New Delhi: Once bitten (badly), twice shy – left in the lurch and made to walk miles to reach their villages, India’s migrant labourers eking out a living in metro cities are taking no chances as fresh cases of COVID-19 surge. The migration back to villages has already started, giving jitters to corporate and small businesses, which had barely started picking up some activity after taking a hit during the sudden, unplanned countrywide lockdown announced by the Narendra Modi government in March 2020.
According to a report in The Economic Times : “Companies across hospitality, retail, consumer and auto sectors fear labour could migrate to villages once again after steep rise in new Covid-19 cases in several cities and subsequent restrictions and lockdowns in a few states. Reverse migration has already begun at restaurants and the retail sector in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, which companies say could trickle down to other segments.”
The report says while the manufacturing and construction sector, which are huge employers of migrant labour, have still not been affected, other sectors, such as retail, restaurants, eateries and hospitality, are already seeing workers going back to their homes, after various states, such as Maharashtra, Delhi etc. have announced curbs and night curfews etc.
“Panic has set in among workers, as last year they were literally on the streets, penniless and jobless with no way to reach home,” said a shopkeeper in Delhi’s Janakpuri, adding that the surge in cases had left his market deserted once again. “This has added to the panic and if this goes on for some time, paying rent is again going to be a problem for us,” he adds.
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It may be recalled that last year’s sudden announcement of a countrywide lockdown, with just four hours in hand for people to reach their homes, had resulted in chaos of epic proportions.
Lakhs of migrant workers across the country were seen on the roads, hounded by police personnel and local residents, as they trudged along with their families and belongings in their long journey home in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh.
A vast majority of these migrants work without any legal protection, in the unorganised sector, and had no social security benefits, no savings, no safety net.
And there was no financial assistance from the government, as well. Basically, there were left to fend for themselves.
This time, the workers seem to be taking no chances.
According to the National Restaurants Association of India, quoted by ET , workers in Mumbai and Delhi “are going back to villages not just due to outlet closures and strict timings but also to avoid any inconvenience or restrictions in travelling back similar to what they faced last year.”
However, the association said business had not been affected so far, but overall the corporate sector does fear another setback in the form of labour shortage.
In Lucknow, fear has started stalking workers in the construction sector, too, with many of them packing their bags and already setting out for home.
Following the spurt in COVID-19 cases in Uttar Pradesh, the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party government has extended the Epidemic Control Act across the state till June 30 this year, closing schools up to April 11. These measures have left the migrant workers worried about an imminent lockdown, as reported by NewsClick earlier.
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A construction worker from Chhattisgarh, Sumendu, told Newsclick that a huge chunk of migrant workers had already left the UP capital days before Holi and the rest were planning to go back to their native villages as they fear that they would be stuck without jobs and cash like the last time.
Hemant, a 45-year-old worker from Bihar’s Purnia region, who worked in a construction site in Ayodhya, also confirmed this and said he was going back to his village before things get worse.
While the small shops and big industries are still keeping up a brave front, the ET cited a report by Elara Capital, claiming “that 75-80% of the labour that had reverse migrated returned to their place of work while the rest either do not wish to return or have managed to get viable opportunities for work. As a result, there is already a shortage of labour after last year’s lockdown.”
Confirming labour shortage, a small time construction contractor in Delhi said the surge in new cases could prove to be another big setback, as many daily wagers workers who he had called back from villages, were still finding it difficult to pay rent and feed themselves as earnings had not returned to the same level as earlier. Another round of restriction might drive them back again, he fears.
Amid all this, the government seems nonchalant and insensitive toward any financial aid for workers, unlike in many other countries. The Modi government’s pandemic package or ‘stimulus’ is more of a help to the corporate sector rather than poor workers.
At a time when the unemployment rate is already at a four-decade low and despite the almost unanimous demand by the Opposition parties, economists, trade unions and civil society groups for a cash transfer of Rs 7,000 per household per month to all non-income tax-paying households, the government has looked the other way.
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This time round, though better off companies say they are prepared and expect problems only in last mile delivery so far, the fearful workers, too, seem better prepared – they are taking no chances. Many of them are already packing their bags, but are possibly staring at a bleak future spent in the solace of their homes and families in rural India.