On March 24, in a speech to the nation, Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, announced a 21-day lockdown. With only four hours’ notice, 1.3 billion people were expected to stay at home and not venture out for three weeks. All buses, trains and domestic air flights were suspended. But the authorities had not planned for, much less prepared for, how to handle an abrupt lockdown in such a vast, complex and unequal country.
Panic and chaos ensued. Across the country, the affluent began hoarding food, medicines and other supplies while the poor worried about their livelihoods and the homeless wondered where they might shelter. A mass migration began: hundreds of thousands of migrant workers started to flee cities and towns for their village homes, becoming the most visible human face of a humanitarian crisis. Images flooded the airways: migrant workers standing in congested queues hoping to find a space in (or on) the last trains or buses; migrant workers beginning the long homeward march on foot. Along the way, migrants could not easily find food, drink or a place to rest as everything was closed. Some were sprayed with disinfectants. As a final cruel blow, many migrants were turned back at state borders that had been sealed. It is impossible to fathom the anguish migrant workers felt with no place to go, no food, no solace, only hostile police to confront.
But the plight of the migrant workers is only the tip of a far larger humanitarian crisis unfolding among the working poor in India’s informal economy. Estimates based on the 2017-18 labor force survey of India indicate that there are over 415 million informal workers in India, representing 90 per cent of the country’s total workforce; and nearly 28 million rural-to-urban migrant workers, representing 7 per cent of the country’s informal workforce. The rural informal workforce includes small farmers, landless laborers, shepherds, fisherfolk, weavers and artisans, forest gatherers, food processors and more. The urban informal workforce includes construction day laborers and tradesmen, domestic workers, manufacturing workers (in factories, workshops or homes), street vendors, transport workers and waste pickers.
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[Published by: UNU-WIDER; This article first appeared on WIEGO]