In February this year, Md Shabbir Ansari travelled with his family back home to Giridih, Jharkhand, and after dropping them, returned to Delhi to look for work. Fired from his job repairing cars in Ghaziabad, Ansari could no longer afford the rent for his family of six at Karkardooma in Delhi.
Speaking to his wife Nahid, over the phone from Delhi, Ansari says he is about to lose the new job he had got in March, working for Ola, as well. The owner of the car has told him to look elsewhere. “Cases are rising again and I’m sitting empty-handed. I am going to come back to Jharkhand in 10 days if things continue like this,” says Ansari, 24.
“We had asked the Jharkhand government for help during the first lockdown. They didn’t do anything,” says Nahid Parveen, 21. Married for two years, she adds, “I wanted to stay back in Delhi with him. Who would choose to stay without their husband? I had just started to understand the city, kya hisaab hai, kya kitaab hai (the basics).”
Now she wants Ansari to make his way back as quickly as he can. “Only we know what it was like during the first lockdown. We don’t want that again.”
While there is no such official nationwide data, experts note that the migration back to workplaces since the end of the first lockdown has been increasingly single, male migration, leaving families behind. As mini-lockdowns again start, this could have a bearing on what happens now.
In Ranchi, at the Jharkhand Labour Department’s migrant control room run by NGO Phia Foundation, volunteers are fielding an escalating number of phone calls from migrants. On Tuesday, two called to say they will be coming back from Maharashtra; on Wednesday, they got reports of 20 construction workers returning from Pune. Head of the control room Shikha Lakra says the cell had records of 16,000 migrants who had returned to their workplaces (of the estimated 10 lakh who came back to Jharkhand during the initial lockdown). “We have seen women were very reluctant to go back.”
Jharkhand Joint Labour Commissioner Rakesh Prasad says, “Men have been leaving and women are not willing to take the risk to go far this time. The next challenge is to see what happens in this second wave, how to cope.”
Mukta Naik, who studies urbanisation and internal migration at the Centre for Policy Research, talks about one possible change. “While mini-lockdowns will hit livelihoods again, migrants who are alone may be more flexible about survival.”
Benoy Peter, Executive Director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, expects a rise in gender disparity and disruption of education. “We are especially seeing this in case of long-distance travel… When only one person returns to work and the family stays back, this has huge implications on gender disparity and continuation of education.”
These trends may increase as local lockdowns spread. Mahesh Gajera, who works in Ahmedabad with migration-focused NGO Aajeevika Bureau, says those who had returned with their families to Gujarat are thinking of dropping them home before searching for work. “For the past seven days, workers have not had work. There has only been minor movement in the past two days but some 70% of the workers I talk to are in the mood to leave.”
In other states as well, family migration is being replaced with single person travelling. Basant Kumar, who works in Dantewada for the Transformation of Aspirational Districts Programme run by the Home Affairs Ministry, says the fall in family migration has disrupted children’s education the most.
“We saw seasonal migrants kept their families together because they were set to come back anyway,” says Umi Daniel who looks after migration for Aide et Action from Bhubaneswar. “But those who were more semi-permanent migrants who used to go with families, the industry urgently wanted people back and the buses that I’ve seen… families couldn’t fit.”
The trend may continue, he says. “Those in Maharashtra — Nashik, Pune — who are with their families, they are asking about transportation options out of fear of networks shutting down. They want to bring their families back home.”
Gulam Rabani Ansari, a construction worker, was on a train from Pune to Giridih Wednesday, returning just four months after having joined work back in the city. He says he has heard from others that the new lockdown could go on for two months. “I can’t say when I’ll be back, if at all. Now I just want to work in Jharkhand, whatever it is.”