As Migrants Trudge Out of India’s Cities, the Stark Realities of Migration Stand Exposed

If migrants leave familiar surroundings to tough it out in the city to earn money, why should they stay if there is no money to be earned? Why ‘go to work’ if there is none?

New Delhi: Images of the recent migrant exodus from Delhi in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic indicate a simple reality: the immensity of choosing to return home only reflects the immensity of migrating in the first place. 

Rows and rows of migrant workers, sitting in lines near major bus terminals, waited for buses that would take them to their villages and hometowns. Panicking at the prospect of spending three isolated weeks in Delhi with zero earnings, they saw this exodus as their last chance at getting home and riding out the lockdown period in familiar surroundings. The enormous crowds, closely-packed lines and overcrowded buses spelt disaster for an administration desperately trying to tackle the spread of the COVID- 19 pandemic. The migrants knew this – in several images, those waiting fastidiously maintained a one-meter distance from each other, even as they struggled to enter buses sporadically leaving interstate bus stations. Why, then, did we see an exodus of this scale? Why are migrants choosing to walk hundreds of kilometres, at risk of death, even as an epidemic spreads and long journeys await? 

There are three interlinked aspects to this.

First, we may now truly comprehend the scale and ubiquity of the migrant presence in our lives. Home deliveries, construction projects, taxi rides, domestic services, restaurants, factories, call centres – nearly every activity that keeps the modern megapolis ticking is linked inextricably to migration and migrant labour.

To express surprise at the scale of the exodus is to display ignorance of the extent to which our lives depend on migrants. Otherwise empty roads filled exclusively by thousands of migrants bring this reality of modern-day labour into sharp focus. It is unclear how many migrants are leaving Delhi, though numbers appear to be well into the lakhs (police estimated 10- 15,000 migrants at Anand Vihar ISBT alone on 28th March). Large crowds are also leaving Mumbai fearing unemployment, despite assurances that their needs will be taken care of. Their skepticism is well-founded: migrants have been easy targets for violence and discrimination for decades, despite their vital role in filling crucial labour gaps and virtually propping up entire industries, such as construction.

Second, the exodus reveals the lack of policy measures in place for migrants, despite a heavy dependence on their services.

The Delhi administration scrambled to turn schools into shelters for exiting migrant labourers in order to contain the spread of the pandemic, but their faith had already been broken. Why continue to stay in a city whose administration has given migrants no indication that it acknowledges their presence and protects their interests? Suddenly unemployed, a hand-to-mouth existence is rendered even more precarious for vulnerable migrant workers. Given that the government took until last year to universalise food security across India via its One Nation, One Ration Card programme, migrant skepticism is understandable. Blanket orders to seal borders despite reports of police violence against travelling migrants only add to the heightened insecurity migrants face. The Interstate Migrant Policy Index 2019, a policy evaluation tool released by India Migration Now, a Mumbai-based policy research organisation, pegs the average score for India’s states at 37, indicating poor policy frameworks for migrants across the board in destination states. Delhi and Maharashtra’s average scores, at 33 and 45 respectively, point toward the policy crisis at the heart of the mass departure.

Third, and most importantly, the exodus is a reminder of the difference between ‘home’ and ‘destination’ for migrants.

In the midst of a pandemic, it makes abundant sense to stay put. Migrant labourers in Delhi chose to leave for the same reason Indian students abroad chose to hurry back, and Indian workers returned en masse from Europe and the Gulf only to begin a tough quarantine period. To leave, at great risk to one’s life and security, exposes the key difference between source and destination for migrants: familiarity. For most migrants, especially circular migrants, the ‘destination’ is linked to a specific, usually revenue- earning or skill- building activity. For labourers, this may be daily wage work or agricultural work. For students, it is education and skill-building. For businesspersons, this could be running shops, factories or small manufacturing units. The list of possibilities is endless, but the fundamental dichotomy between ‘home’ and ‘destination’ remains.

For circular migrants, as many of those leaving Delhi are, the termination of the revenue-earning activity removes all incentive to stay at the destination. If migrants leave familiar surroundings to tough it out for a large part of the year in the city to earn money, why should they stay if there is no money to be earned? Why should students abroad stay there if their universities are shut? Why ‘go to work’ if there is none?

On the flip side, return migration also sheds some light on the immensity of the decision to migrate. Choosing to leave behind families and homes in search of better opportunities is not a simple, linear decision. It involves preparation, analysis and, above all, effort. If scores of migrants wish to return home in the midst of a pandemic, it reflects the apathy, discrimination and precarity inherent to their lived realities. The pandemic will likely spread due to the return migration. It speaks to the prolonged alienation of migrant workers that they are choosing to risk life and limb regardless. Frantic, last-minute assurances that wages will be paid do little to reassure those who have been on the receiving end of policy apathy that has already disenfranchised millions from their right to the city

The burden of migration is heavy. It carries a mental and physical cost, and the weight of harsh, unfamiliar surroundings. It is easy to scapegoat migrants simply because they are outsiders, but their presence across industries and communities is not only important, but essential. To fulfil crucial intermediary roles and face the full brunt of discrimination in India’s cities points to a simple, unacknowledged truth: mobility is a privilege, but it is not always a natural choice. The promise of a higher income and regular work brought migrants to Delhi. Stuck in unfamiliar surroundings and insecure about their future and their lives, it is only natural that Delhi’s migrants, like those everywhere else, yearn to go home.

Aditya Srinivasan is a former graduate student at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po, Paris) and a researcher and policy analyst in the field of migration and refugee policy.