Millions of migrant workers have returned home under the imposed blockade to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It caused a reverse migration. If the situation persists, it can be negative impact the economy and make recovery is difficult.

Why the opposite migration taking place?

Migration from the countryside to the city is the key to the development of any country. In the case of India, the surplus agricultural labour migrates in search of employment in more productive sectors. However, most migrant workers in urban areas are informal and cannot provide social security. A shock like that of Kovid-19 could put migrant workers in a vulnerable position, where reverse migration seems to be the most logical mechanism at their disposal. The fear of losing their livelihood and housing in urban areas during the blockade forced migrant workers to return home.

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Are there jobs for them in the rural economy?

India’s overburdened and agriculture-dependent economy is understaffed and unable to support the millions of workers returning home. The over-dependence on agriculture and the lack of a diversified economic structure make it difficult for to create to work with alternative sources of employment. Programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the decision to support micro, small and medium sized enterprises may help revitalise the rural economy, but may not be enough to enable them to work in rural areas.

Will migrant workers return to urban areas?

It is likely that the return migration will be temporary and will return to normal once the Covid-19 threat is gone. However, the rural economy cannot meet the wage expectations of interstate migrants. As India develops, jobs will be created in all sectors. This will gradually lead to an increase in migration from rural to urban areas.

How can this affect the economy?

With India resuming economic activity after the blockade, labour shortages in city centres are having an impact and could slow down economic recovery, which could affect social stability. The construction sector, which is the largest job creator in the country, already suffers from a serious labour shortage. Labour productivity in agriculture is lower than labour productivity in cities. The return of millions of workers to the rural economy could reduce the country’s productivity and prolong economic recovery after the 19th century.

Who can withstand the heat of return migration?

Countries with high migration rates to urban areas also have high unemployment rates. It can be extremely difficult for them to accept returning migrants, especially for fear of escalation in the spread of of covid-19, which could cause a health crisis in an already overburdened economy. On the other hand, wealthy states in western and southern India receiving guest workers are under pressure to send them home to prevent unrest.

Joomar Mehta is a development finance consultant in Delhi.

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