Covid-19 has made the invisible visible

Topics Coronavirus | Migration | Lockdown

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 by boat 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 increased insecurity in villages, wrecked by poverty, agrarian distress, and now the weird weather, which 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. But there is little data on migration within countries. In India, the last official count of migrants was in the Census of 2011, which was outdated and did not explain the huge numbers of what I called “illegal” settlements growing in urban areas, congested, without urban services, and, most often, the hub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 disease 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 and 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 were 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. After April 29, when 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, the numbers are beginning to be better known. We will have to wait to see once this flood of people reach their destination — in trains, buses, or trucks; by road; or any other way they can make it — to understand the real implications of this movement from city to village.

What will this 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 is 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 are where there are no urban services, where settlements are overcrowded, where safe water supply and sanitation are inadequate, and where 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? This then is the opportunity to invest in rural economies so that they have the choice not to leave? 

The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment

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