Arjun Kumar, Ritika Gupta, Anshula Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Sakshi Sharda, Chhavi Kapoor

On April 20, 2021 PM Narendra Modi addressed the nation about the rise of COVID-19 cases in the country for the second time. In his national address, he assured the myriad of workers that national lockdown will not be declared as a response to the pandemic. He declared that the solution would be to create ‘micro- containment zones’, requesting all-state Chief Ministers to respond similarly and work with the central government.

With the surging cases and mass deaths, the most affected states in India are Maharashtra, Punjab, Chandigarh Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh, where Maharashtra is home to the highest number of cases. The average number of daily cases is touching the three lakh mark compelling states to adopt lockdown. Currently, 11 states including the largest states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra are in lockdown. States like Jharkhand have decided not to stop the economic activity. Delhi, Rajasthan, and 8 districts in Chhattisgarh, have decided complete lockdown except for essential services.

Maharashtra has issued ‘Break the Chain’ guidelines which reduce the number of people in a public gathering to be 25, with offices operating at a 15 percent capacity. Uttar Pradesh Government have flouted the decision of Allahabad High Court and chosen only to impose a weekend curfew. Odisha’s government follows suit with only night curfews. Punjab and Kerala have taken to travel restrictions with necessary negative RTPCR reports for domestic travelers and night curfews.

These details just indicate that while there might not be a nationwide lockdown and there is no united front of the governmental response to the second wave of rising of corona cases. Migrant workers have been assured multiple times that an economic lockdown will not be imposed and yet some photographs have already started to emerge of reverse migration. The citymakers have no confidence in governmental assurances. The cities are far from economic recovery and they seem to be staring down another possible lockdown.

Booming COVID-19 Cases amid Second Wave

India started recording a rise in COVID 19 cases from February 10, 2021. The second wave has hit the country harder. On 18 June last year, India recorded 11,000 cases and in the next 60 days, it added 35,000 new cases on average every day. On 10 February, at the start of the second wave, India confirmed 11,000 cases – and in the next 50 days, the daily average was around 22,000 cases. But in the following 10 days, cases rose sharply with the daily average reaching 89,800.

On April 23, 2021 India recorded 3,46,786 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours. The pilling up of corpses and shortage of beds, oxygen, and necessary pharmaceuticals is an indication that healthcare system and infrastructure are failing again. Almost one year after the lockdown in March 2020, the government could have developed its capacity to provide healthcare services, however, it seems no lessons were learned from 2020. The health infrastructural lapses that were the direct response that India had fought away the COVID crises is delusional.

In the space of just 12 days, the COVID positivity rate doubled to 17 percent, while in Delhi it hit 30%. Hospitals across the country have filled to capacity but this time it is predominately the young taking up the beds; in Delhi, 65% of cases are under 40 years old. The dead, meanwhile, have continued to overload crematoriums and graveyards in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Delhi faster than they could be burned, and families waited days to cremate their loved ones. On Sunday, Delhi’s largest cremation facility, Nigambodh Ghat, ran out of space, despite doubling its funeral pyres to more than 60.

Second Wave of Reverse Migration and Social Security

With the rising cases and lockdowns migrant workers are readopting the familiar path to their native origins, the country has once again is starting to see the crowded bus stands, railway stations. The one-year-old history is repeating itself resurfacing the similar miseries which citymakersfaced during March 2021, when the virus trains were speeding throughout the country. The wounds are still afresh in the minds of citymakers, thus forcing them to walk away before sudden lockdown takes rebirth. The crisis of confidence in the governance has been the root cause of migrant mass mobility.

The citymakers were not considered before imposing a sudden lockdown in 2020. The government response of central schemes was unsatisfactory with MGNREGA reaching its full capacity. The economic loss of 2021 is something migrants have still not recovered from the lockdown in 2020. In a recent study of 2,917 migrants in six states — Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal by ICRIER in collaboration with the Inferential Survey Statistics and Research Foundation (ISSRF), it is found  more than a third of the reverse migrants (38.6 per cent) reported having no work after returning to their native place. With no proper employment opportunity in their native places, the household incomes of migrants fell by as much as 85 per cent during the first wave.

This could mean a burden on Public Transport infrastructure which still has not made adequate social distancing norms. With those norms in place the infrastructure cannot need the demand for reverse migration and without the norms the health of the nation would be jeopardized. Given the virulent strain it would mean a return to virus trains. This reverse migration would not only over extend transportation infrastructure, but also the already strained health care infrastructure with no possibility of economic recovery. There needs to be a swift response to meet the needs of the citymakers within the cities only.

This time around the government response has not been a similar lackadaisical approach. Understanding an immediate response to ease the fears of migrant workers, Delhi government announced a financial aid of Rs 5000 to every registered construction worker in the wake of an extended lockdown of one week till April 26, 2021. There are reports that the Delhi government is mulling over a continued lockdown after April 26, 2021.

Delhi government further aims to provide a helpline number to registered building and construction workers for redressal of grievances and provide help to them in distress situation. The state also ordered to provide food facilities to migrant workers at 205 night shelters across the city. Though, central government is silent on the financial aid. However, they have set up 20 control rooms to address grievances of workers. The concerns though remains that with an asymmetrical federal approach will be the answer for the approaching second wave of reverse migration.

Earlier in 2020, the migrant crisis were worse with insufficient supply for essential commodities such as food, water and shelter which forced the citymakers to leave the cities. However, they were given adequate relief packages- transfer of Rs 500 in women Jan Dhan accounts, 5 kg of rice/wheat and 1 kg of pulses to one family through Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY). Though, these supplies ensured mere survival. However, the same situation is arising today when many states and cities such as Lucknow, Prayagraj, Varanasi, Kanpur, Gorakhpur, Delhi, state of Maharashtra have resort to lockdown which should be the last option, according to our honorable Prime Minister.

The ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’, scheme has been implemented in 17 states according to Ministry of Finance. At the same time, the Finance Minister in the budget 2021 had announced that the scheme was being implemented in 32 states and union territories, reaching about 69 percent of core beneficiaries. The Finance Minister informed that the scheme has covered 86 per cent of the beneficiaries, adding that the remaining four states and UTs will be integrated into the scheme in the coming few months.

Though the ground reality in the 17 States is abysmal. Even though the scheme was to be rolled out in the entire country by June 2020 the ground reality of the scheme has been very different. Individual migrants have recounted myriad experiences where there has been denial of the ration in the fair price shops. The scheme holds the potential to answer the migrant crisis for availability of food. Recently the SC has started hearing a plea to immediately role out the scheme nationally.

Data lag on Migration

The real crisis is not stemming from the fact that the government is not aware of the problem but there is no knowledge of the quantum of the problem. With no real data on the migrants, how will government plan any future course of action? The last survey on migration held in 2007-08 and the latest data on migration is available in Census 2011. Economic Survey 2016-17 estimated 80 million migrant workers and over half of these migrants belonged to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, while Delhi region received around half of total migration. Further, the survey suggested around 9 million workers migrate across states annually. However, these data numbers are characterized by data lags. The decennial statistical activity of Census 2021 has been halted which could have provided the new dataset.

With the last year migrant crisis, government came to realize the need for data of migrant workers in the country. Thus, they proposed an online portal – National Migrant Information System (NMIS) in May 2020. In her Budget speech of 2021, honorable finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman announced to launch a portal collecting relevant information on gig, building, and construction-workers among others.

In March 2021, the labor bureau announced the five labour surveys – All-India Survey on Migrant workers, All-India Survey on Domestic Workers, All-India Survey on Employment Generated by Professionals, All-India Survey on Employment Generated in Transport Sector, and All-India Quarterly Establishment based Employment Survey. The government claims to have complete these surveys within the period of six months. They have already trained the field investigators for two surveys All India Quarterly Establishment based Employment Survey (AQEES) and All India Survey of Migrant Workers.

With these novel practices, the data collected will be produced in the next six months which creates a huge lag and make social security disbursement a tedious process till time. This current statistical architecture in policy has zero impact and the ill planning of elite functionaries making statistical activity a complex process making it difficult to deliver effective services.

About the Author

Dr. Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI and China India Visiting Scholars (CIVS), Ashoka University and Asian Century Foundation.
Ritika Gupta, Assistant Director, IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute.
Sakshi Sharda, pursuing MPhil from Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, and Research Intern at IMPRI.

Sources

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To know more please watch IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk

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2. Employment Challenges and Way Forward

3. Labour Migration in South Asia: Shared Concerns

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