The virus erupted from Wuhan City (China) at the end of December, 2019 spread to all other part of the world within days and caused a global crisis within a month. The virus named COVID-19 affected the economy bringing almost all operation in standstill position as to avoid fast spread of the virus. All factories, business establishment, construction, educational Institutions and also government offices were shut down for indefinite period. In India Prime minister announced a complete lockdown to counter the crisis. The Real Estate sector which is the third largest employment provider was greatly affected as this sector has maximum number of contract migrant workers. Millions of Migrant workers had to face loss of income and many of them along with their families went hungry. All mode of transport were put off the road causing thousands of these migrant workers began walking back to their villages with the hope that they will be able to at least get some support in their own people in village. The crisis caused many deaths ranging from starvation, suicides, and exhaustion, road and rail accidents. They even faced police brutality and denial of timely medical care.
Central and state government along with support of large number of NGOs tried their best to provide free food packets and other facilities to these migrant workers but since the migrant workers are highly unorganized and scattered in different locations, it was difficult to maintain any uniformity in distribution system. Most migrant workers are from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh followed by west Bengal, Orissa, and Jharkhand etc. Majority of these migrant workers are daily- wage earners working in the manufacturing and Real Estate Construction projects. They are deprived of proper health care, nutrition, housing and sanitation. Mumbai, Delhi, Delhi NCR and other metro cities attract maximum number of migrant workers in India. Though there is inter-state Migrant workmen Act, 1979 but there is no central registry of these migrant workers. According to government reports, there was enough food grain stocked up in the FCI godowns to feed the poor for at least a year-and-a-half. While government schemes ensured that the poor would get additional rations due to the lockdown, the distribution system failed to be effective as the ration cards are area-specific and fair price shops were largely inaccessible In most of the cases these migrant workers shift from villages in search of employment to support their families. They do not have a proper place to live and they make temporary sheds (shanties) near the project sites.
Exodus of Migrant Workers from Cities
Due to massive food shortage, complete income loss pressure from land lords for rent payments and uncertain future, migrant workers became desperate to go back to their native villages. Lockdown restrictions putting a stop to public transport, thousands of migrant workers were seen walking or bicycling hundreds of kilometers (or even more than a thousand kilometers) to go back to their native villages, some with their families. A survey published by ‘The Hindu’ states that 96% migrant workers did not get rations from the government, and 90% of them did not receive wages during the lockdown. However, many private organizations with the help of NGOs tried to support the these workers with free food distribution and arranged transport for them to reach their respective villages, though their efforts are highly appreciable but it is like a drop in the ocean, as all migrants couldn’t possibly be supported unless there is a complete government machinery to extend help in an organized manner. The exodus was mainly due to starvation. In addition these migrants felt that in their villages at least they will be able to return to farming and get some small jobs under MGNREGA (The Mahatma Gandhi National. Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India.)
Govt. made some relaxation on June, 2020 allowing construction work to resume adhering to some strict safety rules. The Migrant workers who had gone back to their native villages did not get sufficient support from government schemes and also employment in agricultural field was scarce. Large number of migrant workers especially in the construction industry returned back in thousands. A study showed that 77% of the workers who had gone back to their native village were not prepared to return back to the cities where construction projects were facing acute shortage of labour. Some employers sponsored the travel of migrants back to their workplaces. This included taxis, trains and even flights.
In March end Central Ministry of home affairs ordered states to use the National Disaster Response Funds (NDRF) for providing food and shelter to Migrant workers and also gave sweeping orders directing that the landlords should not demand rent during the period of lockdown and employers should pay wages without deduction, also asked state governments to set up immediate relief camps for the migrant workers. On 16 May, the government announced the National Migrant Information System (NMIS), an online database created by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). This was to help streamline the movement of the migrant workers. Soon after the directive from the central Government in March, state government set up thousands of relief can for these migrant workers to provide shelter to lakhs of migrant workers to stop exodus. There were many large construction companies who also provided support to their site workers by providing free shelters, food and sanitation, which helped these real estate companies to retain the migrant workers.
Though the pandemic is far from over but normalization in work place is returning back to normal. It is yet to be seen as how much more time it will take to bring things and more specifically the economy on track. People are slowly getting used to the pandemic situation and trying to lead their normal activities keeping the social distancing, using face mask and sanitizers. The fear of Corona Virus seems to be reducing from the minds of people though COVID-19 cases have marginally dropped. Govt. is also playing a safe game for protecting the economy!
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