Looking beyond the cost of a ticket: Should migrant labourers go home?

Watching the heartbreaking images of migrant labourers trying to reach home during the lockdown, it seems cruel to argue that they stay put. But to allow them to go back may be even more disastrous.

The rotis lay strewn about on the railway track near Aurangabad – a tragic testimony to the plight of the poor in our country. Having packed their meagre belongings, with a bundle of food to be shared among the many, they only wanted to go home. Yet 16 people ended up being run over by a train as they fell asleep, exhausted, on the railway track near Aurangabad. The price for a ticket home cost them more than they bargained for. 

The issue of migrants wanting to return their homes has been as big a problem as the pandemic of COVID -19 itself. Besides the administrative challenges of moving a large group during a contagious pandemic, the political one-upmanship did not help matters. While the Karnataka government reversed its earlier decision over arrangements to send migrants back to their home, the opposition scored brownie points by issuing cheques to aid this reverse migration.

But the fact is that the core issue remains. The migrants just want to go home and the images are heartbreaking as you watch the long line of people braving the summer sun as they make the long march. So it almost seems cruel and mercenary to argue that they stay put. 

But I am going to do just that for two reasons – we are going to save more lives and also save our economy.

The return of the prodigal sons and daughters to their villages will not only put unimaginable stress on the almost non-existent health care infrastructure of rural India, infecting and killing more people, it will also endanger our most important asset that is expected to help kick start our economy: the farming community and the agriculture sector. 

The economy

Fact 1 – The Asian Development Bank has estimated the economic cost of the COVID-19 to be $2-$4 trillion globally. India’s daily average loss is estimated at $4.5 billion because of the lock down. Service industries, exports, manufacturing, tourism, hospitality are going to take a while to get back on their feet, much less start to work for our economy, and not without a huge influx of capital.

Fact 2 – The advantage we have is that about 15% of the Indian GDP depends on its agriculture, which employs almost 70% of our working population. And the demands will only grow because the world is never going to run out of demand for food. There have been a number of economists who are arguing that agriculture is what will help us get off the starting block, giving us a fighting chance to revive an economy hit hard by this nightmare of a pandemic.

Fact 3 – This sector and its people is, therefore, our greatest and largest asset that need to be protected and insulated from the pandemic as best as possible. With the urban economy already affected badly, the cost of an outbreak in rural India will wipe out a chance for our agricultural economy as well.


Fact 1 – There are about 23,000 Primary Health Care Centres (PHCs) in India which provide medical care for our rural population. They are single physician establishments without facilities to deal with an outbreak.

Fact 2 – According to the 2011 census, there are 649,481 villages in India. You don’t even have to do the math on the doctor -patient ratio to figure out that it is going to be a disaster if we burden it.

Fact 3 – Right now, 586 dedicated hospitals have been set up in the country for COVID-19. These are concentrated in urban setups. There are considerable hurdles in providing access to the rural population. The logistics of transport to these hospitals causing further contact, the shortages of PPEs in these places, are all going to add to an already ticking time bomb. 

Fact 4 – Much of the estimated 40 million internal migrant labourers come from the eastern states – Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh – which are among the most impoverished states without basic facilities.

Fact 5 – India is the home to the largest number of TB patients in the world, including multiple drug resistant cases. A sizeable number of those patients live in rural india. To have two highly contagious respiratory diseases congregate in an area with limited to non existent medical facilities will be a recipe for disaster.

The alternatives

Given the potential human and economic losses of this migration as outlined above, the more prudent choice would be to work towards ensuring that migrants stay in the city, and by choice. Our priority has to be to use our resources to provide safe spaces, food and water to them as we tide this situation over. 

How do we do that? There are two important aspects to it: Logistics and policy. 

  • We need to address their need for basics: Housing, food and employment. A big challenge with that had been the lack of data on the number of migrants and their locations. That concern can be addressed now, since people wishing to return home have had to register their names to be able to travel. It gives us a working set to provide facilities to.
  • Large structures including sports facilities can be turned into residences for the workers.
  • With the numbers congregating in designated zones, centralised food preparations can be reduced, bringing down the risk of infection arising out of contact
  • At a policy level, there should be no dilution of labour laws that protect them. 
  • Confidence building measures are paramount at this juncture, because as long as there is the possibility of another lockdown, the migration will not stop. The government needs to work with the largest employer of migrant workers – the real estate sector – to protect their jobs, while taking care of their welfare. 

It is a situation fraught with difficult choices. Our first instinct to protect more lives led to the lockdown and helped us manage the situation fairly well, give the density of our population. The economy could not be a priority then.

After 52 days of lockdown, we now have to work towards restarting the economy while we live with the virus. The migrant issue is a humanitarian crisis that we cannot turn away from. But in our bid to find a band-aid solution, we may end up exacerbating it to gigantic proportions, not only creating more human casualties but also crippling the economy even more. Social welfare schemes will die under this double whammy. 

It is not hard to understand that people want to go home at a time of crisis. It is the most basic human need to want to be with your loved ones. I may be accused of being a part of the privileged class that does not understand the hardship of the migrants. I can’t deny the accusation. This will read as inhuman. 

But then, consider the alternative. Consider the fact that not everybody will want to wait their turn for a ride back home — just how many will perish as they walk home.  Consider the fact they will be going home to their elderly parents who are the most vulnerable of all age groups. Consider the fact we don’t have doctors to treat them in these places.

Because we need to look at this beyond the cost of a ticket to get back home. 

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