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create opportunities for migrants back home

June 07, 2020 05:22 AM


create opportunities for migrants back home

Mark Tully

Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, in his latest Mann Ki Baat, acknowledged the suffering of “underprivileged labourers and workers”, saying, “their agony, their pain, their ordeal, cannot be expressed in words”. What does the future hold for those migrant workers who have managed to get back to their villages?

For now, the only prospects of work these migrants who have gone back have are agricultural labour or work under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). With all the skills they bring back with them, this is the time to upgrade the MGNREGS work and widen its scope so that lasting assets are created. Some of those assets will also create jobs.

Will the workers stay in their villages or will they return to the cities once the coronavirus pandemic is no longer an ever-present threat? Historically, urbanisation does seem to be the universal trend as economies develop. China has gone in one generation from a primarily rural to an urban nation. In 1980, one in five Chinese citizens lived in the countryside. Now more than half live in urban areas. There is, however, an important difference between China and India. China adopted a policy of building urban housing specifically for rural migrants. In India, migrants have drifted into cities where they have had to fend for themselves. The result has been that these slums are now, inevitably, proving to be coronavirus hotspots. In Mumbai, more than 40% of the population lives in slums. In fact, Slumdog Millionaire made the sprawling Dharavi slum so famous it became a tourist attraction. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Mumbai has such high figures for infection.

Now the PM has promised to build affordable property for migrant workers to rent. However, the problems of land and land values, finding suitable locations near work sites, clearing slums, and managing properties will prove to be obstacles.

In spite of the pull of urbanisation, many migrants have said that they are so scarred by their experience in the aftermath of the pandemic that they will never go back to the cities. This may not be a bad thing. It will rebalance the population so that villages are no longer emptied of young men. And because there would no longer be an endless supply of labour in the cities, those who employ migrants will, at last, be forced to value their workers.

Young people staying at home could provide the opportunity to revive rural economies too. Of all the sectors that have the potential to provide rural employment, agriculture and craft are the two most obvious examples. Many of the migrants who have returned are, in fact, craftspeople.

Crafts provide the second-largest source of livelihood in India and are a source of employment even in the most remote parts of the country. Fifty per cent of artisans are women. Crafts create little or no carbon footprint. They preserve an important element of India’s traditional culture. Unfortunately, however, they have been ignored by economists. No reliable database of craft activities has been created. Mahatma Gandhi recognised this neglect of artisans as a problem and said that if recognition and encouragement were not forthcoming, we would be guilty of strangling them with our own hands. Giving the prestigious CD Deshmukh lecture at Delhi’s India International Centre, Ashoke Chatterjee, former executive director of the National Institute of Design and adviser to the Crafts Council of India, said, “This lack of awareness has meant that the development of crafts has not been given any priority.”

Once again, artisans have been largely ignored in the measures announced to cope with the crisis created by the pandemic in the address by the finance minister. Giving crafts their rightful place in the economy will provide livelihoods that will provide villagers with the opportunity to stay at home.

The views expressed are personal


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