Clipped from: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com
Villages now struggle to cope with returnees who have no income and no immediate chance of employment.
With the crisis of migrants unable to return home abating, India may be looking at another crisis – that of villages struggling to cope with returnees, who have no source of income and no immediate chance of urban employment as most manufacturing won’t be running full steam for months.
“For the first time in the history, migrants are going back empty handed,’’ says migration expert S Irudaya Rajan, professor at Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. “Migrants are not beggars. They come bearing gifts. They are heroes who leave their homes to fight to support several others.’’
He estimates that there are 14 crore distressed domestic migrant workers. And he has a policy prescription – the government should immediately give Rs 25,000 to each of them and Rs 25,000 again after three months.
“Those returning from cities are unable to cope in villages,’’ says Satyavan, a resident of a village near Agra. “They are used to the ways of the city. When several of them return suddenly to the village, it shakes things up.’’
Many who had shifted out had also withdrawn their share of family inheritance, leaving property and land for siblings and parents, often in exchange for cash to use as equity to build a city life. “Now when they’re back, how are you to accommodate them?’’ asks Satyavan. Those left behind were anyways just eking out a living from the little land. “If my brother lands up with his wife and two kids, forget other expenses, that is an extra four mouths to feed.’’
After railways and highways, a new stage for conflict and crises is being set as more and more people reach their destinations. The “city folk’’ are disturbing the delicate consumption and livelihood balance of villages that had gotten used to their almost-permanent absence. Meanwhile, as the disruption caused by the combination of pandemic, the governments’ fiscal distress and inadequate policy responses draws out, cities and industries are keeping their fingers crossed that the labourers who have left would come back when it’s time to crank up the machines.
Irudaya Rajan’s prognosis is dark. He expects widespread poverty, starvation and nutrition crisis.
Distress on arrival
Pranav Pratap Singh, a former political consultant in Jharkhand, is nowadays busy helping stranded migrant workers trying to reach home. Singh told ET over phone that they have begun building a database of the skillsets of the returnees to help them find jobs. He expects several of them to stay back and look for work closer home. Chief minister Hemant Soren said last week that about 4.5 lakh workers had returned to the state which has a large population of landless tribals.
Jharkhand is one of the top exporters of labour in the country with more than 5% of its working age population migrating in search of jobs, according to the Economic Survey, 2016-17. Bhushan Bhagat, who runs NGO Social Action for Rural and Urban Development of Society says in one instance, every single person from a village in his native Gumla district had relocated to Himachal Pradesh to work on farms.
A large number of families has shifted to Delhi and adjoining areas where the women typically work as house help and the men on construction sites. “Those who have been gone only for a year or two are returning. Those who have been working in these places for long are staying back,’’ says Bhagat. “Even if they have come back, they would return.’’ He expects at least half the people to go back to cities for work.
That is not going to happen soon as manufacturing activity in many sectors will take time to resume. Companies, except those making essentials, do not expect much to happen in June or July.
Waiting for demand, sales, workers
“Production may increase to 25-40% in the second quarter and we hope to hit 50-75% in Q3,’’ says R Rajagopalan, president of the Hosur Industries’ Association (HIA), which counts companies such as Ashok Leyland, TVS and Titan Industries as its members. Thousands of workers from states such as Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand flock to this Tamil Nadu industrial cluster which is home to about 250 big factories and 3,000 small and medium units most of which supply to the big companies. Now hardly any of those workers remain. Labour contractors say that 90% of the migrant workers had gone away.
The contractors expect at least half of them to not return but are hopeful that new ones would replace them. “We’ll know only when factories start running at speed,’’ says AR Veeriah, a labour contractor. He had on average 100 workers on his roster in February but only 15 now.
Treasurer of Manpower Contractors’ Association, A Sivan, says many migrant workers who had left just before the lockdown began have been telephoning him to enquire for work. Sivan said contractors’ billing had shrunk from a monthly average of Rs 3 crore to a mere Rs 37,000 in May. He too doesn’t expect a pick-up just yet.
Industries would also be looking to reduce their dependence on manpower. “ Automation is the only way,’’ says K Velmurugan, president of Hosur Small and Tiny Industries Association. “MSMEs have not modernised for many years. It is the only way they can achieve consistent quality and productivity.’’ That doesn’t mean migrant labour can be avoided. Migrant workers’ productivity is high, says HIA’s Rajagopalan who is also the chief manufacturing officer of Titan. “Local labour costs more and its productivity is comparatively lower,’’ he says.
It means factories will have to prepare for higher wage costs and amenities for workers. Currently, they get a maximum of Rs 350 per eight-hour day with lunch thrown in. Those who come from far states would reassess the return on effort. “All good employers are holding on to their migrants,’’ says migration expert Irudaya Rajan. “All bad employers are burning their hands. This is the time when the good and bad employers will get segregated.’’ Anecdotally, industrialists who have treated their workers well are the ones who are also seeing them eager to return.
Paid in compassion
Jai Agarwal, who runs foundry Kajeco Industries in Agra, saw all his workers returning as he had continued to pay them throughout the lockdown. “The human touch matters,’’ says Rajagopalan. “It is important for workers to know `I’m with you’. We’d told all our members to think long-term and got their HR people to work towards it.’’
With the lockdown being lifted in most states, it would now depend on governments to find ways to get people to consume. “Everyone is currently focussed on P&L (profit and loss account),’’ says Rajagopalan. “For that they need cash. And for cash, they need sales.’’
Factory production and allied services would pick up in tandem with sales which, in turn, would depend on demand that will be created only when people have income.