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Reverse Migration - The painful journey of India's migrant worker

The images of thousands of migrant workers, walking back to a home that is hundreds of kilometers away with their children and their possessions must have been something almost everyone has seen by now.

In today's post, we discuss the economic and emotional reasons people are taking this hazardous and long walk back home, the challenges and risks this migration brings, and the steps we can take to do more justice to these people who keep our cities running.

The economic and emotional rationale

It is important first to understand the financial background in which these folks operate. Most of them do jobs at construction sites, people's homes, small shops, etc. They are paid a small amount, from which after buying their daily necessities, they send a part back home - for relatives back in their villages. As a result, they have little to no savings left, with most migrating workers stating that they ran out of whatever money they had in less than a week.

With the lockdown, the jobs of many of these workers had now come to a standstill bringing their income to zero. The lack of savings reduces the time they can sustain themselves without work. The relatively high cost of living in the cities, combined with the lack of income, makes it economically a better prospect to be back home, where they can maintain a similar level of consumption for else. A major psychological factor that also comes into play here is the need to be home in a safe place during times of such immense uncertainty. While the financial burden can be alleviated to an extent with fiscal support, the psychological need still stays. And policymakers would do well to account for it.

The risk this entails

The first most direct risk is to the health of the individuals walking back, with luggage and their children. The long journey in the taxing heat can be very dangerous with more than 22 deaths already reported. These deaths included five children.

The second-order risks and things that seem very dangerous and likely given the photos of the crowds at Delhi's bus stations is a few of these folks carrying back the virus to remote parts of the country where the healthcare system is wanting, leading to a very serious health crisis.

For a country that is trying to break it into the big leagues, this is a fate we cannot allow. The consensus across the board seems to be to take a fiscal hit if needed but keep these folks who keep our towns running safe - in the very least a secure roof over their head and food to keep them and their kin well fed.

What can be done

It is fair to assume that this is a scenario almost no one prepared for, and let it would require a combination of bold fiscal steps combined with an emotional touch to succeed.

Telangana CM seems to be currently managing both. In a rare speech in Hindi instead of the usual Telegu, KCR made an appeal to the migrant labourers in the state to stay put, assuring them an adequate supply of rice (which is traditionally consumed in the south) or flour (given that a majority of the migrant labourers are from the north, where rotis are a staple.) The uncharacteristic switch to Hindi and the astute inclusion of flour are the small steps that given our fellow citizens atleast a modicum of confidence that they will be fended for.

There is no better test of character than a crisis. And in this hour of peak crisis, how we treated and helped the most vulnerable in our society will be remembered for decades to come.

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About the Author: The post is written by Ganesh Nagarsekar. Ganesh is a graduate from IIM Calcutta and has worked with J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, before founding GSN Invest.


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