India's laborious woes

Edition 6. Who walks back home under a lockdown?

I came across a startling image.

The declaration of an abrupt national lockdown reverberated across living rooms in India. While many flocked to secure their supply of groceries, thousands prepared for a long march back home. Over the next few days, images of groups of migrant workers walking splashed across the news.

It seemed to have caught even the government by surprise. Inadequate planning for this scenario led to a possibility that the fight to contain the coronavirus could suffer a massive blow.

How were we caught so utterly unaware of the impact of the decision on the lives of migrant workers? Indeed, how does India “work”? And what does the state of migrant workers in our cities tell us about the state of agriculture in India? Let’s dig in.


India employment snapshot

First, a few numbers.

In a population of ~1.3 billion, only ~460 million adults work. ~325 million of these are in rural India, while ~135 million are in urban India.

Large cities have grown rapidly as hubs of employment. Cities with a million-plus population (46 as of 2011) accounted for ~50 million of the total urban employment (~33%, up from 22% in 1993).

<10% of the workforce have a regular salaried job, of which the government employs ~25million+.

The most vulnerable are the self-employed
(~245 million, e.g. running a stall or cart, or farmers) and casual workers (~112 million - those with intermittent jobs, e.g. construction).

As per estimates, the shutdown has disproportionately impacted ~200 million people, those without the regular, salaried jobs. Take the case of construction. A total shutdown is a crushing blow to the sector and the ~40 million daily wagers who are dependent on it.

Podcast with Professor Chinmay Tumbe and Pooja Sarkar

I found the podcast linked above helpful to think about why migrant laborers chose to walk after the shutdown was imposed.

India sees ~25% of its workforce – ~100 million people migrating annually in search of work. It includes circular migration as well. Circular migration refers to going to a place in search of work and returning home within the year. One need not rely on statistics alone. Casual conversations with Ola /Uber drivers will often reveal that they hold farmlands in rural India and go back during the harvest season.

India’s biggest plank for food security is the Public Distribution System which is a government-sponsored chain of shops entrusted with distributing basic food and non-food commodities at affordable prices. It works when a household shows a ‘ration card’ allowing them to access the set quota for commodities. Notice that the card is issued at a household level and it depends on the place of domicile. For example, a migrant from U.P. working in Bihar, cannot claim rations in Delhi.

Many migrants, away from their homes, hence faced outright hunger as the lockdown was imposed. They were compelled to take the perilous path back home.

Source: Jan Sahas survey of 3,000+ migrant workers

So what does that tell us about agriculture?

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot and Hemal Thakker made a compelling case that the scenes that we witnessed were a direct result of the deep distress in agriculture which has been facing headwinds.

Higher food price translates to higher earnings for farmers (Yes, there are middlemen, but as a rule of thumb, it holds true). That is an act of political hara-kiri in urban India. This urban middle-class bias leads to the government ensuring that the food prices are low. Combined with this, landholdings are getting smaller by every generation and irrigation has fundamentally stalled with less than half of the farmland irrigated.

As a result, rural India has lagged behind urban India in growth. Per capita spend in rural India compared to urban is only 42%.

Not only is the spend low, poverty has also increased over the years.

NSS data show that rural poverty rose about 4 percentage points between 2011-12 and 2017-18 to 30 per cent whereas urban poverty fell 5 percentage points over the same period to 9 per cent.

As a result, many migrate. The lockdown impacts their families back home.

Tariq Thachil’s field work shows that a majority of the migrant workers send 25 to 50 per cent of their monthly income to their families — which will now miss this money. In Bihar, these remittances accounted for 35.6 per cent of gross state domestic product in 2011-12, up from 11.6 per cent in 2004-05.

To summarize, farming is becoming less productive and the private sector is inadequate in absorbing the ever-increasing army of youth joining the labor force (~5 million annually). As a result, “casualization” and self-employment are increasing, and correspondingly, migration for work. All these undercurrents exploded with the lockdown and we witnessed some of the most extraordinary images in recent times.


If not actively solved, things can take a dire turn.

Will India be able to address the massive silent crisis facing it?

Masha Gessen, an American-Russian author and an outspoken critic of President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, wrote memorably

Militant incompetence and autocracy are not in opposition: They are two sides of a coin.


In other news

A round-up of interesting things I came across this week.

Amrita Amesur, a lawyer and a food connoisseur, finds out what is worrying the restauranters during the lockdown. She finds an industry, ‘too small to fail’, and operating on wafer-thin margins. They are worried that customer footfalls might be low even after the pandemic passes and that people’s diet may permanently change - they may just not want that chicken anymore.

The lockdown stacked the odds against this group of farmers in Satara. They came together to start direct home deliveries, increasing their margins, and unlocking a promising business opportunity which they plan to continue even after the lockdown ends.

Alexander Cox, pens this beautiful ode to cities - arguably mankind’s greatest invention. He predicts that they will bounce back, stronger.

Cities are the most resilient of human inventions, and countless crises have resulted in cities adapting and rebuilding to enable the continuation of urban life. The option to live digitally is there for the taking—perhaps we just don’t want it.

How is Dharavi, one of the hotspots for COVID-19 in Mumbai coping up? Take an inside look in this beautiful short.

Abeer Kapoor - the creator of the election game, The Poll, has designed another game that can be played during the lockdown. It’s simple, compelling and 20% of proceeds of sales to go help daily wagers. Support here.

And, if there is one thing common for all of us in this lockdown, it is that all of us know one guy like this.


That is all for the current edition. If you like it, earn good karma by sharing it with others who might like it too. Feel free to send suggestions on twitter at @romit_ud or at romitnewsletter@gmail.com. Stay safe!

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