Helping migrants move from plate to plough

It’s Modi’s moment to capitalise on reverse migration


May 18, 2020

/ By / Pune

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The reverse migration of workers from cities to their villages can become an opportunity if properly handled (MIG Photos/Varsha Singh)

With millions of migrant workers heading back to their villages following the lockdown, the moment is ripe for India to go back to its roots and make villages truly self-reliant.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is at his best when dealing with a crisis. Because he knows how to transform the crisis into the opportunity. The Covid-19 pandemic compelled him literally to lockdown the world’s largest democracy with advance warning of just about four hours. That triggered a unprecedented and unplanned  reverse migration of tens of millions of internal migrants, with little clear data on the exact numbers of people out on the roads or taking the trains to go back to their village. They are travelling by bus, train and even walking from their temporary shelters in the cities. The highways in India have become footways. Never before has India witnessed such exodus anywhere any time.

According to media reports, the last time India had witnessed such mass displacement was at the time of partition in 1947, compelled by the partition. The displacement of population  from both India and Pakistan was estimated to be smaller, not more than 12 million. Even in 1970s, during the third Indo-Pak war, about 10 million refugees are believed to have fled to India from the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

But both these migrations were sporadic and unplanned with the migrants entirely unsure of where they wanted to go or where they could make their new homes. This time around, the internal migrants are on a reverse migration, fleeing the place of their work and going back to their villages, rejoining their families.

Interestingly, but relevant to Covid-19, a reverse migration, albeit due to totally different reasons, took place in China in early days of 2020 when the coronavirus was beginning to take hold not just in China, but in many other countries. That was the annual large-scale reverse migration that takes place on annual basis during China’s Lunar New Year holidays when hundreds of millions of Chinese workers, perhaps many more than India’s migrant workers, travel from cities to their homes in villages, by trains and air to celebrate new year with their families during 40 days of vacation. At this time, the entire country literally goes under a yearly workplace lockdown, shutting practically all factories and businesses. This year the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday began on January 10, at a time when the coronavirus was spreading and China was still guessing the possible consequences. In any case,  social distancing was just not possible during such massive rush of estimated three billion trips, though Chinese authorities had advised the travellers to be cautious. Later on, the World Health Organisation said that Lunar New Year travel in China led to a faster spread of coronavirus.

Much like China, migration of India’s human capital from rural  to urban hubs started after independence and gathered the speed after economic reforms linked to globalisation in 1990s. The exceptional  acceleration was rallied due to emergence of India’s as global soft-power soon after. Most of the migrants were unskilled and semi-skilled workers who left behind their homes in villages, the agricultural land and more importantly the traditional knowledge, only a small number of the migrants were young professionals.

Nearly 80 years after the independence, the migration has continued. Even today, every minute about 30 people leave their villages in search of better livelihood and lifestyle. Lack of infrastructure similar to urban centres and outdated agricultural practices that degrade land, water and farm-produce have brought nearly 450 million people from India’s rural areas to the cities. That figure in next 10 years could balloon to over 600 million.

Many Keynesian economists have termed this migration as an unparalleled opportunity of massive enhancement of consumer demands. Obviously, those economists still have not studied the possible causes of Covid-19 and the beneficial impact of the lockdown on global environment. At this rate, we are very likely to soon forget the lessons of current pandemic, just the way did in case of  Spanish flu, SARs, MERS and Ebola. It is evident that the economic cost of the pandemic as is being calculated today does not account for the cost of damage to the environment.

Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has unveiled the second tranche of Centre’s INR 20 trillion fiscal stimulus, which apart from providing the migrants with food grains, attempts to address the question of food and livelihood for migrant workers, street vendors and small farmers. There is a national and legitimate concern about migrants returning to their home states in sheer desperation. The government faced a dilemma of allowing them to take crowded trains and buses and thus risking spread of Covid-19 or keeping them where they were but providing them with livelihood and protection against the illness.

Millions of them have been heading for their safe home in villages and be with their relatives. It would provide them with mental security. Now that the government has also taken care of their plate at least for immediate needs, there is now urgent need to take the next step as feeding hundreds of millions for their lifetime is not an option. So, the government needs to equip them with the necessary skills to help them become financially independent.

This is an unprecedented opportunity for Modi to transform India and he must display the leadership to ensure that the government is able to hold the workers in their safe home and not be obliged to return to cities once the immediate threat of the pandemic has passed. Modi has the dream of doubling the income of the farmers, greatly enhancing the efficiency of Indian agriculture and improving the livelihood and lifestyle of workers. Over eight decades ago, the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, had stated that India lived in its villages. He always wanted rural India to prosper through small and cottage industry and become fully self-reliant and independent economically.

India’s former President Abdul Kalam gave a practical dimension to Gandhi’s dream. He thought that a young Indian can only cherish and realise his or her  dreams in villages if the infrastructure there is as good as in urban hubs. The Modi government’s INR 20 trillion package includes infrastructure as one of the five pillars of self-reliance or Atma Nirbharta. Focussing  on starting to make rural infrastructure equivalent to urban infrastructure would strengthen that pillar.

One of the other pillars proposed by Modi is technology. For example, there is now a very strong case for farmers to adopt technology and start harvesting solar energy along with food. In her own maiden budget speech, Seetharman had said that the food provider or a farmer could also become the energy provider. Modi has also pledged to double farmers’ income by 2022. Farmers deploying solar panels in their arid land and government leasing the degraded land (instead of transfer of money) to farmers to install solar panels has multitude of advantages, including moving away from fossil fuels, reducing air pollution, meeting pledges given in Paris Climate Agreement, growing better crops in the rain shadow areas and even harvesting water for agriculture from rain and dew collected on the solar panels.

A simple calculation shows that with 30 pc of degraded land India can easily provide enough solar energy to meet most of the national need. The vibrant demography (young population) and the demand for energy which form the other two pillars of Modi’s self-reliance theme can be further strengthened. As regards financing such projects, India already has instruments nurtured by Modi like International Solar Alliance, Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, World Bank-that has pledged the green finance for climate change and even the Paris Climate Agreement’s financial mechanism where India should use its global positioning and press for much needed finances.

Solar energy is just an example. Moving large industry like manufacture of electric vehicles (EVs), health products and IT industry to a rural India area equipped with urban infrastructure would provide much needed boost to ‘India living in villages’.


-The author is chairman Terre Policy Centre, former director UNEP, IIT Alumnus. 



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