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Top-down policy-making approach? Reverse migration amidst second Covid wave

By Arjun Kumar, Ritika Gupta, Sakshi Sharda* 

Migrant workers have been assured multiple times that an economic lockdown will not be imposed and yet photographs have already started to emerge of reverse migration. Given this context, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and Working People Charter organized a Panel Discussion on Reverse Migration amidst the Second Wave of Coronavirus Pandemic: Challenges and Solutions. The chair of the session was Prof Arun Kumar, Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and retired professor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Other panelists included Irudaya Rajan, Chairman of the International Institute of Migration and Development (IIMAD) and Professor, Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Kerala; and Akriti Bhatia, founder, People’s Association In Grassroots Action and Movement (PAIGAM).
The moderator for the event Tikender Singh Panwar, former Deputy Mayor, Shimla and Senior Visiting Fellow, IMPRI, set the tone for the lecture quoting Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) economist Mahesh Vyas: “Tragedy seems to be unfolding again as Covid inflictions have risen, Vaccines have run into shortages, governments have started implementing smaller lockdowns and are speaking of large lockdowns. As result sections of labor are suspicious for their livelihoods again. Migrant labor is as vulnerable for livelihood as it was a year ago.”
Panwar pointed out that migrant livelihoods are in danger yet again. This jeopardizes the 30 years of the Lassiez-Faire planning system. The key question remains ‘What cities are we building?’. Our civilizations have been civilizations of migrants. At this time it seems as though all city resilience indices have failed. Surat the city which was seen as a model for urbanization could not account for 24 hours for its migrant populations. Indian cities are hubs for inequality which is the result of flawed planning. “We will live on Roti and Salt, but we will not come back”, he said.
IMPRI researchers located for the audience the context of the problem by an eagle eyes view of the context of migration in the country and linking it with the rising Covid-19 cases. The presentation began with explicating the current caseload in the country, the details of myriad forms of lockdowns, and the site of the mass reverse exodus of migrants. Following this, details of the glaring absence of data on migrants during the pandemic were explicated.
They compiled a set of social security schemes for the migrants in the first lockdown and the response of government policies so far. The small introduction was wrapped up by speaking of a welfare approach which located for migrants human dignity by first understanding the quantum of the concern. Then ensuring the health, safety, nutrition, and livelihood to this forgotten population of cities.

Lockdown vs livelihood

Lockdown doesn’t reduce the disease but only prevents people’s movement. This means that the disease remains, but considering that Covid is a communicable disease lockdown prevents the spread of the same. Lockdown then becomes a means to mitigate national disaster. The peak of the disease does not surpass the availability of health infrastructure in the country.
India is the worst-hit economy in the world, it is because of the large unorganized sector. This unorganized sector was migrating back from urban to rural areas. There is a need to address the root cause of the problem. The answers lie in understanding where did planning fault first in-migration from rural to urban and then visa versa due to lockdown.
Azemji Premji University collected the Covid-19 Livelihood Survey. The findings are based on a survey of nearly 5,000 self-employed, casual, and regular wage workers across 12 states of India, conducted between April 13 and May 23 last year in collaboration with civil society organizations. Two-thirds of the migrant population had lost employment and the earnings in the informal sector dropped by half. Livelihoods were not just under strain they vanished with the study locating 80 percent of migrants not having enough income to sustain meals for a week.
Large migrant populations are the direct result of a top-down policy-making approach. The vision was to emulate western urbanization, planning, and development, which necessarily translated into a situation where local needs of the people were not accounted for. This resulted in a pro-industrial concentrated urbanization policy that strained limited resources which were then located away from the rural areas. 
Eventually, there was the marginalization of rural areas which was a direct response of marketization, and technology which was not conducive to the existing level of skills or did not map the specific needs. The black economy did not help the situation. The weak social welfare system coupled with repetitive shocks to the unorganized sector made a bad situation worst.
There have been no national announcements this time. Chief ministers have taken the role PM, announcing lockdown in states
Prof Irudaya Rajan took upon himself the task to locate for the audience the coming future of migrants. He pointed that speaking about the second wave as in the future is a futile exercise because the second wave has already begun. The prediction is India will have a caseload ranging from 5 lakh to 8 lakh cases per day and 5,000 deaths for the coming month, to say the least. It is a condition of helplessness where most of the population is directly or indirectly affected by the virus itself.
Last year in March the Prime Minister of India has announced a national lockdown with less than 500 cases in India. There have been no national announcements this time. Chief Ministers have taken the role of Prime Minister and have announced lockdown in their own states or specific districts. Karnataka being the latest state to announce the same, even one state in lockdown will affect the migrant worker. One state in lockdown is the country going under lockdown because movement is hampered.

No lessons from lockdown 1.0

If the conditions don't improve the announcements of states announcing lockdown will continue. This chaos in national response only increases experiences of uncertainty. We have failed to protect migrants in the Covid wave. The response that has been repeatedly called for is cash transfers which a few states have done for the meager amount of Rs 1,000. No policy has the desired impact because there is no comprehensive data available.
This lockdown impacts both inter-state and inter-country migrants. This is a question of the movement of 200 million people with no social security net and complete absence of any means of livelihood. There was no assistance to the migrants and the Shramik trains charged migrants to return to their home states. These trains were popularly referred to as the Corona Express. Starvation hit quickly because state support did not reach in time, said Prof Arun Kumar.
Migrant bodies were reduced only to be the carriers of the Covid-19 virus. The government of India kept asking the migrants to stay where they are, with no assistance and no means of livelihood. The branding of the migrants as the carrier of the virus continued. Akriti Bhatia pointed out that the government apathy and continuous neglect by media is criminal. The gated cities, hospitals and people makes a condition where the cheapest lives become that of the migrant.

Vaccination policy

The vaccination policy at this time has been in utter chaos. The caccine, a life-saving necessity has been phased in its availability. The priority first was health workers, followed by the age group above 45 years of age. The country is now debating monetizing the vaccines at the price of Rs 150. The concern for the population that was going to travel was completely absent. Increasing public transportation at this response is only to encourage the loss of livelihoods and the government only needed to sustain the population with cash transfers.
Migrants have not been located as stakeholders in the vaccination drive. Had this been accounted for the second wave of the virus could have been prevented. They are as much as front-line workers, they have been preparing food, sanitizing the city, working as domestic help. They became carriers of the virus because they were forgotten as city makers and were not accounted for in policy decisions. Tamil Nadu has announced that from May 1, 2021, the vaccination drive will focus on the migrant populations.
The vaccination policy needs to account for the varied conditions and varied demographics of the migrant population. Will the policy account for the treats of regionalism and vaccine nationalism? A lot of cross-border migration also takes place, policy must account for the same. Akriti Bhatia pointed that looking at migrants as a homogenized body could lead to greater devastation.

Way forward

Prof Irudaya Rajan suggested that the least the government can do at this time is to provide the migrants with MGNREGA wage of Rs 200 per day. The response of the Delhi government to provide Rs 5000 to construction workers disadvantages the other sections of migrant workers. These payments must be in the form of advanced payment which can help solve the disability of the migrants.
Sadly, this wave of the virus migrant crisis will take a back seat when there is a scarcity of resources. All major urban centers have their health care infrastructure failing with an acute shortage of beds, oxygen tanks, required medication. Given these conditions, the overflowing crematoriums only make the conditions worst.
Akriti Bhatia emotively voiced the concern that there is no dignity attached to the lives of the migrants and they are only reduced to be carrier bodies. There is a multiplicity of crisis, the regressive labor laws that have been passed disappear the migrant voices even further. No relief is actually reaching due to obsession with technology, documentation, and registrations.
Prof Arun Kumar spoke of the need for a long-term solution that incorporated an understanding of the issue at hand. These answers cannot be located without understanding the precarious nature of migration itself. We are still not speaking of development that percolates down from the Adanis and Ambanis.

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