Sachin Kumar went hungry for four days after India entered into an abrupt nationwide coronavirus lockdown in March.
The 30-year-old had lost his job earning about Rs9,000 ($120) a month at an electric-bulb factory in the historic quarter of the capital, New Delhi.
By April, out of money and food, Mr Kumar borrowed Rs3,000 to hitch a truck ride back to his home village some 500 miles east in the state of Uttar Pradesh after nine years in Delhi. He had been the sole breadwinner, remitting money back to his family of six.
He is one of millions of destitute labourers who have left India’s cities for their rural homes in recent months. “Lockdown snatched our bread from us,” he said. “I had no choice but to leave.”
Shaken by the ordeal, Mr Kumar hopes he doesn’t have to return to the city. He has been reunited with his wife and young daughters, and found work labouring on nearby farms.
“I am so relieved to be back,” he said. “It is much better than starving in the city. But I hope the government is able to give us more work.”
A farmer tills the soil on a rice plantation in the Nagaon district of Assam, northeastern India © STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
As India reopens from its lockdown, policymakers and businesses are reckoning with the economic — and humanitarian — consequences of this epic reverse migration. It has left millions without work, drained metropolises of labourers and cut off flows of internal remittances that are a lifelines to rural communities.
India’s gross domestic product is expected to contract by 3 per cent this year, according to financial information firm Moody’s, while the International Labour Organization has estimated that 400m informal workers were at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the lockdown.
While cities have been the worst hit, the coronavirus is spreading in rural communities partly as a result of returning migrants. The South Asian country of 1.3bn has the world’s third highest caseload at more than 1.1m confirmed infections.
The World Bank says that a large proportion of India’s 40m internal migrants were badly affected by the draconian shutdown. In the absence of concrete data on movement, Irudaya Rajan, a professor at India’s Centre for Development Studies, estimates that as much as 30 per cent of migrant labourers in Indian cities have left and expects outflows to continue through 2020.
“This is the first time in the history of migration [in independent India] that returning migrants are going back to rural areas with empty hands,” he said. “Whenever they used to go home, they used to take money and gifts for family, neighbours and distant relatives. This time they were begging for train tickets and bottles of water.”
Many factories now report shortages of workers as they try to resume activity — a task complicated as the raging virus forces some of the largest metropolises back into lockdown.
Venu Srinivasan, chairman of leading motorcycle maker TVS, said factories and their suppliers face shortages of workers like welders and spray painters. Maintaining operations was further complicated after Chennai, the southern Indian city where TVS is based, went back into lockdown last month.
Mr Srinivasan said the automobile industry around cities such as Delhi was likely to be even harder hit by the shortages of migrants.
Stranded migrant workers wait for medical screenings before boarding a train to Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh state after the government eased the nationwide lockdown © Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty
“Those people have really had a great struggle, and trials and tribulations, to get back to their villages,” he said. They’re “not going to come back until they know that it’s really under control . . . Getting to full production is going to be a challenge”.
Yet authorities hope some unexpected bright spots, particularly in rural areas where migrants have returned, could shield India’s economy from the worst effects of the pandemic.
The government has amped up its 15-year-old National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which provides a minimum 100 days of work per year to informal labourers. This has created a record number of jobs under the scheme and helped rural employment to rebound faster than in cities.
A good ongoing monsoon season is also expected to help produce bumper crops. Improving rural demand has contributed to an uptick in sales for everything from tractors to biscuits.
Kamlesh Kumar, 49, who returned to eastern Uttar Pradesh after losing his job as a carpenter in the western city of Pune, secured work building roads through the government’s rural jobs scheme, as well as sowing rice on nearby farms.
Scarred by his experience of running out of food and money in the city, he is determined to stay put but worries desperation will eventually pull him back.
“It would be wonderful if I can stay home and wouldn’t have to work in the city. At least we can breathe fresh air here,” he said. “But the farm work is not reliable . . . We are poor, we don’t choose. We just live life as it comes.”
Some state governments facing influxes of returning migrants, including Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest, have moved to relax regulations including labour laws that business groups argue hold back economic activity.
Critics say the changes weaken health and safety protections, and are being rushed through without adequate public debate.
Many economists are sceptical that doubling-down on rural India’s economy during the pandemic can compensate for decades of underdevelopment.
“There’s a reason why all these folks left the countryside,” said Vivek Dehejia, an associate professor at Carleton University. “The damage to the economy is going to be very hard to reverse.”
Jitendra Kumar, for one, has not been fortunate on his return home. The 26-year-old has not been able to find work since returning to his village from Delhi, where he had worked as a mechanic.
“Now that I have managed to escape the city because of the pandemic, I would love to be able to stay here in the village,” he said. “But there’s no work.”
Additional reporting by Andrea Rodrigues