The phase of large-scale exodus of migrant workers from major urban and industrial centres to their home states is over. Not only has Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised “unlock, unlock, unlock” as the way forward, many industries have restarted in some form. Sectors such as FMCG are reporting higher demand — whether for staples, biscuits, snacks and instant noodles or soaps and sanitisers — than even during pre-COVID, simply because of more people still sitting at, if not working from, homes. While the healthcare and telecom industries operated even during the lockdown, one can expect others as well — the need to avoid crowded traveling and shopping should, for instance, benefit two-wheeler makers and e-commerce platforms — to ramp up capacity utilisation in the coming days.
All this should result in the returning migrant labourers leaving their villages again. Their going back was, after all, triggered by the sudden loss of work and no earnings for even sustaining themselves, let alone sending home. It was an entirely rational response. That same logic would make them head again to their erstwhile or new places of work. Manpower shortages in production assembly lines, loading and unloading of goods or making home deliveries will force FMCG companies, auto manufacturers and online grocers to pay higher wages in the short run. Paddy growers of Punjab and Haryana, who have always relied on migrant workers for transplantation operations, are left with no choice either. For the labourers, too, the wage premiums and lack of livelihood options back home — MGNREGA work pays just Rs 194 daily in Bihar and Rs 201 in UP — are going to be significant “pull” factors.
The Modi government has launched a Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan to provide livelihood opportunities through focused public infrastructure works in 116 districts with large returnee migrant worker populations. But such schemes cannot substitute for private sector activity in which this workforce was previously engaged. There is a strong case to increase the number of trains from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and other migrant labourer-origin states, with strict enforcement of social distancing, wearing of masks and no issuing of unreserved tickets. Such trains may currently be running with low ridership numbers. But that would change as the demand for labour picks up. The resultant trickle of people returning for work can be managed better — and in a more humane way — than during the exodus.
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