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Explained: How many migrant workers displaced? A range of estimates

Among the states, UP has said 21.69 lakh workers had returned. Bihar has said 10 lakh had returned; Maharashtra has said 11 lakh have left the state. Gujarat said 20.5 lakh had gone back home.

Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi |
June 8, 2020 4:21:49 am
In Surat, reminders of 1994 plague: worker exodus, empty units, special trains Among the states, UP has said 21.69 lakh workers had returned, and UP itself had sent back 1.35 lakh. (File Photo)

A problem in dealing with issues relating to migrant labour after the lockdown was announced on March 25 has been the absence of firm estimates of the number of displaced.

Various govt estimates: Last week, the Chief Labour Commissioner put the figure at 26 lakh migrants stranded across the country, of whom 10% are said to be in relief camps, 43% on work sites and 46% in other clusters. The Solicitor General, on the other hand, informed the Supreme Court of 97 lakh who had been transported back home.

Among the states, UP has said 21.69 lakh workers had returned, and UP itself had sent back 1.35 lakh. Bihar has said 10 lakh had returned; Maharashtra has said 11 lakh have left the state. Gujarat said 20.5 lakh had gone back home. West Bengal said 3,97,389 migrant workers from other states were still stranded. Karnataka said in court that the state had facilitated the return of 3 lakh migrant workers.

Scholars and those watching migration estimate those dislocated to be many more.

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The Economic Survey of 2017 has a chapter, ‘India On the Move and Churning: New Evidence’, which is regarded as an important government document that looks at the number of internal migrants then or labour that travels to cities from rural India in spurts. Using a new Cohort-based Migration Metric (CMM) and railway data, it put interstate migration at 60 million.

“The first-ever estimates of internal work-related migration using railways data for the period 2011-2016 indicate an annual average flow of close to 9 million people between the states. Both these estimates are significantly greater than the annual average number of about 3.3 million suggested by successive Censuses and higher than previously estimated by any study.”

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Dr Arvind Subramanian, then the Chief Economic Adviser, now said, “Data on migrants (such as we compiled earlier) can be a useful analytical tool going forward to track the magnitude and direction of migrants. it can also be a very useful input into completing the jam infrastructure. for example, if we know the most important source and destination of migrants that could help prioritize where to focus policy efforts to make sure there is full financial inclusion.” He has not done any recent estimates, but cited the work of Ahmedabad-based scholar Chinmay Tumbe, who has been working on migrant labour in India as reliable.

Chinmay Tumbe, 3 crore: He puts India’s reverse migration since mid-March “conservatively at 30 million or 3 crore or 15-20% of the urban workforce”. This is conservative because a lot of intra-state migration is not accounted for. He is not so sure if train journeys are a good approximation, because most returned by road rather than rail.

“Phase 1, just before the lockdown, saw people go back for Holi. A conservative estimate of 5 million based on old passenger traffic data as the number that stayed on, mostly within-state migration. Phase 2 (March 25-April 30) started with a rush, especially from Delhi and other places where some state governments did arrange for buses. Based on numerous reports on this and district-border crossings, I estimate 5 million as a very conservative number, mostly within-state migration. For Phase 3 in May, with Shramik trains (5 million people) and road transport options saw the maximum exodus, with 20 million as a very conservative figure, most of which is inter-state migration.” He regards the Shramik trains as useful to help measure “because it’s the only firm number available, across states.”

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migrant labour crisis, india coronavirus lockdown, coronavirus latest news, migrant labour, migrant exodus, reverse migrant exodus, coronavirus test, covid-19 test, coronavirus india, covid-19 india explained, coronavirus deaths, covid-19 deaths Workers for Chhattisgarh stuck in Amritsar, on June 2. (PTI Photo)

Prof Amitabh Kundu & colleagues, 2.2 crore: The economist and demographer, along with K Verghese and Khalid Khan, has made estimates of “interstate migrants who have been economically destabilised during March-April 2020. The estimated number is 22 million (the break up being 16 million internal migrants and 6 million short-duration migrants destabilised).” But not all of these have returned. “Of these, about 12 million have returned. Possibly 60% of the rest would stay back. About 4 million would still want go back before the kharif season harvesting begins, unless there is sudden spurt in urban economy in the next couple of weeks.”

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Dr Noman Maajid, 5 million: He works with the ILO Decent Work Team for South Asia. In a paper for The India Forum, he said: “The overall number… is likely to be around 5 million in the first wave — persons who find themselves without shelter and have been mostly casually employed.”

Scholars believe the absence of even an estimate of the numbers is evidence of the neglect migrant workers have faced.

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