“I was very scared. What kind of a disease is this? How will I manage with my small children here? Whatever happens I will never return to Surat again.”

Durgabai, an Adivasi woman migrant worker from Udaipur, Rajasthan, was recalling her horrendous experience during the Covid-19 lockdown in Surat, where she had migrated with her family to work as a casual construction labourer. Her anxieties about returning to the city in which she had been stuck for 40 days with little food or money reflect those of the large numbers of Adivasi workers who migrate from tribal dominated, remote, rural regions of southern Rajasthan to large cities in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Seasonal migration for work has become an irreversible phenomenon in many parts of India. It is a key livelihood strategy for more than 60% of households in southern Rajasthan, the majority of whom are impoverished, tribal families. They are being pushed to find informal and casual work in urban areas due to a lack of sufficient rural employment, severe indebtedness and landlessness, accompanied by the gradual extinction of traditional forest-based livelihoods.

This form of migration, driven by desperation, forces workers to take up work for very low wages with poor or non-existent protection and benefits.

Another layer of precarity

Durgabai’s anxieties about Surat were not restricted to the fear of contracting the Covid-19, but a sense of isolation her family experienced in the city – contractors and employers who abandoned them, the city administration and society at large that were apathetic towards their plight. Working conditions for migrant workers have always been defined by uncertainty due to a lack of formal contracts or standard employment relationships, giving them no grounds to seek work-based entitlements.

However, they are faced with yet another layer of precarity in the cities. Despite possessing the constitutional right to work and live across the country, the lack of city-based domicile documents left them excluded from being recognised as urban residents during the pandemic. This disenfranchised them entirely of their rights as workers and citizens. Their access to food, shelter, water, sanitation and healthcare was almost entirely compromised during the lockdown.

For migrant workers like Durga bai, the predicament they faced during lockdown was not new – it had only been compounded in the aftermath of the restrictions.

A couple in Chennai waits to board a train to Rajasthan. Credit: Arun Sankar/AFP

Tribal migrants often end up as “circular migrants”, representing the poorest groups among all migrant workers. Despite spending between three to 11 months a year in the cities where they work, they are unable to settle in the city on the account of informal work that they do. The wages that they receive for informal work are very low. They are deprived of any kind of security.

They perform unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in the construction, small manufacturing or small hotels and restaurants, with little scope for vertical mobility in their occupations or upward social mobility in the cities.

In order to understand how the vulnerabilities distinctly specific to this group were aggravated in the aftermath of the lockdown, Aajeevika Bureau, a labour rights organisation, conducted a telephone survey with 426 migrant workers from the five tribal-dominated districts of southern Rajasthan: Udaipur, Dungarpur, Pratapgarh, Banswara and Sirohi.

Loss of jobs and spread of hunger

Migrant workers were probably group across India worst hit by the lockdown, facing widespread starvation. During the lockdown, 100% of those surveyed had lost their jobs, with workers being out of work for 38 days on average during March and April when the survey was conducted. This directly resulted in hunger.

Ninety two per cent of workers reported that they had cut down their daily expenses. Their daily food consumption took the greatest hit. The instances of work loss and hunger was not a momentary phenomenon for the workers in the city but a repeat of the crisis precipitated by demonetisation in 2014.

Divide and exploit

Most migrant workers come from socially marginalised communities, and this forms the basis of their insecurity in the cities. Workers in urban labour markets are divided on the basis of caste and gender identities, which determines what kinds of jobs they are able to access. For instance, those who work as chefs or cooks in cities such as Ahmedabad and Surat are typically non-Dalit or non-tribal migrant workers, whereas dish washing is reserved exclusively for Adivasi migrant workers. Dishwashing work is generally considered unskilled and less dignified because it involves cleaning.

On the other hand, cooking is a highly skilled profession, looked upon as a respectable professional meant only for the upper caste and class groups. It is seldom or never alloted to Dalits or tribal workers. This is just one example of the caste hierarchies that influence the division of labour in the informal economy.

Cashless due to absence of state support

Circular migrants have no tenure over their homes, no contracts for employment or registration in cities to be able to access welfare. In fact, there is no official data available about this group, a reason often cited by government bodies for why enough is not done for them. Furthermore, many are also excluded from welfare schemes back home in their villages. Notwithstanding numerous relief packages announced by the state and Central governments, for the poor, to be distributed through the document-based framework, 44% of circular migrant workers surveyed did not get any form of financial support.

This has rendered them cashless. Almost 57% of workers surveyed did not have any cash in hand, while 22% only between Rs. 100-Rs 500 towards the end of the second phase of lockdown.

No social networks in the cities

The desperation of migrant workers to return to their villages during the lockdown has often been misinterpreted to believe that they were longing for their homes and that their sole intention was to meet their families.. However, the migrant workers surveyed reported that it was the absolute lack of access to any social networks in the cities where they worked that was the basis of their fear, prompting them brave police violence and tortuous journeys – sometimes on foot – to get home.

Migrant workers have low social capital in the city, where their social support systems are fragmented. In the village, about 45% of workers have reported relying on their social networks for support during the crisis. Only 7% reported that they are able to rely on the government.

A migrant family walks home. Credit: AFP

Vicious cycle of wage fraud and indebtedness

Without any support from employers or the state, migrant workers in cities were compelled to take loans in cash or kind in order to meet minimum consumption requirements. Almost 48% of workers surveyed had made borrowings, with the amount ranging from Rs 600 to Rs 9,000. Further, about 30% of the workers reported that payments for work done prior to lockdown remain stuck with their employers. They had no means of reclaiming this.

The non-payment of wages and rising indebtedness pushes them into a trap of chronic, irreversible poverty. Given the irregular access to jobs and the income loss, workers are forced to take multiple loans at high interest-rates for their immediate survival. This weakens their bargaining power and eventually puts them into a predicament of constant indebtedness.

Public empathy and hostility

Migrant workers face high degrees of socio-cultural exclusion in the cities where they work. Despite widespread public empathy for migrant workers, their social marginalisation in the cities is a direct result of their inability to pervade public consciousness as equal citizens, but merely as the “commodity of labour”.

Public hostility to migrant workers manifests itself in many forms. Migrant workers are viewed as unclean, with their informal settlements in the city being perceived as making middle-class neighbourhoods dirty. They viewed with suspicion, facing extensive criminalisation as outsiders and workers.

Pushed to return

Despite having felt alienated in cities during the lockdown, many workers have chosen to come back. “Farming is not a viable option for us, so we returned,” said Savita, from South Rajasthan , who returned to Surat in June. soon after she received a call from her contractor, even though she had received no support from him during the lockdown.She works as labourer in the construction work along with her family.

The survey showed that 69% of workers wanted to come back to the city again on the relaxation of the lockdown by the month of June. However, a large section of migrant workers who want to return are those with a single earning member with family sizes ranging from four to eight dependents. The lack of access to paid employment, other than the insecure, informal and devalued work accessible in cities, forces migrant workers to return.

Despite a migrant exodus unparalleled in India’s modern history, the coronavirus lockdown has not led to more inclusive urban policies that recognise and include migrants.

With inputs from Saloni, Jibitesh, and Santosh Poonia from the field office of the Aajeevika Bureau.

Vikas Kumar works with Aajeevika Bureau as a labor policy analyst in Bengaluru.