Indian migrants who fled towns during lockdown return to altered reality

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Seizing their meager possessions, millions of migrants stranded in vast Indian cities have traveled hundreds of miles to the refuge of their village homes last year after the government ordered a strict lockdown from March 25 to ward off the COVID-19 pandemic.

All transport had stopped and the towns where they had found work as drivers, security guards and construction workers, among others, had abruptly closed their doors, wresting their meager means of livelihood.

India’s more than two-month shutdown – one of the strictest in the world – has led to a mass exodus of migrant workers who support the economy of big cities. Most were walking, some with children. Some cycled along deserted highways while others crowded into what few buses used to bring them home as the scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolded.

Back in their villages, life was not easy either. Kamal Singh, who drove a taxi in New Delhi, recalled how he and three others traveled to a small hill near their home in the northern state of Rajasthan before the pandemic to smash stones to sell to a handful of people who had received a government grant to build houses.

“It was summer and it was very hot during the day,” recalls Singh, whose village is near a hot desert region. “We could only work early in the morning and in the evening. But somehow we managed to fill a tractor cart to earn around $ 10 between four people. That was roughly enough to buy food for his family – his parents, his wife and two sons.

India’s vast unorganized sector supports over 90% of the country’s livelihoods. Many of them are rural migrants, who come to work in populated cities like New Delhi and Mumbai.

“This is why it is only in India, outside the major economies, that you have seen massive migration from urban to rural areas,” said Arun Kumar, former professor of economics at the University. Jawaharlal Nehru. “You haven’t seen it in the US, UK or China because they don’t have such a large unorganized sector. Moreover, nowhere does the unorganized sector experience the kind of poverty that there is in India. This is why India has been particularly affected.

The government said more than 11 million migrants moved from cities to their homes during the lockdown.

The struggle continues

A year later, Indian cities are operational and many migrants have returned to seek means of subsistence. While some have found jobs, others are struggling in cities where the pandemic has altered old patterns.

FILE – Migrant workers, desperate to return to their hometown, walk along train tracks towards a train station in Ahmedabad, India, May 11, 2020.

Singh returned last month to take over the operation of his cab, which he bought two and a half years ago after taking out a $ 6,000 loan. He used to bring in a good income, but the new standard of working from home has left him with few clients. This is no surprise – the streets of the Gurugram business center near Delhi, once crowded with cars and taxis, are largely deserted. “I hardly got around and could barely cover my taxi expenses,” he said.

Unable to repay his monthly loan payments, a dispirited Singh finally sold the taxi this month. He now has a temporary job as a driver.

The economy is suffering

The economic crisis triggered by the pandemic triggered the worst recession India has seen in decades. The country also experienced the largest decline among the world’s major economies. While the overall economy is expected to contract nearly 8% over the past year, the drop was much more pronounced during the tight lockdown from April to June, when it fell around 24%.

This caused more hardship than the war, says Kumar, author of a book called “The Greatest Crisis in Indian Economy”.

“What happens during war is that everyone is busy fighting, producing for war, etc. But here, because people are not working, there is enormous unemployment. And that is why the economy has fallen very sharply. “

Migrant workers wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus leave for work in Kochi, Kerala state, India on February 18, 2021.

Migrant workers wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus leave for work in Kochi, Kerala state, India on February 18, 2021.

Jobs are slowly picking up as the economy recovers – India posted modest growth from October to December and, according to a recent economic survey, the recovery is expected to accelerate in the coming year.

Arun Yadav, 26, who lost his job at a food counter at New Delhi airport during the lockdown, was hired at another counter two months ago. In his village in Uttar Pradesh, where he moved after losing his job, times were tough.

“I tried to do something that would bring in an income and help the family, but there was nothing I could do because of the lockdown. It was very hard, ”Yadav recalls. ” Now all is fine. I even repaid the loans I had taken out during the lockdown.

But the pandemic has left its scars on migrants worried about whether cities will offer them the same opportunities as in pre-pandemic times. Kumar said recent estimates suggest that around 20% of those who lost their jobs during the pandemic are still looking for work.

And as India, which has had the third highest number of COVID-19 infections in the world, grapples with a second wave in parts of the country, concerns are again high over what the future holds us, especially since its most industrialized state, Maharashtra, is the epicenter of the new outbreak.

Economists warn that although Indian cities have largely resumed normal activity, another epidemic will set back hopes of a rapid recovery.

Those who have suffered in the past know only too well what this means.

“There is always the fear in my heart to assume that another problem like this arises, how are we going to cope especially if our family is growing,” said Yadav, who married two years ago. years.

This is a question that will linger for a long time with these migrants.

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