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Last Updated : May 20, 2020 11:24 PM IST

COVID-19 impact: Many migrant returnees may never leave their homes for work again

The helpless and hungry migrant workers have been treated worse than animals. Many states have treated them as if they were intruders from some foreign country.

A popular saying is that "the true character of a person is often revealed in the times of crisis". The crisis tests intellect, common sense, resolve, grit, emotions, beliefs, etc. of people, besides highlighting their strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This applies, mutatis mutandis, to various organisations and systems also.

The present crisis, for example, has highlighted the strong character of the common people of India who are usually financially insecure (poor), less educated (or illiterate), religious (and superstitious), and oppressed. Often derided by the elite as dirty and non-compliant, these people have shown amazing resilience and grit. They have borne the brunt of economic consequences of the disease, faced cruel apathy of the administration and state (and in some cases employers also) and have been most vulnerable to fatalities due to COVID-19 infections; and still managed to stay peaceful and non-violent.

Thousands of them received animal-like treatment from administration and law enforcement agencies. Millions of them have walked hundreds of miles on highways and rail tracks, in scorching heat with infants, old, infirm and sick family members, sometimes going without food for hours. Some accidents causing the death of many migrant workers have been reported on the media. However, many deaths due to heat, starvation, fatigue, infirmities and other curable diseases may go unreported.


The heart-rending pictures of their painful journey back home have been widely shared and mourned in the media. The rhetoric on TV channels and social media did spur the politicians into action, but unfortunately, the action on the ground has been abysmally inadequate and apathetic.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Socio-economic impact

Our team travelled to some highways and towns of UP, one of the largest destination of the migrant workers returning back, to assess the extent of the problems and its socio-economic impacts. I would like to share some key takeaways as follows:

  1. It is estimated that more than 10 million migrants may eventually return home to the states like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, MP, Odisha, West Bengal and Rajasthan. These workers are returning from relatively developed states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab, Delhi and Haryana.

It is expected that once the lockdown is lifted fully, a significantly larger number of migrant workers may seek to return home. Most of these workers are unskilled or semi-skilled; though it may include a sizable number of skilled workers also.

  1. The central and state governments appear to have completely ignored these workers in their planning for the lockdown. No thought was spared for their survival and sustenance in a prolonged lockdown scenario. This adequately highlights the pseudo-feudal structure of our governance system (a key weakness) and absolute mediocrity of our administrative machinery (a key vulnerability). The chief minister of UP has emerged as the most popular politician insofar as handling of migrant workers is concerned. Even though he started a little late and is not supported ably by the administration and bureaucracy, he still has managed to convey the message that he cares.

  2. The innocent, helpless, scared, hungry and tired migrant workers have been treated worse than animals. Many states have treated them as if they were illegal intruders from some foreign country. This highlights that our economic and governance model may still be colonial in nature.

  3. 4. A significant number of migrants on roads we spoke to confided in us that they were planning to return home for the past few years, but were not able to muster enough courage. They believe that with so many government schemes operative, two square meals with dignity and freedom is not a problem in villages. They find it better than living in urban slums like insects.

  4. After speaking with over 900 migrant workers on the road, we can say with some confidence that:

What lies in store

(i)  A large number of migrant workers returning home may not easily go back to their previous place of work. Many of them may in fact never leave their homes for work. There could be at least the following five consequences of this trend:

(a) Businesses, especially construction and textile, may be forced to invest more in technology and automation. Households relying on domestic workers may also be forced to invest in home automation for household chores.

(b) Many labour-intensive businesses like textile may have to either relocate their manufacturing units in the areas where an adequate number of local labour is available.

(c) The pressure on civic infrastructure in large cities and railways may ease. The multi-billion rupee remittance industry may be a key loser.

(d) The home states of these workers may be incentivised/forced to invest in industrial infrastructure and seek private investments to create ample employment opportunities close to home. This may be a big fillip to the 'self-reliant' India mission. Agro-processing is one industry that may see exponential investment and growth.

(e) The regional imbalances in India may gradually bridge if the home states seize this opportunity and develop a good industrial infrastructure.

(ii) The agony, sense of betrayal, confusion and disillusionment (ABCD) is ideally a fertile ground for the emergence of communist movements. Given the democratic communist parties in India are totally marginalised, the fear is that the violent Naxal movement may spread out of the forests of central India. A strong strategic initiative to prevent such eventuality must be taken immediately. The forthcoming election in Bihar may display some reflections of this fear. Watch out for that closely.

(iii)  The expectation from, and reliance on, the government's cash, food and fuel provisions shall rise materially, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas. The fiscal pressures may remain elevated for many years to come.

(iv) The pressure on the civic and social infrastructure of villages and semi-rural (or semi-urban) areas shall rise significantly. The administration needs to gear up for this well in advance; otherwise we may have garbage, filth, and disease everywhere.

(v) The migrant workers returning home after spending many years in large cities are carrying an entirely different culture with them. On the positive side, we may see improvement in religious and superstitious practices. However, on the other side, we may see many indulgences creeping in the simple village lifestyle.

Vijay Kumar Gaba explores the treasure you know as India, and shares his experiences and observations about social, economic and cultural events and conditions. He contributes his pennies to the society as Director, Equal India Foundation. The views are personal. 
First Published on May 20, 2020 12:47 pm