Noise, shoving and chaotic people flows are nothing new in Delhi (India) where more than 16.5 million people are settled to date. Yet on 28 March 2020 something surprising happened. Ten thousand Indian circular workers, people who temporarily - though frequently - migrate between their home and host areas for the purpose of employment, tried to move back to their hometowns after the government decided to suspend public transportation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Indian shutdown, the national curfew and the imminent restriction of long-distance public transportation were announced quite simultaneously with only a few days of prior notice. As a consequence, millions of labour migrants, mostly working informally in urban areas, suddenly lost their job and their income, and uncertainty burst immediately in the city.

Denied any social, civic, and health protection, and therefore being exposed to hunger and risk of infection, circular migrants had no alternative but to return to their villages before the beginning of the formal lockdown. The severe and abrupt restrictions adopted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi clearly underestimated the size of both formal and informal migrant labour groups, and they completely overlooked the life conditions of workers now without a job.

The government eventually provided some trains and buses to let internal migrants rejoin their villages. However, the number of public means of transport provided by the administration was miscalculated and it was neither sufficient nor safe, in terms of social distancing, to welcome the thousands of people that poured out of the cities. In normal times India’s railway system carries about 23 million passengers per day, and the 2020 March congestion was such that it got many people stranded, obliged to walk home for kilometres. The Times of India shared the story of a migrant worker who died after walking 200 km from Delhi to Agra and this is not an isolated accident. Some activists have defined the event to be “the biggest human migration on foot after partition” and horrific scenes reporting Indian migrants dying along the road due to thirst, heat, hunger and fatigue flooded the Internet.

What clearly emerged after the outbreak of the pandemic was, firstly, the government’s absolute inability to manage Indian internal circular migration and, secondly, the structural failings of the economic system still working in the background.

Circular Migrants and The Poverty Rate: the pre-pandemic scenario

If the 2011 Indian Census estimated a total of 454 million migrants, according to Professor S. Irudaya Rajan (Centre for Development Studies in Kerala) the number of internal migrants has increased up to 600 million in 2020. Of such figure, about 140 million are estimated to be migrant workers.

Although precise quantitative national data on internal migration are still missing, circular migration has been revealed to be a pivotal factor in the Indian economy. What influences the increasing rate of circular migration is a wide combination of pull factors, including the growth of informal employment both in rural and urban areas. Migration represents an important working opportunity for most of the unskilled or semi-skilled Indian workers (21 out of every 1000 migrants), who typically come from poor and disadvantaged realities and are eventually incorporated into the informal industrial or agricultural sectors as circular or seasonal workers.

The conjunction between informality and labour circulation has sustained the Indian capitalist system during the last decades, providing it with what critical studies call “near-endless labour surplus”. In particular, low employment costs and high levels of labour exploitation have produced a speedy economic development for decades, and therefore an impressive national growth characterised by extreme inequalities. As reported by the India Labour Migration Update 2018 (Ilo), in spite of “decades of growth in India, the overall proportion of informal workers in total employment [...] has remained relatively stable, at around 92 per cent”. Despite being the largest portion of the Indian economy, the informal nature of the job market represents, both directly and indirectly, the primary source of insecurity for lower-skilled Indians. The latter are considered to be the more vulnerable group to wage exploitation and poor living and working conditions. Lacking any form of legal recognition, circular migrants are both invisible and exploited. On the one hand, the increase of rents for accommodations that followed the high labour demand in urban contexts has led to unaffordable housing costs for labour migrants, who are then forced to live in slums in a perpetuating situation of vulnerability. On the other hand, the absence of employment contracts has led circular workers to have poor or inexistent health services and to struggle daily with physical abuse, accidents in the worksites, and even non-payment issues. Besides, their condition of legal inexistence also nullifies every attempt to open bank accounts or to access economic financing, with enormous implications on their savings, and thus on their long-term stability perspectives.

The impact of the Covid-19 and Further Developments

Ignored for a long time by the Indian government and marginalized, Indian circular migrants could not pass unnoticed when the pandemic prompted the March 2020 lockdown. From March to July 2020, the international media focused on Indian workers walking thousands of miles on foot or reaching their places of origin inside containers and cement mixers. The reality of short-term labour migrants seemed to be no more in the shade but, eventually, this cause célèbrerevealed to be just a straw fire.

The central government failed to understand the entity of the phenomenon and, once the large-scale implications of mass migrations became clear, its response was to retain circular migrants in quarantine facilities. Meanwhile, about 130 million people lost their jobs. What’s more, the meagre package of economic support provided by the central administration (less than 1% of the Indian GDP) could not be enjoyed by the majority of labour migrants who did not have access to the Public Distribution System and therefore, no compensatory wages or emergency revenue support whatsoever were provided during the first pandemic wave. According to ILO, 95 per cent of India’s internal migrants lost their jobs during the lockdown but only 7 per cent benefitted from the efforts to revive it through Indian social protection schemes (such as the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). The Pew Research Centre has noted how the Indian middle class is estimated “to have shrunk by 32 million in 2020 as a consequence of the downturn”.

To date, the Indian economic Giant is recognized to be back in a situation of mass poverty after 45 years of growth and there is a risk of a return to a severe condition of economic and social recession.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has clearly had the most ruthless impact on the castes at the bottom of the federal economy whose survival depends on circular migration opportunities. Indeed, a vast majority of rural families largely rely on their relatives’ decision to move to urban areas looking for new revenue opportunities. In other words, once the circular migrants’ conditions are aggravated and their working capabilities are limited, many families among the poorest ones see their vulnerability and insecurity being exacerbated. With no embarrassment, in May 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Indians to be ‘atmanirbhar’, self-resilient, in order to address the social crisis.

One year has passed but the situation is far from getting better, rather it is deteriorating over time. From the end of March 2021, the curve of COVID-19 diffusion in India has skyrocketed and some have labelled the situation as a humanitarian crisis. At present, according to the organization “Our World in Data”, there are more than 350,000 cases of infection per week in the region and more than 2000 people die every day: 1 out of 3 cases of global infections is registered in India. The pandemic is rapidly spreading among the poorest since India's government relaxed almost all social limitations, and both the health and economic crisis are out of control thus far.

“It is bigger than any security threat, external or internal, or even the economic attrition of 2020", prominent political commentator Shekhar Gupta wrote talking about today’s Indian crisis. However, whilst the coronavirus has been spreading all over the country and the number of daily deaths is rapidly increasing, Prime Minister Modi seems to be more engaged in another burning issue: his dropping electoral support. Until the end of April 2021, he was conducting electoral campaigns in five different federated States but the mismanagement of the Covid-19 situation, the increasing workers’ discontent and the collapse of the Indian economy were increasingly reducing his popularity. In order not to deteriorate his electoral position, Modi did not cancel the Kumbh Mela celebrations, the traditional Indian Hindu Festival where millions of devotees bathe into the Ganges River seeking for eternal salvation. The insane infection-potential related of this event was rapidly confirmed: only between 10 and 14 April 2021, more than 1,600 new positive cases were registered among devotees who took part in the religious celebration, especially among the poorest castes who are still entrusting their survival to their own religious faith. Being deprived of any social guarantees in urban areas and living in precarious conditions in rural villages poor people are evidently the ones the Covid-19 is affecting most.

In particular, informal migrant labourers are still struggling to survive, stuck between the health crisis and the economic regression. The rising of this new wave of Covid cases is observed with trepidation by migrant workers who are fearing both the virus and the renewed economic uncertainty. The pandemic has stressed the failure of the informal market strategy in India and it has also shed a light on the precarity and vulnerability of circular workers, in relation to their employment precautions, living conditions, and social misrecognition. The global crisis though, may provide an opportunity to readjust the structural issues permeating the Indian society, including the invisibility of migrant workers and deep-rooted inequalities. Yet, the central government seems unable to uptake the colossal programme of reforms that are urgently needed in the Indian States. As a matter of fact, despite its attempt to build rural infrastructure, improve livelihood and increase rural employment opportunities, more social and economic provisions for circular migrants have been planned but not implemented yet. This second Covid wave is undermining every political attempt to react to these multiple crises but, for sure, appealing to citizens’ “self-resilience” can’t be enough.

Cover photo by Rajesh Balouria (Pixabay)