COVID-19 has made the invisible visible

Migrants make economies tick and now with their return there are many questions about the future of work, of environment and of rural rebuilding

By Sunita Narain
Published: Monday 04 May 2020
A migrant couple on the road amid nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

Updated May 6, 2020 to reflect the World Migration Report data was cumulative through 2019, not of that year alone. First published May 1.

Of the images that haunt me, these are particularly heart-rending — one, that of the little girl who died off the coast of a European city as her parents were trying desperately to reach there on boats from a faraway land, for a better future. The other, more recent, is of an elderly woman, with all her belongings on head, walking kilometres to get home from a COVID-19 locked-down city in India, leaving behind her dreams of work and going back to the village she came from. The third is of the young man — also escaping from a locked-down city — who died after walking for days, just some hundred kilometres from his village. 

For the past one year, I have been writing about migration — from the perspective of the increased insecurity in villages, wrecked by poverty, agrarian distress and now by the weird weather that makes agriculture more and more unviable and life unbearable. It was due to the traditional push (people leaving because they had no choice) and pull (people leaving because they wanted more choice) factors, but at a much heightened pace and scale.

This exodus was hardly documented. The World Migration Report 2020 says global migration is on the rise — roughly 3.5 per cent of the world population had moved from one country to another by 2019. But there is little in-country migration data.

In India, the last official count of migrants was in the Census of 2011, which was outdated and did not explain the huge numbers of what I called “illegal” settlements growing in urban areas, congested, without urban services and, most often, the hub of industrial activity, which in turn is the cause of pollution in the city. 

Today, these “invisible” people have become visible. We see thousands and thousands of “migrants” are cramped in relief camps because the government will not let them go home fearing that the novel coronavirus will spread through them to villages and remote districts.

We see them because they are desperate to leave the city and because there is no public transport operating; they walk back with their belongings, their children and with no food and no place to sleep. When asked, they have told us they do not want food; they just want to go home. Their cry is unmistakable; heart-wrenching. 

Now, the numbers are emerging. The Union government in its affidavit of April 12, 2020 filed in the Supreme Court said there are some 40,000 relief camps in operation across states, where some 1.4 million migrant workers are housed and fed. But this is an underestimation.

There are many who are not in the camps; they are on the road, struggling to reach their destination. On April 29, some 40 days after the nationwide lockdown began, the Union government said that the stranded people could go home — buses would ferry them across states. This decision, however difficult because of the dangers of the spread of the virus, is right and necessary. 

We need to discuss the return and what this will mean. The first is about the works they will leave behind. Migrants may have been illegal in some countries and unrecognised in others, but the fact is that their labour was vital for all economies. Today vast parts of Europe, Australia and the US do not have enough labour to harvest their crops. What then will be the fate of food in the coming months?

In India, the impact will be felt as the lockdown ends and labour is in short supply to restart the economy. Will this make us value them more; provide them better opportunities and benefits so that they return? Will this give migrants a makeover in the post-covid-19 world? 

There is also the other reality that COVID-19 has thrown at us. The places where the disease is most likely to breed is where there are no urban services; where settlements are overcrowded; where safe water supply and sanitation is inadequate and people have no way to stay safe. This is where we have allowed our workforce to live.

Consider Singapore, where the virus has made a virulent comeback. The island nation, always confident of its cleanliness record, is finding that it did not take care of the dense settlements where its migrant labour lives. It is the same elsewhere. So, will we rework the need to provide better housing, water and sanitation services to our urban poor, including the migrant labour? Will this mean we will invest in improving the environment in which they live and work? 

Lastly, what happens when the migrants go back home? Will they want to return? Is this the opportunity to invest in rural economies so that they have the choice not to leave? I want to discuss this the next fortnight.

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