Madhav Shep, 30, has a straightforward answer to those wondering if the migrant workers will come back to the cities once the threat around coronavirus subsides. "We have no choice," he says. "There is little work back home. Why do you think so many of us left our villages and moved to cities in the first place?"
Shep hails from Ambejogai in Maharashtra's Beed district. Beed is part of the agrarian region of Marathwada, which accounted for 34 percent of nearly 12,000 farm suicides in the state between 2015 and 2018. "I do not have farmland of my own," he says. "I would depend on farmers in and around Ambejogai for employment."
However, because of the mismatch between investment and returns, the farmers are not able to make a profit out of their crops. Further, the weather is getting increasingly erratic with climate change, leading to hailstorms and cloudbursts rupturing miles of farmlands in minutes. Therefore, struggling farmers have found it difficult to employ landless agricultural labourers like Shep the way they used to.
Shep worked as an agricultural labourer in Ambejogai up until two years ago. Eventually, he gave up and migrated to Pune. "I have a wife and two kids," he says. "I could not depend on sporadic wages in villages to feed my family."
In Pune, he did odd painting jobs in the city before lockdown, making Rs 12,000 a month. "It is not much, but the income is at least consistent," says Shep. "I got back home from Pune because the work stopped after lockdown. But I would have to go back once everything gets back to normal."
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March, migrant workers have made desperate attempts to return home. Mumbai and Pune, which have a large population of these workers, have witnessed harrowing scenes of hardship.
Besides, there is a huge amount of intra-state migration too, where people, particularly from the poorer agrarian regions of Marathwada and Vidarbha, migrate to urban centres in Maharashtra for labour work.
Bachchu Kadu, farm leader, and currently Minister of State, Labour Department, says around 10,000-12,000 people from every rural constituency migrate to urban centres in the state. There are 144 rural constituencies in Maharashtra, meaning at least 15-17 lakh people migrate within the state. "There is no profit in farming," he says. "That compels people to seek employment in cities."
Since lockdown, though, they have all desperately tried to get away from the cities to their villages. Savita Jadhav, 32, from Vidarbha's Washim district, had to walk for 14 hours with her three-year-old daughter in her arms just to reach the point from where the state had organised buses for the migrant workers in Thane. She worked at construction sites before lockdown. "The contractor that usually employs us switched off his phone," she says. "We were reduced to seeking meals from well-meaning people during the lockdown."
Several observers, pointing at how the lockdown has robbed the workers of their dignity where they had to depend on charity for even one meal a day, speculated whether the workers would ever come back to the cities. However, interactions with several of them who are currently in their villages indicate they would return, for they have little choice.
Shep returned to Ambejogai on his Scooty with the family on 10 May. He completed the 350-kilometre journey in 13 hours and then spent the next 14 days outside the village in a makeshift hut at a farm. "The sarpanch told us we had to quarantine ourselves," he said. "We got in the village after we completed the 14-day period."
The villages receiving residents returning from Mumbai or Pune are following strict protocols to avoid the spread of coronavirus into the vast expanse of rural Maharashtra. The Zila Parishad schools have been converted into quarantine centres. The village sarpanches have been tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the people returning to his or her village are quarantined before they mix with others.
However, the health infrastructure across rural India is abysmal. And Maharashtra is no exception. Shep says everyone in Ambejogai is aware that the district hospital in Beed would be overwhelmed if the cases of coronavirus rise here. "That makes us feel more paranoid," he says. "I sneezed the other day, and suddenly I got conscious."
Shep's village does not have a Zila Parishad school nearby to be turned into quarantine centre, so he was asked to quarantine in a farm outside the village. The farmlands too have been idle. "There is no activity here," he says. "The only reassurance is we would not starve here because we can get enough food grain through labour work. But what about medical expenses or school fees of my kids? How do I pay for that?"
Shep's testimony is merely a representation of the acute rural distress, which triggers large-scale migration towards urban centres. According to the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) of 2011, out of the nearly 1.4 crore rural households in entire Maharashtra, more than six million, or 44 percent, households depended solely on manual labour.
To address the issue of residents in the rural areas not finding work where they live, the Centre came up with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2005, which promised to provide 100 days of employment in the unskilled sector in rural India.
However, it has barely managed to make an impact due to shoddy enforcement. According to its website, only 15.37 lakh households were employed under the scheme in Maharashtra in the financial year of 2019-20. That too, the average days of employment provided per household stood at 40.96 when the promise is to provide 100 days of work.
Latur-based environment journalist Atul Deulgaonkar says if we want to improve the condition of migrant workers, we would have to bolster agriculture and rural economy. "By destroying livelihoods in villages, we have left migrant workers at the mercy of those who employ them in urban areas," he says. "Until we fix that, desperate workers would continue to migrate and get exploited in cities. Migration should be driven by aspiration, not survival."
Besides the six million that are dependent on manual labour, there are five million households in Maharashtra that rely on cultivation. They too are grappling with the agrarian distress and exploring opportunities in the cities.
Jairam Pande, 45, resident of a remote Taluka of Jalkot in Latur district, returned home in the first week of May. He worked as a driver in Thane, earning Rs 14,000 a month. He has 4-acre farmland in the village. But he has been living away for 15 years. "Before Thane, I worked as a truck driver in Gujarat," he says. "Before migrating out of Jalkot, I used to farm with my younger brother. When we realized it is impossible to sustain the household, I migrated, and my brother started looking after the farmland."
The land in Jalkot is mostly barren. The water availability is sparse. "Every season is worse than the previous one," Jairam says. "The uncertainty is stressful. There is no future in farming. I would not wish it upon my enemy. I had no option but to move out."
In Thane, the cases of coronavirus are rising alarmingly. Jairam is relieved to have dodged it, but he knows he would be back in no time. "The thought of going back is scary," he says. "But the idea of living in the village without work is scarier."