What If Migrant Workers Don’t Return? Jean Drèze Explains Crisis

VIDEO: Economist Jean Drèze explains the migrant workers’ crisis, looming livelihood crisis & labour supply crisis.

Updated
India
3 min read

Camera: Mainak Das
Video Editor:
Ashutosh Bharadwaj
Production Assistant:
Ujjwal Raaj Sen
Producer:
Indira Basu

Even as distressing news emerges from Karnataka about the BS Yediyurappa government cancelling all trains, that were to ferry migrant workers to their hometowns – thus, leaving thousands of workers stranded and anxious – other reports continue to surface of homeward-bound migrant workers being turned away at sealed borders across the country.

With the migrant workers’ crisis continuing – weeks after the first lockdown was first announced, leading to panic-induced mass exodus of workers across the country – The Quint caught up with economist and activist Jean Drèze.

Working with ration shops and activists to ensure essentials – especially food – to marginalised groups in Jharkhand amid the coronavirus-induced lockdown, Drèze was able to send this reporter a video interview, from the state’s Latehar district, about 110 km from capital Ranchi.

Below are edited excerpts from the interview:

What makes migrant workers travel far away from their homes, to seek work outside?

On the subject of migrant workers, perhaps we can talk a little bit about the area, Latehar district in Jharkhand, that sends a huge numbers of workers to different parts of India, at different times of the year. And the first question that arises is, Why do so many people have to go out of this area to find a livelihood?

Why is the local economy not better developed? There are all kinds of resources in Jharkhand, that could be used and developed to ensure greater prosperity and wellbeing for the people. And, unfortunately, these resources are not sufficiently being developed in the interest of people who live here; instead, the mineral resources of the state and in particular of Latehar district, like bauxite, coal, are being sold to companies and the central government without benefiting the people very much. And that is why the workers have to migrate to survive.

‘Migrant Workers Have Lost Livelihood, Can’t Send Money to Feed Their Kin’

Has there been a ripple effect of the migrant workers’ crisis amid lockdown?

Because of the lockdown, suddenly, the migrant workers have lost their jobs and livelihood. Now, that creates a crisis, not just for the migrant workers themselves, but also, very importantly, for their families. Because the families of the migrant workers in Latehar – that consist largely of women, children and old people, survive, very importantly, on the money that these migrant workers send to them.

And now, many of them are not even able to send money, because they are themselves struggling to survive. So, you can imagine the state of these families, who don’t have any substantial means of earning of their own. How anxious they must be to feed themselves, and how they must be wondering about how long this is going to last.

Will Migrant Workers Resume Migrating After Lockdown?

What will become of the migrant workers post-lockdown?

Obviously, sooner or later, these migrant workers, or most of them, will reach their homes and their families because that is what they seem to be desperate to do. And then after that, the question is, are they going to resume migrating?

I have talked to some of them in this area, and basically they are saying that ‘look, we cannot manage without some work outside the area, but we are not going to go very far, at least not for the time being. We are going to look for work in let us say, the district headquarters, or maybe in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, but we are not going to venture far and wide for some time, as we used to do.’

This is going to create a big crisis of livelihoods in states like Jharkhand and Bihar.

‘We Are Looking at a Very Serious Crisis of Livelihood’

What impact will there be on labour supply and livelihoods?

We are going to see a huge swelling soon, of the labour supply, as the migrant workers prefer to stay here rather than migrate again. So, they are going to look for whatever wages they can find in this area... go for survival activities like pulling a rickshaw, or chopping some wood in the forest, and selling it in the local market.

And the earnings from these activities are obviously going to be very low, because so many people are trying to survive in that manner. So, we are looking at a very serious crisis of livelihood, that is going to last for some time.

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