Convert ‘Black Swan’ of migration into advantage


Sixty-seven years ago, legendary Bollywood actor Balraj Sahni played the role of a rickshawpuller in the film Do Bigah Zameen. Shambu Mahato, the rickshaw-puller, was forced to migrate to Calcutta to earn money and repay Rs 235 loan on his small piece of land in his native village. The critically acclaimed black-andwhite movie was made by Bimal Roy.

The movie won several national and international awards. More than half a century has passed since its release but today in real life workers continue to migrate not to cities but to their native villages with same uncertainty and hope. A movie depicts popular culture and it documents the prevailing poverty of an era. Do Bigah Zameen was an outcome of the initial stages of parallel cinema in India. It was based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore called Dui Bigha Jomi.

That cinema had then left indelible impressions in the minds of Indians. The story painted a sordid contemporary picture as the protagonist despite his best efforts in the end failed to repay his loan even in postIndependent India. More than half a century later in Covid-19 lockdown the images of migrant workers trudging highways due to initial inadequacy of state transport, in this heat with all their belongings wrapped in a sack kept on their heads are playing out yet again. His wife holding little children in both her hands and old ailing mother trailing far behind once again are giving goose bumps to all Indians.

It is clearly a testimony that the black-and-white thoughtprovoking film was not taken as seriously as it should have been over the decades. Curiously enough why is it that we don’t get to see such cinema portraying the plight of poor any more these days? Is it because we Indians don’t wish to watch the prevailing conditions or the filmmakers have relegated the subject to the back of their mind?

Anyways whatever be the reason news media has been doing its job and continuously showing migrant worker’s miserable condition and their heart-wrenching tales unfolding day by day — a little girl child playing with a blanket, which covered her mother’s body at a railway station, without realising that her mother was dead. The mother was a migrant worker, who died due to starvation and dehydration during her train travel back to Bihar.

A 15-year-old “Lionhearted” Jyoti Kumari biking her injured father, a migrant worker for 1,200 km from Gurugram to Darbhanga. Every Indian must have heard a story or two of the pathetic experience of migrant worker known to them — maybe a house maid, driver, plumber or a security guard. Some of them also narrated extraordinary experiences of support they got from good Samaritans during migration en route their native places.

On reaching their homes they had some good stories to share about how people offered them food, water and kadha (soup of herbs) at the grassroots level. Two days ago, the government had informed the Supreme Court fifty lakh workers have been transported via trains and forty-one lakh through buses to Bihar and UP and other states. The question is: Has India been grateful to our migrant work force, which has massively contributed to capital investment and nation building over decades since Independence? 

Has the country given them a decent life? The point lies in the fact that in spite of the government’s best intentions why did 97 lakh migrant workers had to reverse migrate to their native places? This needs a deep probe at both at government and administrative level. The system which made poor suffer needs a fresh pragmatic approach. Whenever a migrating worker was asked by a mediaperson why he had decided to go back to the native place, his answer was it was better for him to starve to death in his native place.

“Marna hai toh ghar ki mitti mein hi marenge” (if one has to die, we will die in our native place), this was the usual reply. Actually, the reason for this change of mind could also be the high probability of their availing sustainable informal credit due to the ancestral linkages with the native place. However, one of the biggest factors for migrant workers reverse movement has been to enable them to avail government relief. In order to take those government benefits they will have to go to their native places.

Majority of Aadhar Cards and Jan Dhan accounts are registered in their permanent addresses and not their temporary city addresses. In cities they don’t even cast their votes and hence it doesn’t suit local authorities to support them both administratively and politically. Almost eighty per cent of rickshaw-pullers in Delhi are from Vaishali, Hajipur and Samastipur, three districts of Bihar. These people have no fixed addresses or legal backing. So, it would not be wrong to say that the countrywide system of identification of urban poor is problematic. The identification of poor is unfortunately native place based.

BPL card design is not made keeping in mind the migration factor. It is well known fact that workers migrate due to lack of opportunities in their native places. Reverse migration is happening at places which do not have enough employment opportunities such as UP and Bihar. To cap it all states where reverse migration is happening are poorer than the poor themselves.

The opposition has been critical of the government for not making direct cash transfer of Rs 7,500 into the bank accounts of the workers. Even some BJP leaders believe not doing direct cash transfer is a blunder and it has led to reverse migration and now there is no labour left and this would in turn lead to crisis in kick-starting economy post the lockdown. The government has a different take on this. There were no omissions in the relief design but have been offered as per a well thought of strategy, a calculated judgement.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said the Pradhan Mantri Gharib Kalyan Yojana and all other relief schemes were formulated after extensive discussions with experts, economists, students, formal officials and the government. And a sizeable amount of money has been transferred to various groups under direct cash transfer. But at this stage of uncertainty no one knows how much is enough and the government is also open to the idea of monetisation.

Government dilemma is that if it goes for the total direct cash transfer relief schemes and doesn’t go via banks route, it will have to borrow money. This will in turn increase the fiscal deficit and will lead to further downgrade of ratings by the rating agencies. It also needs to control the fiscal deficit situation, which has been worsening since mid-eighties. Some economists though believe that in times of crisis and disasters increase in public spending could lead to recovery of the economy. The logic is in times of crisis only the government is confident of investment and not the private players.

But the government has taken a conscious view on this issue. The larger question, however, is that has Covid-19 led to a permanent reverse migration, an opposite of urbanisation. Nobody seems to have the answer to this question as of now. But the signals coming from the Centre and state governments indicate that the planning for worst-case scenario has already begun to accommodate and absorb migrant workers in their native states.

Initially some states were reluctant to take back their natives in the absence of proper testing, fearing spread of the virus and were apprehensive whether their infrastructure was not good enough to accommodate all. By and by that phase is now over and states have come to terms that they have no option but to accommodate those returning.

But the question is post-lockdown will states help those migrant workers who wish to go back to work in cities? Or would they prefer to convert them into assets and absorb them within the states? Movement of migrant workers to their native homes is not just leading to medical, social and economic situations but also tensions within families. In Gorakhpur’s Muslim family a brother opposed return of their younger brother’s along with his wife and children. The elder brother feared that he would have to share the house with the brother. So, the elder brother provoked the neighbours saying his younger brother may have been infected by Tablighi Jamaatis so he should not be allowed in the village.

The younger brother was left in the lurch. Similarly, in a Bihar family two brothers fought among themselves over property after a brother who is a migrant worker returned home after twenty years. So, in such a scenario, what are the options before the state government? UP CM Yogi Adityanath has been talking about PDS ration card having all-India portability so that workers could get free ration anywhere in the country.

But this would help only if workers choose to go back to industrial cities for work after all the trauma they have gone through. With all sincerity the UP government has set up a Labour Commission. Apparently, this commission will collect data on migrant workers arriving from various states. The government has also approached four big companies, which have assured employment of 10 to 15 lakh migrant workers. The commission is also tasked with collection of data for proper management in case there is another Black Swan in the future.

The state government has also set up Task Force to attract foreign investment due to opportunities arising out of companies contemplating shifting out of China. The government also has an option of exploring the possibility of employing the inbound workers in the Defence Corridor supposed to come up in Bundelkhand area. Also gainfully employ them at the Jewar airport and the mini-city which is bound to come up around the international airport.

State governments will also have to open more opportunities of work under MGNREGA due to increase in wages. New labour reforms will promote ease of doing business and this may attract investment in industrially backward states. Mentally preparing migrant workers for the labour law reforms is an exercise which needs to be done effectively by state governments.

But the key lies in communication. State governments will have to effectively communicate to migrant workers about the way forward for them. Data is the key and if it is properly collected and utilised it could have revolutionary effects. Mao’s Cultural Revolution had changed the mindset of workers in China. In India it’s not just the mindset and attitude towards work but there is also a need for their skill development.

In this regard the Skill India scheme could play an important role. The government in UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal should invest heavily in human capital just like China and Vietnam did. According to a World Bank report, human capital level in UP and Bihar is pretty low and needs to major improvement in productivity and efficiency. Almost eighty per cent of India’s 470 million workers are in informal sector. The state governments with assistance from the Centre should start organised training programmes for skill development post-lockdown so that workers lead a decent life.

Another sector which due to the fallout could enhance productivity is agriculture; there is a need to focus there with a strengthened work force. The question also arises in this reverse migration scenario while migrant workers are absorbed in the states: what should industrial cities be doing in long term if workers refuse to return? Should they opt for permanent automation solutions like Europe did? One thing is for sure that the Centre should come up with a comprehensive labour policy so that whenever there is another Black Swan India is better prepared.

Black Swan term is popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a finance professor, writer and former Wall Street trader. According to him, Black Swans are large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequences. Such events hijack our brains, making us feel we almost predicted them, because they are retrospectively explainable. We don’t realise the role of these Swans in life because of this illusion of predictability. He says life is more labyrinthine than shown in our memory — our minds are in the business of turning history into something smooth and linear, which makes us underestimate randomness.

But when we see it, we fear it and overreact. Due to this fear and thirst for order, some human systems, by disrupting the invisible or not so visible logic of things, tend to be exposed to harm from Black Swans and almost never get any benefit. You get pseudo-order when you seek order; you only get a measure of order and control when you embrace randomness.

Four decades ago, India was grappling with the situation of urbanisation, now it has to deal with reverse exodus. So, the Black Swan of Covid-19, a condition where medical crisis has accentuated economic crisis, could be converted into a turning point for India to become a superpower provided all the right moves are made.