Among the many things that Covid-19 has revealed to us and has made us ponder, a couple of them are worth mentioning: the scale of India’s migrant population and it’s vulnerability in the face of a crisis like the one that has hit us.
Forever working behind the scenes as the invisible threads in India’s economic fabric, migrant workers have rarely occupied our mindspace. It’s not that we haven’t been aware of their presence amongst us. For those of us who have lived in large metro cities, it’s that taxi driver who shared a cute story about his family back home, the household help who suggests recipes from her native village, the truckers who know routes like the back of their hand, or the friendly security guard who has the most cheerful smile every morning despite being thousands of miles away from his loved ones. It’s just that we have never seen them as a collective entity, leaving it to our economist and sociologist friends to study them with their respective lenses. Another reason for this is what systems theory tells us, which is that the human mind is generally not trained to contemplate or comprehend things at the scale of large systems of the order of lakhs and millions, which are the cumulative numbers of migrant workers at city scales.
But a crisis changes all this. Due to the Coronavirus lockdown, which as a country we have now been under for more than 50 days, we have read news articles over the last few days on thousands of migrant workers packing all their belongings in cities and doing whatever it takes to get back to their hometowns and villages – whether by train, truck or if all options fail, setting on the long precarious journey back home by foot. Perhaps the most gut wrenching are the images of families with kids walking along highways and railway tracks and news reports of many losing their lives in disturbing incidents.
When large numbers of migrant workers get disproportionately impacted by a crisis like this, we start seeing the big picture. It’s now no longer a question just of economics or sociology, but of humanity, and we start to ponder over their plight, the underlying reasons and what can be done to make things better.
Unlike white collar workers who have been able to work from home, the work in the informal sector including that of construction workers, taxi/auto-rickshaw drivers, truck drivers, security guards, household workers, electricians, plumbers, and restaurant/hotel staff, among others, has come to a complete standstill as a result of the lockdown. Since migrant workers account for the bulk of the informal sector workforce in cities, it is no surprise that they, especially those depending on daily wages, have been left high and dry with no source of income.
The approach taken by central and state governments in the initial phase of the lockdown was to prevent stranded workers from returning back to their hometowns due to fears of community spread, and taking steps to alleviate their situation by providing food, temporary shelters, and direct cash transfers. However, there were many lapses reported in these relief efforts. In the past few days, with the extended lockdown and future uncertainties on when it would be relaxed, thousands of workers have decided to take matters in their own hands and have embarked on their trip home by whatever means possible including trucks, taxis and auto-rickshaws, and by foot along rail tracks and highways. In a sign of desperation, the government has also initiated train and bus services to transport thousands of migrant workers back home.
So what are the lessons we can learn from all this? The Coronavirus epidemic has revealed the dark underbelly of our current economic system with its vast social inequities – an economic and social system running on a vast machinery of informal migrant workforce, which lacks the support system and social security net during times of crisis and also typically lacks the awareness required to take the right decisions. This has far reaching consequences not only on the lives and livelihoods of the workers, but the long term strength and resilience of the economy itself. Can we reimagine an alternate economic system to address these issues, with technology playing a key enabler? A major shift towards decentralization of hubs and economic development of our Tier 2 and 3 cities should be a key strategy to help workers find employment opportunities closer to home.
As a technology company, we at Intents Mobi have been thinking hard along these lines. We are already working to solve the problems faced by truck drivers and other stakeholders in the logistics industry who have been impacted by the crisis. In addition, here are some ideas where we think technology can play a key role in helping India’s migrant workers:
>Using technology for large scale skill development and vocational training
>Using technology to help workers become entrepreneurs
>Empowerment of women to become independent income generators and job creators
>Using online job portals to help connect employers with potential employees
- >Educate and empower potential job creators in Tier 2 & 3 cities
>Using technology for civic engagement and discussion on problem solving for local issues
>Proactive use of Jan-Dhan, AADHAR and smartphone access by the government to provide essential services and also to get feedback from citizens.