Lockdown Impact: What Now for Returning Migrant Workers ?

M.K. Touthang *

All sociological studies on internal migration in India have so far focused on rural-urban migration due to the twin effects of agriculture distress in rural areas (push factor) and the economic opportunities in urban areas due to globalisation, urbanisation and other employment opportunities (pull factor).

However, COVID19 lockdown has resulted in an unprecedented reverse urban-rural migration across the country. The tiny state of Manipur, with a population of just over 28 Lakhs, is also witness to this reverse trend of migration as it has one of highest proportion of migrants scattered across all the cities of India.

Faced with the specter of unemployment and hunger due to the lockdown, thousands of these migrants have been forced to return home. The Govt. of Manipur has taken the right (and humane) decision of bringing home these migrants regardless of the risks.

Obviously, there has been a spike in the number of COVID19 positive cases after their arrival, but it is hoped that necessary arrangements are made for timely detection of infections and prevention of unchecked community spread in the state.

One question that arises out of this unprecedented situation is, "what now for these returning migrants?" To answer this, it is necessary to understand the general profile of these migrant workers.

The common thread binding this group of people into a homogeneous social group is the lack of qualification and skill-set (be it in terms of university qualification or even vocational) that would qualify them as "highly skilled-labour" who are sought after by employers.

They are normally employed in the unorganised sector like retail showrooms, supermarkets, restaurants and fast-food outlets, or even spa/massage parlours and the like. At an age where even IIT and IIM graduates are considered "unemployable" by several blue-chip MNCs, this group of work-force are at best, dispensable to their employers.

It therefore, comes as no surprise that these were the worst affected lot when the nation-wide lockdown was initiated and all commercial business operations came to a standstill. As it were, they are already lowly paid and exploited upon by their employers, and with little or no savings, they were literally on the verge of starvation until the state government arranged for their safe passage back home.

This leads us back to the million-dollar question - what now for these returning migrant workers? At the risk of sounding cliche, I would say that this is one of those "easier said than done" kind of situations.

To start with, some of them may experience psychological or adjustment problems - not unlike the withdrawal syndrome experienced by recovering drug/alcohol addicts - because they have been used to earning their own livelihood and living a life of their freewill devoid of any external control.

However, back home, they are now bereft of their source of income and they shall be subject to the constant monitoring and control of their parents, relatives and village or church institutions. In the long run, they may also contribute to a certain level of "cultural changes" given their prolonged exposure to the lifestyle of metro cities.

For example, club/party culture is very much prevalent in cities; if this culture is adopted back home, it would be an unfortunate transposition of the vices of the metros in our beloved home state.

From a constructive viewpoint, I would say the returning migrant workers have a lot more to offer. At the minimum, it is hoped that they would have observed and learned a few things about the business operations in which they were employed in the cities.

For example, a salesgirl/boy in a retail showroom would have been given some sort of training, however rudimentary it may be, about how to attract customers, how to keep the books of accounts, and how to organise/display the products, etc. The same may be true of a host/hostess in the restro-bars or any of the fast food chains.

With the right perspective and support, they can open their own businesses - however small to begin with - in the retail business or food and hospitality sector right here in our home state.

In this context, our state enjoys an invaluable advantage of easy access to the products of South-East Asian countries through Moreh; import and distribution of foreign-made clothing, footwear, household and electronic goods can become a lucrative business if the logistic bottlenecks are redressed.

It is very easy these days to reach millions of customers across the country by leveraging the e-commerce platforms like Flipkart and Amazon, and it is well-known that most of the products available on these portals are made in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.

There is also the option of returning to our roots - agriculture - in tune with the changing times. If COVID19 lockdown has taught us one universal lesson, it is the need to have self-reliance in the most basic human need, food production.

What better satisfaction one can derive (amidst the lockdown) other than feasting on freshly plucked vegetables from your kitchen garden! There is a huge market for organic farm produces these days, and the kind of soil we have in Manipur is really fertile and nutritious for any kind of agricultural crops.

Various self-help groups (like SEVA, KEDO, etc.) have taken initiative in this regard in the past, and the same can be replicated and expanded across the state. Handloom/weaving are some of the other traditional areas where modernisation and commercialisation can take place with the right kind of leadership and support from the state.

In fact, the State Government has a big role to play in rehabilitating the returning migrant workers. State employment exchange may be revamped and made more accessible and beneficial for all.

The State must ensure that all central assistance schemes and other DRDA schemes are implemented without any institutional leakage; of late, it is observed that all these schemes are hijacked by one or the other 'organised armed groups' of the state. Vocational training institutes must be reformed and expanded across all districts and courses must be made freely accessible to all needy candidates.

Above all, access to financial capital must be made available through grants or small business loans from co-operative or other commercial banks.

In short, the State Government must ramp up the infrastructure and ecosystem required for all citizens to promote entrepreneurship, self-employment and income generation within the boundaries of the state itself, rather than migrating to far off alien cities filled with risks and insecurities.

For instance, the law and order situation must be brought to a level where investors feel secure enough to pump in investments in the state; this way, retail chains like Big Bazar, Reliance, Pantaloons, McDonald's, etc. can be convinced to open their outlets in the state.

COVID19 has given an opportunity for the State government to rise to the occasion and strive towards becoming a 'welfare state' in the true sense by providing its citizens the ways and means to earn their livelihood in the security of their own homes.

* M.K. Touthang, IDAS , wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at mktouthang(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on June 18 2020 .

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