Mumbai: On 14 April 2020, thousands of migrant workers gathered at Mumbai’s Bandra Terminus in the hope that normal train services will resume at the end of a nationwide 21-day lockdown meant to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, and they would be able to go home. The police had to resort to baton charges to disperse the crowd.
In the days that followed, there were gruelling stories of lakhs of migrant workers leaving the city, struggling to return to their homes.
A year later, as Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray declared another mini-lockdown last week — until 29 April — to contain the new wave of the pandemic, panicked crowds of migrants started trickling into Mumbai’s railway stations once again.
This time too, Mumbai’s migrant workers from the unorganised sectors have started heading home before the lockdown cripples their livelihoods. However, while there are no official numbers yet, the exodus this time is lower than what it was last year, government officials as well as experts say.
This year, they say, the lockdown is not as harsh and there is a reluctance to go through the same mental and monetary fatigue of scrambling to reach their homes only to be compelled to return and re-establish their livelihoods in Mumbai.
Shishir Joshi, co-founder of Project Mumbai, an NGO that has worked on various social issues arising out of the Covid pandemic, said, “About 60 per cent people who left did come back and those who came back say that they can’t afford to leave again. A lot of them faced ridicule for coming back to the city.”
He added, “This time, the exodus is also not as high as last year because the lockdown is not as severe and has not fully sunk in. Many in the slums feel that livelihood, in whatever form, is more important than their health. Last year, lockdown to virus, everything was new and scary.”
Reverse migration, then and now
Last year, a few days after the nation went into a sudden, hard lockdown on 24 March, CM Thackeray received calls from the chief ministers of West Bengal, Kerala, Bihar, Jharkhand and Punjab, among others, asking the state government to help stranded migrants from their respective state.
The Maharashtra government had no immediate reliable data on exactly how many migrant workers were stuck and where they were.
By 1 June, 12 lakh migrant workers from Maharashtra, a large number of them being from Mumbai, had left the state in the special Shramik trains that the Union Ministry of Railways eventually started operating after 1 May.
In a research analysis on the migrants’ crowding at Bandra Terminus, Sayli Udas-Mankikar, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, said social distancing and getting a one-square meal is a dream for these migrants who send remittances back to their family.
“To save costs, they take to slums where they rent up a shared space in a room or stay in a small-scale unit on a cot-basis, or a day/night basis, and use public bathrooms and toilets. Most never cook at home, and rely on local road-side food and tea stalls for their meals. All these arrangements crumbled when the COVID-19 lockdown struck, and the pressure heated up leading to gathering in Mumbai,” she wrote.
Speaking to ThePrint, Udas-Mankikar said, “Some of these issues are better taken care of this time. The fact that the government could not dare to call this a total lockdown is testimony… Whether effectively or not, the government this time had the sense to step back and think about welfare.”
A number of economic activities, which had come to a standstill last year, are functional now despite the lockdown. Restaurants have been permitted delivery services, and hawkers allowed to give takeaways. E-commerce companies, construction work, drivers, domestic help and so on are all permitted to work despite the lockdown.
At an individual level too, Mankikar said, the migrants are now taking informed calls as they know what to expect and are aware of the consequences of leaving the city.
Rajesh Prajapati, a director at Prajapati Group and functionary at CREDAI-MCHI, an industry body of developers, told ThePrint: “Last time when people were on site the government did not allow us to work. When we were allowed to work, there were no people to work. I and many like me got labour back from their home states by flights.”
He added: “This time, we appealed to the government that it would be in everyone’s interest to ensure that construction and the supply chain is not halted. We assured the government that we are ready to take all precautions, even if that means working at just 70-80 per cent capacity.”
Subsequently, a survey of 84 developers conducted by CREDAI-MCHI showed that there is not much reverse migration this year so far. It showed that there were 36,000 employers working across the construction sites of the 84 developers and only 2,100 workers had left after the government imposed its restrictions, even as 4,800 migrant workers joined these construction sites over the past two months.
Prajapati said, “Most developers who participated in the survey said the trend is similar to every year when a bunch of workers head back home after Holi when a lot of marriages take place in their native places.”
‘No concrete numbers, but no distress signals’
Speaking to ThePrint, Vinita Ved Singhal, Principal Secretary, Labour, said the government is monitoring the number of trains and buses leaving the state.
“But, annually, there is a summer rush and people go back home for the crop cutting season. There are also social functions around this time every year. So, it is difficult to establish if people are leaving because of loss of employment,” Singhal said.
“We are keenly monitoring all districts. Since modes of public transport are operational there are no distress signals. Everybody is going back with a confirmed reservation. Those who are affected and may be leaving are mostly workers in small shops, auto-rickshaw drivers. Otherwise, this time, all those involved in restaurants, cooking, packaging, delivery, stall owners, construction workers, all of them are working,” she added.
However, Ruben Mascarenhas, founder and director of Khaana Chahiye, an NGO that works towards providing food to the needy, said it would be wrong to suggest that there is no exodus happening right now.
“Last year, there was absolutely no transport, railways were shut, no buses were available. This time, the crisis is slowly growing. There is a lot of economic uncertainty… The longer the lockdown gets extended, the more support they will need,” he said.
“A steady exodus is happening and it is sad that even after a whole year migrant labourers still don’t have the confidence in Mumbai that they will be looked after,” he added.
Last year, Khana Chahiye tied up with the Mumbai civic body to distribute food and water to 5 lakh migrant workers returning to their home towns by 284 trains departing from three major railway stations in the city — Bandra Terminus, Lokmanya Tilak Terminus and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
Mumbai and its migrant workers
Mumbai, historically a port city, has been shaped by its migrants. Initially, most of Mumbai’s migrants were from areas such as Gujarat, Konkan and western Maharashtra — all parts of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency. The textile boom brought another wave of migration to the city.
After 1960, when Maharashtra came into existence, the present day Mumbai, known as Bombay then, attracted a disproportionate amount of industrial capital as compared to the rest of the country, turning it into a city of opportunity for migrants from across India. The next few decades saw the decline of Mumbai’s manufacturing sector, with a shift towards trade and commerce and the services sector.
According to a 2006 Union government report titled Employment Generation in Post Globalisation Era in Greater Mumbai, the decay of the manufacturing sector also led to a drop in employment in the formal sector and a growth in unorganised service sector jobs — entertainment, real estate, hospitality, financial services and others.
A large number of migrant labour being employed in the city’s unorganised sector is one of the main reasons why migrant workers have never been effectively able to get the government to address their problems — primarily housing, food security and healthcare.
Joshi from Project Mumbai said, “Housing is the biggest issue. Eight people stay in a single room on rent in two shifts. Last year when suddenly they found themselves locked indoors, there were 16 people under one roof.”
Lack of data biggest problem
According to the 2011 Census, 54 per cent of Mumbai’s population comprised migrants: skilled and unskilled, organised and unorganised. In 2001, this figure was 43 per cent. These figures pertain to the urban agglomeration of Mumbai, which includes the districts of Mumbai city, suburban and Thane.
State government schemes such as free housing under slum redevelopment, subsidised houses for construction workers, benefits for domestic workers, among others have done little to help the unorganised migrant labourers, primarily because of lack of data.
This lockdown, the CM has attempted to address concerns of migrant workers by announcing a relief package of over Rs 5,000 crore, under which the state will give aid to hawkers, rickshaw drivers, tribals, construction workers — all mostly migrants — as well as give free food and ration to those covered under the national food security scheme.
However, critics say large data gaps will make it impossible for the welfare measures to reach the intended beneficiaries.
Former Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam said, “The biggest problem of migrant labour in any city is that they don’t have data. You may have the mechanism to solve their problems, but you won’t be able to reach out to them.”
He added, “I don’t think any government or political party has been interested in making any database of migrants in any state or in any city.”
Mumbai’s migrant workforce did become a part of the city’s political narrative with outfits like Shiv Sena running a ‘sons of the soil’ agenda. However, Nirupam pointed out that their largely unorganised nature, and the fact that a large number of migrants are not voters here, meant they did not politically matter.
Singhal from the state labour department said governments are now making a sincere effort to create a national database of migrants with feeder states as well as recipient states involved.
“Once this wave finishes we will start an online procedure for registration. We are tying up with agencies in urban and rural Maharashtra. The fee of uploading data will be Rs 10-20 per person, extremely minimal,” she added.