an opportunity to concentrate on building rural infrastructure with better agrarian policy — a study affirms the narrative that the agricultural sector has kept the rural economy afloat during the pandemic. Improved livelihood opportunities and effective rural governance are also essential parts of the rural infrastructure. The situation has resulted, however, in unused rural funds and workers returning to cities, according to a rapid assessment survey.

Apart from the other welfare schemes launched during the lockdown period, the government also launched a special employment-cum-rural public works program called Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan for returning migrants. This focused campaign of 125 days spread across 116 districts in 6 states has only been able to utilize 56% of the total amount allocated. The government's inability to spend the stipulated amount earmarked for boosting livelihood opportunities in rural India and creating a durable infrastructure is definitely a cause of worry, especially with little over a month left for the scheme to end.

A robust legal framework is needed to protect the rights of these migrants.

Taking into consideration the pace at which the number of COVID-19 cases is rising in India, it is important for the government to extend its 125 days period because the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown is yet to subside. In addition, the data maintained by the government on intra-country migration needs to be better: A study by India Migration Now finds that state policies towards migrants are unfriendly throughout the country. It is due to the COVID-19 crisis that the otherwise disenfranchised informal sector workers, their numbers and their issues have come to the fore.

Looking at global trends, one can say that no government in the world was prepared for a pandemic of this scale. Still, it is important to ask the government harsh questions. The questions about the number of jobs lost due to the lockdown, absence of data on migrant deaths, which is estimated to be as many as 972 persons, are as important as knowing the impact of such welfare schemes. In addition to that, these schemes hardly elaborate on the long-term solutions for the issue of chronic unemployment in a country like India beyond these 125 days.

According to Amitabh Kundu, from the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, there are around 65 million inter-state migrant workers in India. A robust legal framework is needed to protect the rights of these migrants, wherever they work, while providing them with the choice to migrate for a livelihood option that ensures a decent living.

At the same time, people must not be forced to migrate from rural areas in search of jobs that are often vulnerable and precarious, while living in inhospitable conditions. Improving rural infrastructure and thereby livelihoods, through long term planning, rather than knee-jerk reactions, is one such solution.

*Vedika Inamdar and Sumati Thusoo are researchers at the Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala.

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