COVID-19 crisis: Uncertainty ahead for migrant workers
Imphal: The COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown brought the wheels of Indian economy to a grinding halt. It left millions of migrant workers stranded without jobs, staring at a bleak future. They had no option but to head back home. Along with the rest of the country, the Northeastern states also saw en masse reverse migration from the metro cities.
Northeast India supplies mostly skilled and semi-skilled workers to the rest of they country. They are mostly employed in F&B (food and beverage), security, tea and coffee plantations, salons, beauty, wellness and nursing sectors. Majority of them have now returned home.
A recent study by the All India Manufacturers Organisation (AIMO) said that a large number of migrant workers from the Northeast region might not return to work due to “harrowing experience” they faced due to the COVID-19 lockdown. They would like to work closer home.
The study further adds that cities like Delhi, Chandigarh, Mumbai, Surat, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Pune, Hyderabad and even Goa will see a substantial impact due to the loss of these migrant workers in the next six to nine months.
This scenario also poses a challenge to governments of the Northeastern states. Where will these people be employed? Unemployment is a big problem in the region with Tripura topping at 28.6%, according to the latest Centre for Monitoring India Economy (CMIE) data.
Neiphiu Rio, Chief Minister, Nagaland
EastMojo put the question of reverse migration to the chief minister of Meghalaya, Conrad K Sangma. He thinks that this will be the biggest challenge for states of the region. Meghalaya has already constituted a task force on economic revival.
The government of Nagaland is also formulating what they call 'strategies and a road map to move towards sustainable and self-reliant economy.’ They plan to come up with these policies soon. As the pandemic is crumbling world economy, Nagaland’s economy is projected for an annual cash shortfall of Rs 955.44 crore for 2020-21 based on April receipts from the Central government.
“We are also deeply concerned that thousands of our people are returning home having lost their jobs and we are challenged to provide gainful employment in some manner,” said Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio.
As per the Economic Survey 2017, an average of nine million people migrated between states, including the Northeast, every year. These people have key role in the economy of the country. So what are their plans? EastMojo spoke to some of them from Manipur.
A case study on migrant workers from Manipur
Many stranded Manipur natives, including students and migrant workers, have been evacuated by the state government from the metro cities by various modes of transport.
Manipur government is now staring at an unemployment problem with migrant workers hoping for livelihood and a quality life in their own state.
The economic emergency due to COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the dreams of many young migrant workers of the state. The condition of Grace Niangsianchin, a 24-year-old girl from Churachandpur district, is no different. Grace, who was working as a beautician in Chennai, was compelled to return to Manipur amid the lockdown. Now, she fears that she might have to start her professional life all over again due to COVID-19.
“The little savings I had was already spent for rent and buying essential commodities during the lockdown. I stopped working from mid-March,” said Grace, who is also supporting her younger sister's education.
She hopes to return to Chennai after the lockdown is lifted.
Another migrant worker from Senapati district, Moses (26), worked as a steward in a restaurant in Chennai. He is the sole bread-earner of the family and wants to resume work after the lockdown.
It is my responsibility to support my wife and my baby, he said with a heavy heart.
Some of the migrants, who have returned home, are happy but some are fearful of their safety. The situation in Manipur is deteriorating gradually. By May 31, Manipur had already recorded 66 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, out of which, 59 are active cases. Most cases were detected from those stranded returnees from various parts of the country.
“Government as well as community should work together to tackle this pandemic at every level. And to avoid community transmission, the state must expedite testing,” Bisoila (22), who hails from Senapati district, said.
Bisoila was working in the retail industry outside the state when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide lockdown. She has been staying away from home and supporting her family financially for the last four years.
"As the third phase of the lockdown was imposed, I was totally confused whether to go home or to stay back in the city where I was working. Ultimately, I took the decision to return and will take further course of action later," said Bisoila.
Twenty-three-year-old make-up artist, AS Wungshirchon from Ukhrul district, was doing well in Hyderabad with her own and “dedicated” clients and managed to support her family back home for the last five years until the lockdown was imposed.
She returned home recently from the city but is now worried about her future because of the uncertainties relating to her job. She is trying keep herself busy amid the lockdown.
"Life will not be the same anymore. And finding your clients at this moment is difficult, especially here in Manipur. But somehow, I have to try my best to convince them by adopting safety measures and by making my clients comfortable," said Wungshirchon.
Social stigma and psychological distress
Having went through difficult times in the metros due to loss of jobs, racism, forced eviction, etc, the returnees had to face discrimination even when at home. The social stereotypes and stigmatisation culminated from COVID-19 misconceptions among the community.
Overwhelming stigma upon their return, according to the returnees, was what they least expected from their fellow community members.
"I feel extremely sorry and unfortunate to witness the anxiety and fear among the police or the frontline workers the moment we stepped out from the train at Jiribam railway station. Of course, during this scenario social distancing is very important. But I noticed that their attitude towards us (returnees) was like we’re bringing something bad or unpleasant things to our homeland," lamented Mashungmi Zingkhai, a returnee from Chennai by train.
Experts believe that the xenophobia created among the returnees is likely to have serious long-term repercussions.
Psychological distress was also caused by job loss, unplanned unemployment and months struggling to survive in the cities till all savings ran out. Chances of getting back lost jobs look very slim to many workers at this juncture.
According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE)'s latest report, more than 12 crore workers, including salaried workers, small traders and wage labourers, lost jobs in April, leaving many in dire straits due to the lockdown.
"There is psychological distress. Leaving a job without any plan is not an easy thing. We have to prepare to face the situation. We have to do anything, either a scavenger's job, sell vegetables, cut wood or even work in the paddy fields until the problem gets over," said Mayarngam Kasar, one of the migrant worker returnees and a father of a four-year-old.
Mayarngam was among the first batch of evacuees brought back from Chennai by the state government by train on May 13.
Mashungmi Zingkhai, HR proffessional
"I have taken a study loan for my sister, I am worried that I might not be able to pay back the monthly installments. Also, getting another job seems to be a wild dream at this juncture," added Zingkhai, who used to work in the IT sector but lost his job due to the lockdown.
Will Manipur be able to keep afloat the migrant workers?
According to reports, over 40,000 Manipur natives have migrated to various urban cities in search of a better life and education. Around 36 per cent of the population living in various parts of the country are engaged in different sectors, especially in hospitality and industries.
It has been over two months of the lockdown in India and the exodus from cities and towns to home states and villages continues everywhere, including in Manipur.
In times of high unemployment and in order to mitigate the dwindling economy, Manipur government has zeroed in on three sectors - agriculture, horticulture and MSMEs to create jobs.
Chief minister N Biren Singh has extended emergency financial assistance to 41 micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) firms in a form of loans from different banks to resume manufacturing.
In order to make itself self-sufficient in food production, Manipur has already constituted a high-level task force. They will monitor and assist in developing the double and triple cropping farming system. Various other measures will also be introduced to increase the productivity of agriculture and horticulture sectors.
Another work area to focus on is entrepreneurship. This remote region of the country has a bustling startup ecosystem under the Start-Up Manipur Mission, which started long before the lockdown was announced. Though most startups are still local or state-focused, they are now looking to upgrade their products using locally available resources for scale up. This will help in creating more employment opportunities for the people, especially the youngsters, in the state.
According to economist Dr Chinglen Maisnam, Manipur will be in serious crisis if the Centre does not extend its helping hand. "State government should be consulted to assess loss during the lockdown in different sectors, including agriculture, industry, services etc. Adequate allocations from the Centre must be made to help the states like Manipur," he said.
Dr Maisnam believes that the state government must put forward an economic policy road map and act on it immediately during this critical period. The economic crisis and the people’s sufferings must be addressed by action pertaining to the short-term, medium-term and the long-term measures.
"Re-orient the state’s growth strategy on the basis of the local market and focus on agriculture and its allied sectors may ultimately determine the growth of the local market," Dr Maisnam opined.
Raising per capita agricultural income of the peasants and agricultural workers holds the key to overcome the crisis.
He said that non-agricultural activities must be promoted with a clear vision on ecological sustainability and their capacity for employment generation. This means a much greater emphasis on ‘green revolution’ and on expanding the provision of care services.
The state government of Manipur must constitute an expert committee with the involvement of the planning department to undertake a quick assessment of losses incurred to the state economy, particularly to sectors most vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 crisis and lockdown.
The said committee must assess the ‘immediate and medium term’ impact of the coronavirus pandemic on different sectors that contribute to the Manipur’s economy. The committee should also be asked to identify possible sources of financing and funding for different sectors, he added.
Note: EastMojo tried to reach out to the state government to learn the further course of action in order to tackle the sudden rise of migrant workers returning home and employment opportunities but, despite several attempts, the labour minister was unavailable.