“It was poverty that forced me to leave my village, and here I am  … I still have no money,” said Sanjay Choudhary, a construction worker in Nagpur, after he undertook an arduous journey to return back to his native village in Garhwa district in Jharkhand, covering a distance of 400 km. As millions of migrant workers tread home, with small children in tow, walking for hundreds of kms and that too for days together, the story is the same.

The avalanche of migrant workers on a long march home is perhaps the biggest human migration on foot after Independence. As if hit with a sledge hammer – fearing an immediate loss of daily wages, and with employers telling them to vacate the shelters — millions of migrants’ defied lockdown to head back home. Not only from the major metropolis cities, the reverse migration from across the country has been unprecedented. These hungry and weary millions had first rushed to train and bus stations when the ‘Janata Curfew’ was announced, and when the lockdown was imposed, they were left with little choice but to walk back.

“We know the virus is spreading but we’ll die of starvation if we stay,” echoed a majority of the migrant workers who media talked to. While the TV screens remained filled with images of hungry and exhausted workers walking back, with heart-wrenching stories of how children were carrying the tiny tod on their shoulders, how a 90-year-old woman was walking back and so on, the fact remains that the common thread that ran through the human suffering was how acutely poverty-stricken they were. Everyone walking back had the same distressing tale – they had no money, no work, and no idea how to feed their families. Even those who stayed back are no better. They have been provided with free ration, and charity organisations along with the district administrations are making an effort to provide them cooked food to stay put.

For the millions of migrant workers life in the urban ghettos in and around industrial and manufacturing units actually hangs by a slender thread. A few days of curfew or a lockdown, the thread is snapped. Living and surviving on daily wages, barely enough to sustain their families, they continue to slog along. “In usually earn around Rs 300 a day picking up bottles, cartons and selling them,” Abdul Halim had told a newspaper.  “What we earn varies from day to day, and from person to person. Ragpickers at best make Rs 300 a day, and a handful of drivers earn better, around Rs 500,” said another ragpicker. Whether they work on a dhaba or a restaurant or work in a small scale industry, the story is almost the same.

Let’s be very clear. If the underlying objective of economic reforms is to push people, over the past few decades, from the rural areas to the urban centres for the country to attain a higher economic growth, migrant workers are the unsaid victims of development. They have been pushed out of the rural areas, with a majority abandoning farming, aspiring to make a better living. This is what the mainline economists had told us. For instance, a distinguished economist had once said that the big ticket reforms would be when we are able to move farmers out of agriculture to the cities because these cities need cheaper labour or dehari mazdoor. He is not the only mainline economist to have said so, several others – including business and management schools — have been relentlessly propagating this narrative seeking appropriate policies that aim at moving a large percentage of the population out of rural areas.

The mass exodus back home has however brought the nation face to face with the stark and grim reality. If after several decades of a policy push, millions of migrant workers surviving on a daily wage have little or no cushion to sustain their livelihood even for a few days if the job is lost, it becomes crystal clear that the trickle-down theory hasn’t worked. While it may be difficult to work out the staggering number of migrant workers who walked back, but the swelling numbers is a clear indicator. Citing the 2011 Indian Census a report in IndiaSpends says that over 60 million migrant labourers work in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru. Since the reverse migration took place from almost every corner of the country, and that includes small urban centres like Panchkula in Haryana, it is important to know that the total number of “internal migrants” form nearly 37 per cent of the population, which means roughly 45.36 crore. Not that they all migrated but quite a staggering percentage of the internal migrants did brave the hardship to return back.

If at a time of an unforeseen crisis the majority of the migrant workers feel comfortable to return home, walking hundreds of kms without food and water, even though knowing that it was the prevailing poverty in villages that first drove them to cities, the lockdown provides a god sent opportunity to policy planners to rethink the flawed policy of keeping agriculture deliberately impoverished so as to keep the economic reforms viable. If agriculture could be turned economically viable, I am sure a majority of the migrant work force that walked back would not be keen to return. The small land-holdings, despite the fragmentation that is taking place, serve as an economic security for small and marginal farmers. Even if everything else doesn’t work, the small patch of land holdings would sustain the farm families.

It is therefore time to redesign the economic policies that have continuously driven people out of agriculture to join the marginal force of dehari mazdoors in the cities. Right kind of policy mix can bring back the pride in farming, and restore the dignity of farmers, enabling them to stay back in villages. Instead of pulling a rickshaw in the cities, and holed in dingy rooms packed with half a dozen more people, the villages are socially-inclusive and gives them a sense of belonging. In other words, the long march to the villages has left behind a strong lesson — reviving agriculture is the key to reboot the economy.

Devinder Sharma is an agricultural economist

Originally published in DeccanHerald


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