Walking back to uncertainty

The lockdown had left many migrant workers stranded, and now that they have gone home, this migration is haunting the economy

Published 4 years ago on Aug 25, 2020 2 minutes Read

In 2017, a team of researchers from University of Cambridge put an end to the age-old debate of brain vs brawn. They concluded that when it comes to running the human body, grey matter always wins. But, can the same be said when it comes to running the economy of a country? Currently, in India, the brains — business owners, managers, contractors — are back to work, but the brawn of migrant labourers is missing.

In March, the unplanned implementation of a nationwide lockdown left many migrant workers high and dry. As things came to a halt, they evacuated their dingy rooms in the cities and made their way back to villages, either dangerously cooped up in trucks or marching in a single file. Now, with ‘unlocking’ in full force despite the rise in COVID cases, many migrant workers are not ready to return to the suffering and misery all over again. And this labour crunch is threatening some of India’s biggest sectors

According to India Ratings and Research, mining and manufacturing sectors, that have a migrant dependency ratio (MDR) of 28.5 and 12.86, respectively, are bearing the biggest brunt of this disruption. Their research suggests Maharashtra, Delhi, Haryana, West Bengal and Gujarat are the top five in-migrant states. Power and water supply, trade and hospitality, financials, and transport sectors with MDR of 8.4, 7.7, 6.6 and 6.3, respectively, are also resuming operations to find themselves short of labour.

While this disruption could boost automation, it will eventually lead to higher production cost and margin contraction for many companies in Q2FY21, states India Ratings. Interestingly, Bihar, which is considered to be the labour provider to the country, is also looking at manpower shortage in agriculture as it employs over 600,000 migrant workers in the sector.

Meanwhile, the labourers are in a dilemma. They face the unpalatable option of either returning to the inhospitable cities or completely depleting their meagre savings. According to a survey by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (4,835 households across 48 districts), 29% of migrants who had left have returned, while 45% want to come back soon. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, acche din for India’s migrant workers seem a distant dream.