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'Hunger is a real problem'

Last updated on: April 08, 2020 12:31 IST
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'It can lead to mass malnutrition.'

A migrant worker along with his family walks along the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway, following the coronavirus lockdown, in Palghar, Maharashtra. Photograph: Mitesh Bhuvad/PTI Photo

IMAGE: A migrant worker and his family walk along the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway in Palghar, Maharashtra following the coronavirus lockdown. Photograph: Mitesh Bhuvad/PTI Photo

"The first thing migrant workers will do once the lockdown ends is immediately try to go back home and catch up the harvesting season."

"If harvesting is affected in their local areas, it will have a huge impact on their food security," says Professor Pusphpendra Kumar Singh, Chairperson, Centre for Development Practice and Research, a Patna-based centre of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

A sociologist, Professor Singh has worked with ActionAid International at its offices in Patna, Brussels and Colombo. He also worked as a researcher with the planning division, UNICEF, New Delhi and the Institute for Human Development, New Delhi.

In a conversation with's Archana Masih, Professor Singh explains what lies ahead for the India's vast migrant population in wake of the coronavirus crisis. The first of a two-part interview:

What are the problems and uncertainties confronting the migrants -- both for those who have returned home and those who have not?

According to newspapers and other sources 1.8 lakh migrants have returned to Bihar. But there are many who are still in different locations in the country.

The number of seasonal migrants -- those who migrate for more than 1 month and less than 6 months from rural to rural or rural to urban areas -- that number should be around 28 to 30 lakhs.

At this time of the year, rural to rural migration is low because the harvesting of wheat has still not begun.

I would say that 20 lakh to 22 lakh migrants must be in different parts of the country.

They may have their own social network and may not want to come back immediately. If you consider half of the around 20 lakhs -- around 10 lakh would like to return -- which means there are more than 8 lakh Bihari migrants who are at different places.

People have walked which shows a desperation, but only those who are within a radius of 300 to 400 kms of their homes would have walked.

Those in Mumbai, Kerala, Arunachal or Jammu still remain at those places.

Most of the people who have returned to Bihar are from Delhi or from neighbouring areas or from Eastern UP. It was easier for them to commute compared to the others.

The migrants from distant places who have managed to return are those who could find place on trains, but there were hardly any trains -- there were some from Mumbai to Patna or Pune to Patna, but train travel options were limited.

What are the problems they are facing or likely to face?

Hunger is a real problem.

Seasonal migrants would have borrowed money, had they earned money they would have sent remittances, some may have waited to bring the money with them.

A large number of migrants must be without money.

We know, for example, in places like Delhi there are community kitchens, but the migrants have to walk sometimes as much as 5 kms to get there.

So people are really finding it difficult to access food. Maybe they go to the community kitchen for one meal in the evening because there is no transport and they are eating just one meal a day.

The accessibility to ration shops is also a problem for migrants which is adding to their problem of sourcing food.

They also have no means to buy rations and cook. Most of them eat by the roadside or are 4-5 individuals who have hired a room to stay.

They live in different kinds of conditions, not like a middle class home where there is a dedicated kitchen, bedroom, bathroom etc.

Also, there is no portability of ration cards. The ration will go to the family member at source, but at his end, he will still need to buy at the market price.

In some places like in Delhi, it is said they are opening ration shops and not asking for ration cards. This facility would help those who have access, but most of the people will be without any access to their ration cards or free ration.

Those who depend on savings or remittances of migrants at home will also be finding it difficult because this is a lean agriculture season.

Added to that there are a still a considerable amount of people without ration cards -- there are problems related to Aadhar cards and biometric-related problems.

o such issues are also depriving 10% to 15% of the people with ration cards with no access to food.

So families left behind in villages are also facing problems.

Migrant workers and their families walk to their native village during a nationwide lockdown at Kalyanpuri in East Delhi. Photograph: Manvender Vashist/PTI Photo

IMAGE: Migrant workers and their families at Kalyanpuri in East Delhi walk to their villages. Photograph: Manvender Vashist/PTI Photo

How is lack of work going to have a long-term impact on migrants?

Many people who are in different places for work -- for example, a garment factory in Mumbai, their accommodation is often inside the unit.

In such places, the unit owners get small contracts and are marginally better than the workers they employ. Those who were lucky enough to leave in the beginning by train have gone back, those who haven't now depend on their own network.

So there is overcrowding in many places which is counter-productive to social distancing.

They are sharing their resources so that they don't go hungry, but are fast losing those resources with no way to replenish them.

The first thing they will do once the lockdown ends is to immediately try to go back home and catch up the harvesting season.

The harvesting season provides seasonal migrants the opportunity to secure their food and is part of their food security.

If harvesting is affected in their local areas, it will have a huge impact on their food security.

Debt will also be a problem for some migrants who would have borrowed money first to travel from their homes for work outside and then may have borrowed again to make their way back because of the lockdown.

The coronavirus crisis is being tackled as the government's foremost, urgent priority. How does this affect other government welfare schemes that the poor depend on?

It depends on how the State machinery is equipped to provide these schemes like the midday meal, ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) and other schemes.

At present, there are conflicting reports that at some places it is happening, at other places it is not. In some places, they are trying to provide cooked food to homes and some places nothing is happening -- so many conflicting reports.

The downside is that it can lead to mass malnutrition.

In many places OPDs and public health centres are not functioning or are not functioning optimally. This will disturb antenatal care, immunisation services and the treatment of routine illnesses.

Education of children who go to village schools is also a problem because unlike the middle class, these children do not have access to smartphones and laptops.

In urban India, among the middle and particularly upper middle class, it is possible to impart education through the Internet, but what about rural students?

As it is, government education quality is low and this current situation has stymied the education system. We don't know what is happening to Kasturba hostels or government orphanages.

We don't know what is happening to homeless children and those who live on railway stations.

Do you think migrants who have come back home will be able to return soon? The opportunities of employment in villages will be limited which is why they left in the first place.

People don't have much option. They would like to return and that depends from area to area and on their confidence to return to their places of employment. They would need the assurance that those states are safe from coronavirus.

Till they have that confidence, they will stay back. It will take some time.

In the informal sector, the producers will have a very hard time. In places like Bhiwandi's power looms with 13 lakh to 14 lakh workers -- these looms have already suffered a lot. They work on very small margins.

The employers are not rich and the network of employers are small capital holders, it will be a struggle for them too. If they are providing for the export sector, then the forward network chain will also be affected.

It is not as if once the lockdown is over, they will be asking their workers to return. It will take some time to restart the production process.

It is a pandemic and with new cases coming up in Maharashtra people may not want to go back.

It will depend on the overall message going out.

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