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Coronavirus Pandemic: Hungry, desperate: India virus controls trap its migrant workers


Like many of us under lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, Pramod Sahu has been spending plenty of your time on his phone to loved ones far. But the 36-year-old laid-off textile worker in Surat, in India's western Gujarat state, is fast running out of cash, food and options.

"I'm wont to working 12 hours each day, but now i've got nothing to try to to but sit here, stare at this screen and worry," he told Al Jazeera. "We're trying to form one person's food feed four, but right away I feel we are going to soon die of hunger," he said by phone from a cramped room he shares with eight other men.

Sahu is one among an estimated 100 million internal migrants in India. Travelling long distances from remote villages seeking add India's bustling cities to support families they typically leave behind, they form a vital lifeline for the economic wellbeing of many millions more,

According to the Indian government's 2016-17 Economic Survey, internal migrants compose about 20 percent of the workforce. and that they contribute an estimated 10 percent of India's economic output, per the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

But, without formal work contracts, they're susceptible to exploitation and abuse. Many earn little quite a subsistence wage and haven't any social insurance to shield their incomes if they lose their jobs.

A growing number of aid agencies that help to support internal migrants fear the government's response to the coronavirus - which since March 24 has involved the closure of companies and other public spaces - may cause a humanitarian and economic disaster far larger than the medical emergency the measures are meant to regulate.

And economists say the government's recent economic stimulus measures don't seem to be nearly enough to mitigate the consequences of the lockdown, especially for India's poor, including its internal migrants.

The lockdown has forced thousands of individuals like Sahu out onto urban streets. With most transport links finish off, many are trying to steer the many kilometres back to their rural homes to outride the crisis with their families.

Many of India's internal migrants travel from poorer states like Bihar and state within the north to figure within the industrial hubs of more developed states like Gujarat and Maharashtra within the south. Most do the low-paid or dangerous jobs that wealthier Indians refuse to try to to.

'Enormous' contribution to India's economy
"Their contribution to the economy is big," Jayati Ghosh, an economist at solon University (JNU) in Delhi, told Al Jazeera. "But we do not actually know to what extent industries like construction and manufacturing comprise these workers".

Accurate data is difficult to return by thanks to the group's high mobility and exclusion from official surveys.

But what's clear is that the money these workers send house is a key source of income for those they need left behind. In Odisha, for instance, Sahu's home state, domestic remittances form 55-60 percent of annual incomes, per a study by the Centre of Labour and Migration Studies.


The loss of this income threatens to worsen already precarious rural livelihoods, Nivedita Jayaram, a researcher at Aajeevika Bureau, a labour research and legal organization, told Al Jazeera.

"Just like within the cities, all work has stopped and other people already can't afford to shop for groceries, so there's a high risk of rural impoverishment increasing without these remittances," Jayaram said.

Though India currently has approximately 1,700 active coronavirus cases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended the lockdown's extreme measures as "absolutely necessary" in an exceedingly radio address on Sunday, and asked for "forgiveness" for the hardships inflicted on his "poor countrymen".

But effectively halting the assembly of all goods and services, except some essential items, and enforcing a strict lockdown that keeps people indoors, and plenty of out of labor, comes at a high price for an already sluggish economy.

Growth in gross domestic product - the sum of all finished goods and services produced in an exceedingly country - is currently at a six year-low, while India's percentage is already at 7.8 percent, its highest since October 2019 per the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE).

"The lockdown isn't just an attack on demand, but an attack on supply too, which could be a problem for an economy in freefall," says JNU's Ghosh. "I fear that so as to stop a catastrophe, they need created one."

While some analysts draw parallels to the economic disruption wrought by demonetisation in 2016 - when 80 percent of India's currency was taken out of circulation overnight - the long-term effects of the lockdown are already looking much worse, says Ghosh.

"The events are similar within the sense that policymakers now seem even as unprepared for the implications as they were long ago, and again the poorest are suffering - but a minimum of during demonetisation not every a part of the economy came to a grinding halt".

A political 'blindspot'
Though India's migrant labourers are significant in number, this group could be a political "blindspot", Reetika Khera, an economist at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, told Al Jazeera.

"We should be fixing community kitchens and converting schools into welfare centres, but sadly our policymakers seem to be watching out more for the center and upper classes," she said. "They clearly didn't anticipate any of this, and now everything appears like an afterthought".

The central government in national capital had asked regional states to stop a migrant exodus by providing food and shelter, but deficient time was given to implement this before the lockdown was imposed, "turning a public health crisis into a bigger humanitarian one", says Aajeevika Bureau's Jayaram.


"While we warned overseas Indians prior to and chartered flights to bring them back home, we've left our internal migrants to support themselves," she said.

Under pressure to deal with the growing emergency, the central government last week announced a $23bn welfare scheme for the poor. This included doubling the quantity of free food rations under an existing national programme, $10 to do senior citizens, and raising wages by $0.27 per day for those working under the government's rural employment scheme.

But analysts warn that this outlay of but 1 percent of GDP, isn't enough to stem the crisis and is generally a "repackaging" of existing schemes.

"The increase to the [rural employment scheme] was notified a pair days before, so it isn't new - and anyway worksites are currently shut," notes the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad's Khera.

"There was an urgent must ensure this vulnerable population was given economic protection, but there's really nothing here for the landless, daily wagers and migrant workers".

Sahu, whose rural house is some 1,500 kilometres (932 miles) from where he has been working, says many workers in cities are unable to access food via the government's Public Distribution Service since all their identity documents show their out-of-state address.

"I have a identity card, but it's registered to the village, and no use here," Sahu said.

Enough to travel around?
Ironically, India currently encompasses a huge stock of excess grain which may well be wont to feed those struggling to urge by, says Khera.

"In a way, this is often a superbly matching crisis for the government's current problem of the way to store this year's bumper winter crop".

State governments could also simply remove the requirement for a identity card, and just distribute food packets to everyone, she added.

Many countries have used cash transfers to support falling incomes during the pandemic. Though India followed suit by announcing an additional $20 contact three months paid directly into Jan Dhan bank accounts - free accounts provided under the central government's financial inclusion programme - the quantity is little, worth only approximately three days of wages for an inner-city artificer.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said the relief package was designed "to reach resolute those that are most requiring of such measures ... the poorest of the poor". At the launch of the rescue package last month, she also said: "We don't want anyone to stay hungry."

But economists say it falls short in light of the severity of things.

"I'm unsure how an amount like this might be seen as viable within the quite crisis we're in," says JNU's Ghosh. "If we are pruning incomes for a month or probably longer, the amounts provided should reflect that". The cash transfers mustn't just be to Jan Dhan accounts either, she added, since many migrants are unlikely to be covered by those.

With just 300 rupees ($4) left within the bank and another period of lockdown stretching earlier than him, Sahu is similarly reflecting on how decisions that affect millions like him are made. "Why couldn't the govt. just give us advance warning? We could have bought more food and made plans for the way to urge through this," he said.

"They may have saved some lives with this coronavirus lockdown, but they didn't give some thought to us".

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