As a consequence of the sudden and swift imposition of a complete national lockdown
in India at the end of March, many migrant workers
found themselves far away from their homes at the same time as employment opportunities and payment dried up in their cities of adoption. Naturally, many of them tried to get back home after landlords threw out worker-tenants as soon as the lockdown
was announced. But when normal transport was unavailable, some took the road and walked; others were stuffed into unpleasant holding camps. The concern is increasing that these unfortunate circumstances, together with the general difficulties of the economy, might cause migrant workers
to stay at home — causing the broader economy to run down because of a reduction in the number of “casual workers” that are crucial for growth and development. The post-Covid India will have to make provisions for these workers — and perhaps even attempt to overcome what must be a sharp propensity to migrate.
One possibility, of course, would be to try and ensure that non-farm employment closer to the migrants’ native places is accessible. This might require various forms of infrastructure upgrade in some of India’s most under-developed areas. Were this to work, it would be a win-win situation. Living costs for workers would drop, and wages in rural areas would go up. Factories in big cities and industrial centres would automatically have to pay more to attract migrants. Yet this depends crucially on overcoming the clustering in job creation, which is a feature of any capitalist economy and is even more pronounced in large countries with considerable regional disparities, such as India.
A more realistic route would be for the government itself to help ease the process of migration, in partnership with the private sector. There are mechanisms across the world that can be examined for effectiveness in this regard. One such would be the creation and management of dormitory-style housing. This could be made from low-cost and pre-fabricated materials to a standard design, ensuring that roll-out is rapid and the final product familiar to workers. The housing could include basic housekeeping services, the availability of hot food, and user fees-based community services, such as a local health centre. This would be a variant of the Chinese model where the employer directly builds large dormitory-style accommodation for workers in the factory. The government need not do this itself, it can contract out, including to public-sector companies like NBCC. Many of the “chawls” in what was then the mill town of Bombay were built by the textile mills themselves.
These attempts were sharply variable in the quality of life they provided. In today’s India, emphasis must be on providing a decent rather than graceless existence for the migrant. Some private space, lockers for security, and public amenities are a must. Large businesses with casual workers could be charged a cess to pay for the initial capital cost, or charged rent for each worker with them who uses the facility. Some measures have been announced as part of the revival package by the government to ensure the growth of rental housing in cities. The emphasis, however, must be on providing a path to urbanisation for the return of the worker.