In his meeting with the chief ministers on Monday, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi — for the first time — spoke about the crisis of migrant workers that has engulfed the country since the lockdown was imposed. He said that the government had urged the workers to stay where they were, but it was “human nature” to want to go home. But the PM, correctly, flagged two major challenges that will now crop up. The first is for states which the migrant workers have left. As economic activity resumes, there will be a severe shortage of labour in these regions. The second is for the home states, to which workers are returning. These regions, the PM acknowledged, did not have enough jobs — which is why migration had happened in the first place. They will now have to create opportunities. These states also will have to ensure that the return of workers does not lead to the spread of the disease, particularly in rural areas.
What the PM underlined is a hugely significant moment in the political economy of labour markets in India. There is a view that these are unusual times; and workers who have gone home or are now returning will eventually come back, given economic compulsions. This may be true. But what is undeniable is that the past month has been a scarring experience for millions of workers. The relationship between businesses and workers has broken down — with the latter resentful about how employers did not provide requisite food and cash to help them tide over the crisis. The relationship between the State and workers has also got undermined — with the latter losing faith in the ability of governments to provide them a social safety net at a time of crisis. In this backdrop, all that they feel they can rely on are their families and community networks back home. They may live with less, but getting them back to cities will not be smooth.
There is a clear geographical dimension to this too. It is southern and western states which have been the recipients of the workers in larger numbers. And it is the northern and eastern states which have sent these workers. This, in a way, is the key economic faultline in India, for the northern and eastern states have more exploitative agrarian relations, low industrial growth, and absence of opportunities. While this is a crisis, the north and east must use this as an opportunity to rebuild their economies even as the south and the west find new innovative ways to grow.