COVID-19: Homecoming not easy, say migrants

Coronavirus lockdown: Homecoming not easy, say migrants as they look for suitable jobs in villages

Representative image. (Credit: PTI)

Back home and now trying to fit in, several migrants who have returned to their villages after decades are scouring for work tailored to their experiences in the big city and their age profile.

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As lakhs of migrants are still making their way back to their villages, homecoming, some are discovering, is not always easy with limited work opportunities, few resources and no use for the work they did back in the city.

Some say they are too old, others that they can’t handle the rigours of hard, physical labour.

Hari Kumar, who scrambled for a seat on a Shramik Special train to take him from Delhi to his village Pilakhana in western Uttar Pradesh in the first week of May, is one of those trying to adjust to his new life.

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The choices available to him include farming, livestock rearing and manual labour in rural construction projects, but the 43-year-old, who owned a tea shop in south Delhi’s Nehru Place office complex, feels like the proverbial square peg in a round hole – not quite fitting in.

"I made tea and snacks. That’s what I know. I don't have much of a choice but I have no idea how to work for 12 hours every day under the sun in this heat and compete with men who are in their 20s," Hari confessed.

He said he left the village when he was 15 and almost three decades later is trying hard to adjust to his new life.

"I spent so many nights crying, missing home. When I returned I just stayed at home and spent time with my children. Now, as days have passed, I have realised I need to look for a job here but my experience cannot be used here," Hari told PTI over phone.

Returning to Delhi is not an option. He owned a tea stall but had to shut it down after the lockdown, to curtail the spread of COVID-19, started on March 25. With no business, he exhausted all his savings and now is left with nothing. Suresh, who goes by only one name, is in the same quandary. The 40-year-old, who suffers from a physical disability and walks with crutches, worked at a grocery shop in Noida where he was in charge of maintaining an inventory of the stock and is back home in his village in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh. He said he was one of the first people to be fired from the grocery shop and can’t find suitable work in Hathras either.

"It is difficult for a 40-year-old like me to be dependent on relatives for long and the kind of livelihood opportunities for me in the village are limited," he said.

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Suresh, who left Noida, a suburb of the national capital, earlier this month, refuses to say how he made the over 100-kilometre journey to his village.

“It was desperation that drove me out. The situation was very bleak in Delhi. I just wanted to leave the city. I did not think what I will do once I come back to my hometown," he told PTI over phone.

Guttan Singh, who moved back to Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh, lost his job as an office assistant in a firm in Noida. But the white collar worker, who took a bus home on May 18, has no such options in his village.

The only work option he has is being involved in a construction project as a labourer.

"I am 53, I am not sure if I am fit for the job but there is no other choice as I have a family of four to feed," he said.

Explaining the crisis confronting the workers, Nirmalya Choudhury, senior researcher with VikasAnvesh Foundation, an NGO working in the rural development sector, said it is important to understand that returnee migrants are not a homogenous entity.


"They could be skilled, semiskilled, unskilled. They may have very few resources at home and hence they might be forced to return back even after all this trauma if they don't get an opportunity for livelihoods in their villages. However, what opportunities they get have to be pegged to who they are," he said.

Choudhury said a skilled person who had a decent work in the city might not be interested in doing MGNREGA work.

"However, a desperate migrant who is unskilled and has a lot of dependents, might be still willing to work on anything, even if it is unskilled labour work in MGNREGA," he said.

"For the other category, one might need to make options for decent livelihood opportunities in the local area. So what is important is to understand the heterogeneity and accordingly make plans for livelihood enhancement for the return migrants," he said.

The coronavirus-triggered lockdown has had a devastating impact on the economy as well as on the livelihoods of lakhs of migrant workers.

The plight of migrant workers, walking hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres, cycling or clambering on to buses and train, to go from urban centres to their villages has been the focus of concern for almost two months.

The Centre, on Saturday, said around four crore migrant labourers are engaged in various jobs across the the country. And so far, 75 lakh of them have returned home in trains and buses since the nationwide lockdown was imposed. 

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