Migrant workers in New Delhi. Credit: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

March 2, 2021   6 mins

Lockdown in the world’s biggest democracy arrived with barely a warning. Citizens had no more than four hours to stock up, recalibrate travel plans, return to their families and reassess how they would find work gainful enough to pay for the next meal. Even so, in India there was only a murmur of protest at the loss of personal freedoms.

And yet, weeks later, on the highways leading out of Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore and other major cities, policemen were using their batons to rap citizens breaking lockdown rules. Millions of migrant workers, unable to afford rent or food without a daily income, had begun the long walk home to villages hundreds of kilometres away, children and belongings in tow. A sea of people was fleeing cities built by their toil, growing more desperate as the lockdown wore on and transport networks remained shut.

More than 90% of all Indian labour is informal, a lot of it casual, and about 140 million Indians are migrant labourers, living some part of the year in cities and industry hubs located long distances from their homes. The world was introduced to this workforce during April and May 2020, mostly through photographs of them trudging along highways in the blazing sun. Ten workers were arrested from inside the cylindrical tank of the milk van that was their getaway vehicle. One little girl walked 100km from where she’d worked picking chillies before dying 20 km from home. Sixteen men were run over by a goods train — they thought the railway tracks were safer than the highways as no passenger trains were operating.

But public memory is short, and most have forgotten the stories.

Helping dim the memory of those visuals is the view, among those looking only at Covid-19 infection data, that the Indian government’s response to the pandemic is a success story, despite a fresh spike in cases through the second half of February.

In September 2020, the nation was recording about 100,000 positive cases every day; now, a little over 16,000 are being recorded, less than a quarter of the daily new cases in the United States, which is itself easing restrictions. In total, India has recorded almost 11million infections, second only to the US, but our mortality rate is 1.42%, compared to the world average of 2.21%. More than 14.3 million doses of the vaccines have been administered, in one of the world’s fastest Covid immunisation programmes.

The jury is still out on what shrank India’s Covid epidemiological challenge in comparison to mid-2020, but experts concur that a combination of circumstances deserves credit. Sero-surveys conducted between December and January found that about a fifth of Indians have been exposed to the virus already — up to every second or third person in the big cities. Urban India’s generally lax public hygiene may be a factor. In rural India, where healthcare has historically suffered from neglect, it is likely that many of those infected were not counted, having experienced only mild symptoms. But the government will no doubt congratulate itself for imposing a 70-day near-stoppage of economic activities and penal action against those violating curbs on personal freedoms.

No state administration has yet declared itself out of the woods — perhaps not wishing to jinx the sliding curve — and five Indian states are actually implementing or contemplating fresh lockdowns after a rise in cases over the past two weeks (in Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai, the municipal administration has resumed “sealing” apartment buildings with multiple Covid-19 patients). But public health administrators hope this is not a major setback. The stock market is singing, the Government of India and its top brass have declared the onset of a V-shaped recovery and India’s billion-plus citizens, we are told, are back at work, on public transport and at malls. Five states, including two large ones, are in election-mode, and crowded public rallies outside have begun. In the northern state of Punjab and along the agrarian belt of western Uttar Pradesh, tens of thousands of unmasked farmers are protesting against three new laws that they see as a State sell-out to corporate interests in agriculture.

Just another day in raucous, chaotic India. Business as usual; the old normal is back — or so the economy managers would have us believe.

Some of that is disingenuous, of course — particularly the peaens to the bulls of the equities market. The Wall Street Journal last week accurately described the country’s roaring stock market — 22% up since the start of 2020 — as “disjointed from economic reality”. But one thing we all agree upon is that India is now ready to pose the question: who foots the bill for an endemic coronavirus?

Extreme poverty in India, defined by the international poverty line as living on $1.90 a day, is estimated to have declined from 21.6% to 13.4% of the population between 2011 and 2015. But, according to the World Bank, half of India is in serious danger of sliding back into poverty. More than 121 million Indians were rendered out of work in the very first month of restrictions, and the unemployment numbers remain troubling 11 months later.

The migrant workers who made headlines walking or hitchhiking back home to rural India are either back in the cities or seeking to return. But many of their previous jobs no longer exist — a direct outcome of the “successful” battle against the pandemic. The manufacturing sector has failed to re-employ about 11.4 million Indians; job losses in the education sector continued to grow in the quarter ending December 2020. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a private business data provider, 7% of Indians are still unemployed in February 2021. There are now a few million Indians who have been unemployed for nearly a year.

The service industry is on the rebound, but cannot absorb everyone it once employed. At restaurants, there are QR code menus and fewer waiters. There are fewer bellboys at poorly occupied hotels, fewer sales assistants at department stores, fewer housekeeping staff, gym trainers and salon therapists. The little shops in suburban Mumbai where you could get your shirt pressed for Rs 5 are closed or employing a fraction of their staff — as more people work from home, not everyone needs to be turned out immaculately.

Salary cuts and home working have also reduced demand for domestic help in urban India. This all-women workforce of cooks, nannies and house-help can still be seen doing the rounds of apartment complexes in small groups, looking for employment, for lower wages, while apartment-dwellers are looking to cut corners themselves. This category of casual labour has no representative bodies or unions, their work most unaccounted for in labour surveys. Millions of other casual labourers, such as factory workers, security guards, drivers and street-vendors find themselves pushed further to the margins.

In short, India’s urban poor are more desperate than ever — and, the evidence suggests, more indebted. This class didn’t have savings to last a month, let alone a year. There has been a sudden explosion in personal loan apps offering instant cash, including about 100 that Google removed from its PlayStore for being fraudulent or engaging in coercive recovery practices or shady data mining operations.

A key phrase in India’s Covid management policy has been Atmanirbhar, or self-reliant. A compendium of initiatives under the Atmanirbhar India programme, announced in May 2020, should have come to the aid of the millions rendered without work and income. It promised, among other things, re-skilling programmes and an employment guarantee for migrant workers returning to villages.

This wages-for-work approach to tackling rural poverty was first introduced in 2006 — a showcase initiative of the regime that preceded Narendra Modi’s. Incidentally Modi, having been in office a year, ridiculed it in 2015 on the floor of the Indian Parliament. But demand for work under the scheme reached unprecedented highs with the urban exodus: the financial year from April 2020 to March 2021 recorded the largest ever workforce queuing up for the public employment programme. It is now sustaining about 20 million Indian men and women; the programme the Prime Minister jeered at is now touted as another policy success in tackling Covid-induced distress.

But this is back-breaking labour, for a daily wage of around $4.10, and work is only legally guaranteed for 100 days a year. If anything, the rising demand for it is indicative of the lack of productive alternative employment. And demand is at the same levels now as it was at the peak of the lockdown. So more Indians than ever are signing up for unskilled labour at minimum wage. Meanwhile, few have heard of the new Atmanirbhar reskilling programmes, and an existing skill development scheme has at best had mixed results.

On March 24, as Modi announced the first 21-day lockdown, India’s Covid death toll stood at 12. Any neglect during those 21 days could set the nation back by 21 years, the Prime Minister warned. And the clock did turn back years for those who faced the humiliation of the long walk home. Upon their return, they have found labour to be more expendable, their shrinking wages and dwindling job opportunities engrained within post-Covid policies, while the state retreats in the guise of market-oriented reform. That is the price, and the poorest have paid it.

Kavitha Iyer has been a journalist for 20 years. Her first book, Landscapes Of Loss: The Story Of An Indian Drought, was published by HarperCollins India in February 2021.