Why Modi’s lockdown led hundreds of thousands to reverse migrate back home to rural villages

Ritu Jha-

Finding no resource to sustain the 21-day sudden lockdown, hundreds of thousands of daily-wage workers, migrants who worked in India’s capital, opted to go on foot, walking back home in what experts believe has to happen one day, something the government should have thought about before implementing lockdown, others say.

On the night of March 24 during his 8 p.m. national speech, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to stop the spread of the monster coronavirus, took a bold step by ordering a complete national shutdown and urging people to stay home and not come out.

But the sudden pouring out of Indians workers holding kids and luggage on shoulders walking 1,000 miles stunned not just the prime minister himself but the people sitting 10,000 miles away in the US as well.

The actual numbers of people migrating are not known, but news media say millions. The outcry and the scene was so overwhelming that the prime minister apologized during his signature radio show “Mann Ki Baat” to the people for the “discomfort” caused because of the lockdown but also addressed the step was taken to save lives.

“It is a horrible situation, Anjini Kocher, former director of the India Program at the Stanford Center for International Development (SCID), told indica. “Since the public were given only 4 hours’ notice on the order, the level of panic that was created was tremendous.”

Kocher added that for many migrants to urban areas, all sources of income have dried up, while the costs of staying in the city – rent, even in slums – make their position untenable.

“For most migrants, with no source of income, the prospects in rural India where they have homes and possibly some income are better,” Kocher said. “And, migrants are far less covered under existing welfare schemes, of which the most important one for families now is the Public Distribution System (PDS).”

Explaining further the underlying issues in the existing welfare schemes she said that migrants do not have access to PDS. The Government was set to initiate a scheme to enable this (the One Nation One Ration card scheme) in June 2020. As of now, it has only been piloted in a few states. Without this, migrants have access to PDS in their homes (rural areas) but not in urban areas.

Silicon Valley veteran Venture Capitalist Kanwal Rekhi, reacting to Modi’s sudden shutdown and echoing what Kocher told indica, said the daily wage earners and migrant workers are not visible to the policy makers. They cannot survive without those daily wages. They are doing what they have to survive, heading back to their villages. The lockdown decision was sudden and caught them by surprise.

On Modi’s sudden demonetization policy and announcement, Rekhi said, “This group was also ravished by the demonetization. Prime Minister Modi means well, but he needs to think through these decisions.”

When asked about Modi’s apology, Rekhi replied, “Modi did apologize because he saw the impact on these migrant workers, who live close to the edge.”

Sharing his thoughts on the reverse migration, Dilip Mookherjee,  professor of Economics at Boston University and the author of “The Crisis in Government Accountability: Governance Reforms and Indian Economic Performance,” said the main concern was migrants’ health and preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Mookherjee told indica he believes the first and foremost that it is very important to prevent people from moving out of their current locations to contain the spread of novel coronavirus infections.

As of Monday, there were 1,251 positive cases and 32 died of COVID-19, and although the number looks small compared to cases in the US a recent report says an increase in infections is on its way.

Mookherjee said the migrants should be provided food, shelter and care in cities and towns, as the Chinese did by converting stadiums and large halls, so they can cope temporarily in their current locations.

And keep supply channels (e.g. mandis) flowing as normally as possible, supplemented by the movement of grains through the public distribution system, to prevent food shortages, and use direct bank transfers and other facilities to provide financial support to the poor.

Under the Modi government’s flagship “Jan Dhan program,” over 80% of people in India have bank accounts though no savings.

Prof. Solomon Darwin, executive director of the  Center for Corporate Innovation and the Center for Growth Markets at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, shared what Mahatma Gandhi said, that “the soul of India lives in its villages.”

Villages are home to approximately 70% of the Indian population, said Darwin, who has expertise in Smart Village Movement. Migrant workers, whoever they may be, in times of crisis and distress, their souls desire to return home – to their roots to be at peace within themselves.

The University of California, Berkeley started the Smart Village Movement three years ago to make villages self-sustainable through digital technologies.

“They are going back because there is a community, there is an ecosystem, interdependence, and closeness to the soil, and because most villages are built near lakes and other water sources,” Darwin said.

When asked why they migrated to the city, Darwin said, “This is the problem. I come from a village in Mori, India. It has the Godavari River and gets acres of rice paddy and no labor to till the ground because everyone is going to Dubai, Delhi, and Mumbai. People look for easier and quick forms of life.”

So now Modi should think about implementing Smart Villages, Darwin said. “I think city life is not sustainable in the long run as the husband works out but still keeps the family gathered, and we have an example if you see what is happening.”

An example from his own life, Darwin said his grandparents had to leave Burma when the Japanese started bombing in late the 1930s, they walked all the way with bags for months to get back to India, heading toward their own village they left.

They went back home for many of the same reasons people are returning home today – there is a community there and other places are alien. They lost everything they had. It was a little harder but were living.

So ,when crises happen, villages always have something to offer, and the sustainable ecosystems provide food, while the city is all concrete, Darwin said.

Many people who work in irrigation work for a landlord, which is more natural than the artificiality of the city, and it’s crises that drive people back to the original habitat, Darwin said.

“There is such thing as social capital. We focus on financial capital and Wall Street but social capital, when people come together is more powerful than the financial capital,” Darwin said.

Airbnb and Uber are examples of social capital, not financial capital,  and when people came together they have changed the law, Darwin said.

He said technological advances have helped with village life.

“We are working with large technology companies in villages through digital technology and teaching them skills, and they can work in their own village and create jobs.”

“A village is a brand, and each has its identity and legacy and tradition and is known for something. And there is heritage and lineage, and that makes us human,” he said, so this reverse migration is “Going back to the roots.”

However, he hopes villages can sustain.

“If the economy collapses, we have to rethink, and re-envision. It’s painful, but it’s good, it’s heathy, because we re-evaluate and return to the morals and values we once had.”

Darwin believes some good will come from the pandemic ravaging the world’s communities.

“So, what I believe is this coronavirus is helping people, families come back together. People come to awareness and realization of what is the true value of life,” Darwin said.

“Crises are good, and the greatest crises that happened in India was Spanish flu (1918) and 18 million people died. Mahatma Gandhi was infected as well,” he said.

Mahatma Gandhi, Darwin said, got attention after the Spanish flu. And the British were not able to take care of people, who began to realize the British administration should change. Gandhi used that as a platform to mobilize the masses to gain India’s independence, Darwin said. And now the same thing is happening and something good will come out of coronavirus.

“So, this is a blessing. We’ve forgotten a lot of good values.”

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