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Why the long march home?

Last Updated : 31 March 2020, 10:56 IST
Last Updated : 31 March 2020, 10:56 IST

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“It was poverty that forced me to leave my village, and here I am...I still have no money,” said Sanjay Choudhary, a construction worker in Nagpur, after he undertook an arduous journey to return to his native village in Garhwa district in Jharkhand, covering a distance of over 400 km. As millions of migrant workers tread home, with small children in tow, walking for hundreds of miles and that too for days together, the story is the same.

The avalanche of migrant workers on a long march home is perhaps the biggest human migration on foot since Partition. As if hit with a sledgehammer – fearing an immediate loss of daily wages, and with employers telling them to vacate the shelters -- millions of migrants have defied the lockdown to head back home. Not only from the major cities, but the reverse migration from across the country is also unprecedented. These hungry and weary millions had first rushed to train and bus stations when the ‘janata curfew’ was announced. When the lockdown was imposed, they were left with little choice but to walk back.

“We know the virus is spreading, but we’ll die of starvation if we stay,” echoed a majority of the migrant workers whom journalists talked to. While the TV screens remained filled with images of hungry and exhausted workers walking back, with heart-wrenching stories of how children were carrying the tiny tot on their shoulders, how a 90-year-old woman was walking back, and so on, the fact remains that the common thread that ran through the human suffering was how acutely poverty-stricken they were. Everyone walking back had the same distressing tale –- they had no money, no work, and no idea how to feed their families. Even those who stayed back are no better. They have been provided with free ration, and charities, along with district administrations, are making an effort to provide them cooked food to stay put.

For the millions of migrant workers, life in the urban ghettos in and around industrial and manufacturing units actually hangs by a slender thread. A few days of curfew or a lockdown, the thread is snapped. Living and surviving on daily wages, barely enough to sustain their families, they continue to slog. “I usually earn around Rs 300 a day picking up bottles, cartons and selling them,” Abdul Halim told a newspaper. “What we earn varies from day to day, and from person to person. Ragpickers at best make Rs 300 a day, and a handful of drivers earn better, around Rs 500,” said another ragpicker. Whether they work at a dhaba or a restaurant or work in a small-scale industry, the story is almost the same.

Let’s be very clear. If the underlying objective of economic reforms was to push people, over the past few decades, from the rural areas to the urban centres for the country to attain higher economic growth, migrant workers are the unsaid victims of development. They have been pushed out of the rural areas, with a majority abandoning farming, aspiring to make a better living. This is what the mainline economists had prescribed. For instance, a distinguished economist had once said that the big-ticket reforms would be when we are able to move farmers out of agriculture to the cities because these cities need cheaper labour or dehari mazdoor. Mainline economists, business schools, etc., have been relentlessly propagating this narrative, seeking appropriate policies to achieve this objective.

The mass exodus back home has, however, brought the nation face to face with the stark reality. If after several decades of a policy push, millions of migrant workers surviving on a daily wage have little or no cushion to sustain their livelihood even for a few days without a job, it is crystal clear that the trickle-down theory hasn’t worked. While it may be difficult to work out the staggering number of migrant workers who walked back, the swelling numbers are a clear indicator. Citing the 2011 Census, a report in IndiaSpends says that over 60 million migrant labourers work in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru. Since the reverse migration took place from almost every corner of the country, and that includes small urban centres like Panchkula in Haryana, it is important to know that the total number of “internal migrants” form nearly 37% of the population, which means roughly 45 crore people. Not that they all migrated, but quite a staggering percentage of the internal migrants did brave the hardship to return home.

If at a time of an unforeseen crisis the majority of the migrant workers feel comfortable returning home, walking hundreds of miles without guaranteed food and water, even though knowing that it was the prevailing poverty in the villages that first drove them to the cities, the lockdown provides a god-sent opportunity to policy planners to rethink the flawed policy of keeping agriculture deliberately impoverished so as to keep the economic reforms viable. If agriculture could be turned economically viable, a majority of the migrant workforce that walked back home would not be keen to return to the cities. The small landholdings, despite the fragmentation that is taking place, serve as economic security for small and marginal farmers. Even if everything else doesn’t work, the small patch of landholdings would sustain the farm families.

It is therefore time to redesign the economic policies that have continuously driven people out of agriculture to join the marginal force of dehari mazdoors in the cities. The right kind of policy mix can bring back the pride in farming and restore the dignity of farmers, enabling them to stay back in villages, instead of pulling a rickshaw in the cities and being holed up in dingy rooms, with half a dozen others. The village is socially inclusive and gives them a sense of belonging. In other words, the long march to the villages is a strong lesson -- reviving agriculture is the key to rebooting the economy.

(The writer is an agricultural economist)

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Published 30 March 2020, 20:52 IST

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