Will hunger pangs among migrant labour lead to anger on the streets?

Most people we spoke with are cautious about how the situation will develop post May 4th, but all pointed to the shortcomings in the present system for providing relief to the poor.

“I don’t see the pandemic but the hunger and starvation that comes with it as the reason for large scale unrest,” says Manaswini Bhalla, Associate Professor, Economics at IIM Bangalore. The context was the sorry plight of migrant and daily wage labourers stuck in the bigger cities due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Now the migrants can go home, says the government

With most migrant workers confined to shelters and dependent on charity for survival, the union government’s belated realisation that they should be allowed to get home is no doubt welcome. But there is much that is inexplicable about the Centre’s guidelines on how this is to happen. “It is good in principle, but I am not sure enough thought has been given to the modalities of this migration,” says Divya Ravindranath, researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS).

The timing is the most inexplicable of all. Though lockdown has been extended, industry all over the country is being told to restart. Other measures and lockdown relaxations to slowly restart other segments of the economy are also in the works in all states. After weeks of idleness and no income, the migrant workers, hailing mainly from the eastern states and spread largely across the south and west of the country, could possibly at last see some hope of being  able to start earning again, as a restarting economy is going to need this labour in the coming weeks. 

Yet, after ignoring their sorry plight for nearly two months, the centre is now suddenly telling the workers they can go home if they want to, with no “guideline” on how or from where industry will get the replacement labour they need to restart if migrant labour leaves. This has led, for instance, to Karnataka CM B S Yeddyurappa appealing to migrant workers to stay back, but refraining from any mention of how the state will help them with food and/or money in the meantime.

The guidelines are also silent on how labourers stuck in high containment zones like Mumbai, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Surat and Delhi will be allowed to leave. In the past week or so, the railways have run a few Shramik trains from places like Kerala, Telangana, Mumbai and Nashik to destinations in Jharkhand, MP, Orissa, UP and Bihar. But permission to get on those trains are ridden with so many ifs and buts, it would make anyone’s head spin.

A hazy future

What after these people reach home? That, again, is a question that has not been given any thought at all. “My biggest concern is about what happens when they get back”, said Divya. 

What awaits these workers back home is not a better life and jobs, but being sent to quarantine centres of dubious quality before they can head to their villages. “The city is a place of economic stability, the village is the place for social security,” is the reason given by Prof Chinmay Tumble of IIM Ahmedabad and author of “India Moving: History of Migration,” for the desperation among migrant workers to get back home.

The city is a place of economic stability, the village is the place for social security

Chinmay Tumble, Professor, IIM-A; Author of India Moving: A History of Migration

Given that these journeys cost money that many of these workers can ill afford, the unintended effect of this decision to get migrants back home could be a feeling among them of insult being piled on injury. To what extent, and to what effect, the feeling will manifest itself is the question. How life pans out for them in the next few weeks will provide the answer. And the first flashpoint could well be the kind of welcome workers sent on forced leave get when they return to their old places of work and on whether they get any part of their lost wages. Every trade and industry association has said that they cannot pay workers the April salaries, or even restart their establishments, without substantial government bailouts. Which means going back to their shanties and temporary shelters and, hopefully, some dry ration packets. 

Mitigating hunger

In Bengaluru, provision of cooked food is being stopped from May 5th, but no state authority is talking about how the workers are expected to survive without such help. That, despite all this, there have been only sporadic instances of unrest among migrant workers in Surat, Telangana, Chennai, Pune and Bangalore, is no indication that it will not spread or get more intense. “While angry reactions may have surfaced in some places, I would refrain from labelling them in any way,” says Divya.

But as Prof Mahalaya Chatterjee, Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Calcutta University, points out, “Social violence can arise from poorer sections of non-migrants too.” As lockdown eases, Prof Chatterjee’s view is that the problem needs to be looked at from three time spans: just after the lockdown is lifted, the next three months and the long run. 

“The PDS system needs to be strengthened immediately to ensure essential items reach the entire poorer sections with local bodies helping in identifying and reaching the needy,” says Prof Chatterjee. “Soon after lockdown is lifted, there could be reverse flow of people in both directions—those stuck in the cities will take the first chance to go back while people who can return, will rush to reclaim their old jobs.”

Prof Chatterjee’s prognosis for the long run is not optimistic. “There are chances that most small traders/manufacturers will be unable to open their business as before. So, loss of livelihood and mass unemployment may result in social unrest,” she says. Noted economist and former Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan too expressed a similar sentiment in his conversation with former Congress President Rahul Gandhi, saying “India should use its DBT network to protect livelihoods and keep people from going into the streets protesting.” Raghuram Rajan, in fact, even suggests a triage methodology to help small businesses, letting those in really bad shape die.

Outside the ambit of state welfare

While many people Citizen Matters spoke with preferred to wait and watch how the situation develops post May 4th, all pointed to the shortcomings in the present system for providing relief to the poor and the potential fallout from those left out of these relief packages for whatever reason.

If food riots happen, it will not be because of scarcity but due to maldistribution and lack of money in the hands of the needy

Mahalaya Chatterjee, Professor, Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Calcutta University

The numbers of such workers run into thousands, if not lakhs, in every major city. There is no official system anywhere to count them or record their presence. “The Aadhar card has become an enigma as are other identification instruments like ration cards etc,” says Prof Chatterjee. “If food riots happen, it will not be because of scarcity but due to maldistribution and lack of money in the hands of the needy.”

Getting money into the hands of the poor

There is no shortage of suggestions from citizens and business federations on how to put ‘money in the hands of the needy,’ though. The government’s own recent garib kalyan package deposits a paltry amount monthly in Jan Dhan accounts. But the scheme ignores the fact that many migrant and daily wage labourers do not have such accounts which qualify for the transfer. 

Rules have been framed to register such workers so as to enable them to access government schemes. But the rules don’t work as a rule, as Divya points out: “To give one example, every migrant construction worker is required to renew his registration with the construction welfare board annually (which entails a fee plus a daunting process). Why would a migrant worker want to renew that when he gets nothing by registering in the first place?”

The biggest issue, in the end, is the trust deficit between the poor and marginalised and the government, which this pandemic could reinforce in unexpected ways. “Hunger and poverty have been present in India for long without necessarily resulting in violent protests,” said Chandan Gowda, faculty member at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. “But the signs of unrest among the millions of migrant workers under lockdown has made visible the massive problems of rural India, which largely induced many to move into cities as migrant workers in the first place.”

A more serious crisis in the making?

Those problems are not going to go away any time soon. And little anecdotal evidence of the experience of those who have managed to get back to their villages has as yet filtered back to the cities. If and how the economy reboots in the cities, and the kind of employment it will generate, is anybody’s guess. But what is clear is that the workers left behind in the cities are not looking for charity. Sure, they accept it to survive, but what they really crave is the dignity of earning a living, which the coronavirus has snatched from them without warning.

The best hope for the migrant and daily wage workers to get back their livelihood in some measure remains in the metros, as it has been for many years. The problems that large-scale reverse migration will create in the rural areas is yet to be considered. Conditions everywhere have changed beyond recognition, and competition for jobs and resources will be fierce, in the cities in particular.

The cities where migrants worked have always been indifferent to their well being. They are just cheap labour.

There have been instances of returning residents being refused entry into their own villages, with signs saying “outsiders” are not welcome. This indicates another, as yet unrealised, potentially volatile factor thrown into the mix of search for jobs and livelihoods, especially in urban areas: locals versus outsiders. When too many people compete for the same limited economic resource, the first instinct is to find a scapegoat for one’s problems. The vulnerable migrant worker presents an easy target.

Unfortunately, the cities where they worked and settled have always been indifferent to their wellbeing. They were just cheap labour. Now, if poverty and hunger make them want to go back, the general attitude is that it is their problem. The Shramik special trains can take a few thousand of them back. For the rest, whose numbers will still be considerable, their main problem, as lockdown continues, will be hunger, not the virus, and a further deepening of existing social and income inequalities.

This has always been a recipe for unrest. “Given the statistics on rising income inequality in the country, social unrest is a real possibility,” says Manaswini Bhalla. One solution Prof Manaswini suggests is creation of a national-level migrant register and record of migrants across the country. Skill mapping of migrant workers is another idea that is floating around, but with no details on the hows, whos and wheres of such an exercise. 

While some talk of migrant labour being able to bargain for a better wage for themselves in the face of the predicted labour shortage. If this happens, it could well spark another kind of schism, between those who returned and those who stayed back

According to Prof Bhalla, the lack of a binding force, a leader or an institution to channel these feelings “makes me skeptical of any sort of uprising at this point in time.” Which is not the same as saying that it will not happen as hunger can push anyone into action they would not contemplate otherwise. “In this lockdown that has extended for over 8 weeks, the salary a casual labourer has lost is Rs 7680,” says Prof Manaswini. “It is appalling that just Rs 500 a month has been promised to them.”

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