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Govt of India behaving like 'nanny state' by trying to find jobs for migrants in cities


By Rit Nanda*
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” – Rahm Emanuel, Chief of Staff, Barack Obama, Former President of the USA
It seems odd to start an article with perhaps one of the most cynical political quotes of recent times, but it is imperative that we see the truth in the latter part of the quote that a crisis is an opportunity to do things anew. And crises do not come bigger than the COVID-19 pandemic currently ravaging the globe.
Traditional supply chains dictate that raw materials are generally found outside cities in rural areas. They are generally reprocessed in industrial towns. They are then serviced and consumed in the urban centres, which act as the economic hubs. Such supply chains can be seen at both national and international level. For example, mud from river beds is brought to industrial towns to make bricks which are then brought to the city to use in its burgeoning real estate.
Also economics dictates that jobs that involve service or manufacturing are generally better compensated than those that simply involve production of raw material. It is vital to monetize to recognize human endeavour. This natural flow of supply chain has for years created a steady stream of migrants from our rural to our urban centres as we have moved further and further away from an agrarian society.
But seasonal migrants who come to the towns and cities from villages are not better off away from their homes. They simply come because they earn more and therefore can send more money back home to take care of their family. It is the same reason so many Indians go to the Middle East to work as labourers; not because living conditions there are better but because monetary savings to send back to their families are better.
Hence, we see desperation in migrant workers to return home to their villages now that they do not have any earning in the cities due the COVID-19 lockdown. Because of the lockdown, it is not even sure how many small businesses will go under as no stimulus package was introduced for Small and Medium Enterprises going into even the fourth week of the extended lockdown. So, it is not even guaranteed how many rural migrants will be able to return to their jobs once the lockdown is removed.
Therefore, it is this writer’s contention that the migrants are allowed to move back to villages after the lockdown. However, it must be then noted with some dismay that the government has taken the opposite tack and is instead trying to be a nanny state by trying to find jobs for workers in the state they are currently stuck in. This is as per the Union Home Ministry recommendation that came on April 19, 2020.
While the guideline might be in the right spirit, it is completely misguided in that no government can provide jobs for so many newly unemployed people, majority of whom survive on the basis of day-to-day work. Furthermore, it needlessly distorts the market for the last few weeks of the lockdown because the moment the lockdown is over people would want to move back to their villages thereby creating a labour shortage where they were temporarily employed. 
This is also unwise because, whether the government likes to hear or not, an economic slowdown is coming and that means the private sector has less capacity to employ these migrants. Inevitably, many will therefore be out of jobs and being stuck in the city is not an option for them.
So, instead of wasting these two weeks trying to micromanage free markets, the job of the government should be to enable those who are going back to the villages to find work there. This means moving some components of the supply chain away from the cities. We must learn our lessons from past pandemics in India, mainly the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that had such a devastating effect.
If migrants crowd back into cities, where social distancing is impossible, it might lead to a second surge of COVID-19
Reports suggest famine like conditions in villages forced many people to move to densely populated cities which further exacerbated the spread of the pandemic. Considering how weak our current levels of testing are, there is a huge chance that if migrants crowd back into cities, where social distancing is impossible, it might lead to a second surge of COVID-19.
This is the opportunity that this pandemic gives. Already we are seeing an exploding urban population and it is dispiriting for a major economy to see so many urban poor living in such squalor. If we can take this opportunity to distribute service sector industries away from cities to towns and the process industries towards village hubs, we can eliminate the problem of urban dependence of our economy which causes fallouts such as urban poverty and lower quality of lives for the migrants. Let us look at some industries that can be moved towards the towns and rural belt.
The International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai’s research as reproduced by Aajeevika Bureau found that majority of the migrants are employed in construction, domestic work, textile, brick kilns, transportation, mines and quarries and agriculture, given in decreasing order.
Among them, the glut in construction in the cities is because many people from the middle class migrate to cities where the white collar service jobs are. If the government uses this pandemic to reorient itself where service jobs can move to smaller towns where broadband facilities are already there, BPO and IT support services can easily move to smaller towns.
This has an added bonus that the universities in the hinterlands will now have access to industry, so students in there will study seriously instead of losing hope for a better life. As more people are employed in smaller towns, domestic work opportunities will also increase there and decrease in the cities. Similarly, textile industries can be moved away from the cities. Cotton, which is the main textile crop, is grown in Deccan, Malwa and Sutlej-Ganga plains, but the mills are generally located in the cities.
If these are moved back towards the villages and infrastructure made to carry export items straight to the ports, then export headquarters can be kept in the cities, but workers need not move to the cities to work. Similarly, if infrastructure connects the hinterlands, especially in the peninsula, then stone processing factories can be located next to mines and quarries and the processed materials can be moved directly to the cities of use or ports of export instead of having to bring them to cities.
What are given above are just suggestions which the government officers might study in detail to attempt to reorient our supply chain. Migrants are often not captured in the BPL lists or electoral lists, thereby making them vulnerable to, even in the best of times, a lack of subsidised food and electoral representation. This pandemic has given us an opportunity to pause and rethink. There is no reason why we should not take this opportunity.
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*M.Sc energy, trade and finance, City University, London; procurement, logistics and human resource supervisor and consultant

Comments

Unknown said…
Nicely written and explained.Future write up awaited.

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