Chinmay Tumbe interview: ‘Before announcing lockdown, assuring migrant workers would have helped’

Seema Chishti
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Migrant workers and their family members waiting to leave for their villages outside Allahabad bus station in the wake of a nationwide lockdown . (Express Photo by Ritesh Shukla)

Economist Chinmay Tumbe, author most recently of India Moving - A History of Migration and an Assistant Professor at IIM (Ahmedabad) spoke to Seema Chishti on the many implications of the surging crowds of migrants anxious to go home in the wake of the national lockdown.

Given the sudden rush we see of our migrants, what are your biggest concerns?

That migrants' health takes a huge beating in this process. That the already-malnourished will suffer immensely. The mental stress induced by the long walk back home. And that for a few who may test Covid-19 positive, the fatality rates may be higher, only because of the long walk back home.

What is it that suddenly makes places they set out to make a life to, so inhospitable for them? Is it just economic?

One needs to understand the psychology of the circular migrant worker. The city is seen as a means to an end of providing for the family back home. In times of distress, whether a recession or a pandemic, 'home' is the native place and migrants set off. The economic dimension comes from paying housing rents which one can save on, if one leaves the city. But more than that, its a natural tendency to be with parents and extended family back home, during times like these.

Alternatively, the sense of ‘being home’ you may have examined and thought about in the process of your work, is it that also which pushes people to do extreme things like take even infants and walk for hundreds of kilometres?

Social security comes by 'being home' while economic security lies in the big city. When economic security is anyway not assured, migrants flee to access the security offered by the family and also official social security provided in regions where they are domiciled and can get access to. If official social security, for instance, access to rations and PDS is made truly universal, you would see less of this instant-flight behaviour.

Chinmay Tumbe, Asst. Prof, IIM-Ahmedabad

Could this, if so, how could this have been planned better?

While the government has to make many hard trade-offs, I think in this case what is blatant is the attitude towards international migrants - note the rescuing of stranded travellers abroad- versus the sudden lockdown without no prior notice given to internal migrants. The closest comparison of the long walks seen today is the Partition of 1947 and even then, transport options were open for some distances, and did not affect all parts of India. This could have been planned much better by announcing that along with the Sunday junta curfew, people would be given few days to go home if they choose to do so. Trains could have had important COVID-19 information dissemination outlets as millions took their journeys home. The idea that we should shut internal migrant workers in cities so that they don't take the epidemic back home is misplaced, as we are seeing now, because migrants will anyways try to scramble home, and that too under worse conditions. Ramping up of testing facilities and social distancing in key source-region districts was and is warranted. And above all, a clear message while announcing the lockdown, that all concerns of migrant workers would be addressed by provision of food, water and shelter in the cities. That would have reduced the need for instant-flight.

Are certain social groups more vulnerable in this?

To the extent that short-term seasonal migration is over-represented by historically marginalized social groups, they face the brunt of this crisis. But circular migration of longer durations also includes people across castes and social groups so everyone is affected.

Some sociologists have spoken of this as being the tip of a much bigger crisis India may be on, and not just a threat from the virus. Your thoughts?

This is a good time to conceive a new approach to providing social security to migrant workers. The Working Group on Migration published a report in 2017 by what was then called the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and that should be taken seriously. There is a serious public health issue faced by migrant workers which has little to do with COVID-19. Malnutrition levels among kids of construction workers on construction sites are on par with what is found in sub-Saharan Africa.

What are the other things this tells us about modern India. The implications of inequality, of course?

A little bit of history may be in order. When the plague hit Bombay in the late 1890s, the Bombay Improvement Trust was set up to improve, among other things, public hygiene. By some accounts, it ended up displacing more people that re-housing them. The fundamental issue at hand is the value of land in urban areas and its parcelling which has rarely been democratic and that continues to create precarious conditions for migrant workers, a century later. Urban planning has had a tenuous relationship with migrants in India because of powerful vested interests in urban property.

What are the levels of empathy amongst the small, but secure and powerful section of India?

High in theory, low in practice.

How many of us are bothered about the housing of the informal sector?

High in theory, low in practice.

When those from small towns or villages return home, suddenly, what are the problems that may await them? What might be done to prevent those problems?

Clear information campaigns that the return migrants are not necessarily a threat. Social distancing and enforced self-isolation as done with returning international migrants.

There were reports of people moving back to villages even after Demonetisation. In what was is this different?

It is different because there were transport options available then. You did not see long walks back home.

India’s move to urban areas was meant to take away from many social ills and practices as migrants became anonymous in a city. Do you expect this to be something whose impacts outlast that of the SARS-Cov-2 virus?

Anonymity is important and coupled with official social security, powerful. We have made tremendous progress in reducing norms on untouchability in India over the year and one hopes that current advices of social distancing do not outlive the pandemic.

How does any society really get back from here, a country of our size. Any historical parallels - or from another country you might wish to speak of - of how this could/might end?

The period circa 1896-1920 in Indian history can be characterised as the era of mass epidemics. Case-Fatality rates of plague and influenza in the Indian subcontinent were arguably the highest in recorded demographic history. Invention of vaccines and better knowledge of disease transmission eventually led to the fightback such that by the 1920s, India's death rate began to fall substantially. It can be argued that the process then was to naturally gain immunity against diseases allowing for high mortality, an option that is morally not acceptable in the 21st century. It will, of course, end, after which we should have a systematic action-plan on how not to repeat the mistakes being made today. I think the time for discussion on investment on public health is over.

Better to have over-capacity in the public health sector than under-capacity and to borrow the language of the RBI, the government should 'do what it takes' to make this happen.

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