Lockdown Badly Planned, Here’s What Migrant Workers Need: IIM Prof

Professor Chinmay Tumbe explains why the nationwide lockdown implemented by the Modi government was poorly planned.

6 min read

Video editor: Veeru Krishan Mohan

“You’re giving four hours’ notice for the nationwide lockdown. We got more notice for the janata curfew and the plate-banging event than for migrant workers, tens of millions of them, to go back home.”
Chinmay Tumbe, professor at IIM-Ahmedabad

In an interview to The Quint, Chinmay Tumbe, an Economics professor at IIM-Ahmedabad and the author of ‘India Moving: A History of Migration’, explains why the nationwide lockdown implemented by the Modi government was poorly planned, and lists out suggestions for the Centre to help improve the plight of migrant workers.

Tumbe, a former member of the Centre’s Working Group on Migration in 2016, also breaks down why it should have been “common sense” for the government to expect that millions of migrant workers would rush to leave for their hometowns and villages in such a situation, and argues that the suffering unleashed upon them could have been avoided.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

‘We Were More Sensitive to International Travellers Than Migrant Workers’

What are your thoughts on the exodus of migrants that we witnessed after the lockdown was announced, with many of them travelling hundreds of kilometres on foot?

Chinmay Tumbe: I think it's just been a terrible oversight. If you see the actions taken by the Indian government, we were much more sensitive to international migration and travel. I think we should have given some time to migrant workers to go back home.

There’s clearly been a shortfall in expert advice on the lockdown speech and the lockdown planning. I think that the lockdown speech could have been written out much better. There was really no assurance on jobs, on food, for migrant workers, in that speech.

It's fairly common sense that if you announce a lockdown and assure only supplies are there but no assurances on wages, no assurances on other stuff like accommodation, a huge part of India's circular migrant workforce is going to get very frightened and will try and get home. And if there's no transport option, they're going to walk. That's exactly what we've seen.


Chinmay Tumbe: The government realised its mistake after four days, and on 29 March, they came out with a new circular and a new order, providing assurances to migrant workers to not go home. But the fear (among migrant workers about their immediate well-being) is still there.

Hopefully, some lessons are being learned right now for future crises. If India is ever faced with such a situation in the future, there should be a clear manual guide in place. That is if you're bracing yourself for lockdown, a) keep migrant workers' concerns right up on the priority list, and so on.

‘Exodus of Migrants Was Expected’

Why did so many migrant workers undertake such long walks home instead of remaining in the cities?

Chinmay Tumbe: One has to understand the psychology of the circular migrant worker. The person comes from a village or a small town to a big city because there's economic security in the city in terms of wages.

But the social security, and there are two kinds of social security – the family, and of course, government-provided social security which comes in terms of the PDS, ration cards. Now, all of that is in the source.

Any form of private or public social security is back home but economic security in terms of jobs is in the city.

Now, when you announce a lockdown, when there’s no work – a lot of these workers are daily wage workers, there are no assurances whether wages would be paid, how much would be deducted, etc. – the economic security angle vanishes. So, obviously, the migrants are thinking about social security and that’s why the journey back home.

That's a very simple psychology to understand and that's what's made millions of these migrant workers move.


‘Will Worsen the Jobs Crisis’

India was already reeling from a jobs crisis.
India was already reeling from a jobs crisis.
(Photo: AP)

India was already reeling from a jobs crisis. How will the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis further impact unemployment?

Chinmay Tumbe: It's just catastrophic. Because now, even exports have been hit massively. Unemployment was anyway at a 45-year high before this particular event. So, what we're going to see is a massive spike in joblessness.

Trade export centres like Tirupur and Surat, which depend on international trade, have been hit badly.

So, this is probably the best time to roll out a massive social security net, sort of like a New Deal of the Great Depression which the Americans had done. I think, outside of that, I really don’t see any way in which the economy is going to get some sort of a safety net.

Because otherwise, you're just looking at human misery, poverty levels spiking up (which has not really happened in a long time), you're going to see unemployment levels spike up.

The government just needs to be spending much more in the coming months, and probably the next two years.

‘Centre Should Advance Rollout of One Nation, One Ration Card Scheme’

What measures would you suggest the government undertake in order to address the adverse economic impact of this crisis, on migrant workers?

Chinmay Tumbe: What should be done in the immediate few weeks? I think India has a great opportunity to finally leverage a universal social security scheme. This is called the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme, which is scheduled to be brought out by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs and so on in June 2020.

‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ is a way to universalise social security, so that you don’t have to go back home to access your ration, etc. You can access your social security anywhere in India. It is on a per capita (per person) basis – so the migrant’s family can access food back home and the migrant can access subsidised food in the city.

It's been announced. Some pilot schemes have been run. It should be released in June. In fact, now people are saying it might be postponed because of the current crisis.

I think it should be brought forward. I think in April itself, we should start a massive rollout of this One Nation, One Ration Card scheme. Precisely because we know for a fact that so many people are stuck in other parts of India.

Now, de facto, of course on the ground, people are saying that irrespective of whether you have a ration card or not, you'll get access to food. I think this is a great time to roll out this policy in full measure so that whatever gaps one sees can be rectified in the coming months.

‘Ensure Benefits to Migrant Workers Who Are Still in the Cities’

Chinmay Tumbe: This migrant crisis is not over. For those migrants who are still there, ensure that the orders which were announced on 29 March are fully implemented. It's very tough to implement.

Ensure Wages Are Paid by Employers

Ensure that the wages for the month should not be deducted. I think that's a very, very important thing that has to be communicated to employers.

Ensure Rent Is Waived by Landlords

And most importantly, the rental accommodation waiver which has been announced by the government, which means that landlords should be waiving off one month's rent for migrant workers.

I think these would really be some solid steps towards alleviating the plight of migrant workers.

Right now, the needs are really on the ground level. It's one thing to say direct cash transfer benefits and so on, but people don't want to walk to banks without transport, get the money and so on. They just want to have access to assured food supplies for the day. I think that should be the task of the district-level administrations for the next two weeks of this particular lockdown.


And it should be given to workers irrespective of whether they hold their ration cards, right?

Chinmay Tumbe: Absolutely. That's what the Delhi government has done; that's what Telangana is claiming, that irrespective of who you are, we will take care of you. And this is what should have been in the lockdown speech. That would have reduced the need for instant flight.

For example, the RBI made a speech that “we will do what it takes”. I think that’s a very powerful message to the financial markets, and that’s what the Government of India should have done as well for migrant workers.

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