No escape from environmental distress as migrants return home in pandemic lockdown

Millions of migrant communities rushed to return to their villages amid the pandemic-associated lockdown in India. Photo by Prerna Prasad.

Millions of migrant communities rushed to return to their villages amid the pandemic-associated lockdown in India. Photo by Prerna Prasad.

  • The 21-day nation-wide lockdown in India, to contain the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a mass exodus of internal migrant workers returning to their homes.
  • For much of the migrant population that moved out from rural India to cities following environmental and climate related challenges, the return home after the lockdown brings them back to deal with the environmental stressors they left behind.
  • Food security will likely be a major concern for migrant populations, particularly for children. Disbursement of relief, adequate quarantine facilities in villages and creating livelihood opportunities in native villages are key challenges to manage the COVID-19 related migrant exodus.

Forced by crop failures due to the delayed monsoon in 2019, Dipu, a farmer from the Sundarbans islands in east India, moved to Tamil Nadu on the south-eastern coast in February this year (2020) in search of a better future. But a month-and-a-half later, Dipu is now compelled to once again think of the environmental challenges back home in the islands, because of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) associated lockdown. The lockdown has left Dipu without a livelihood in Erode, in Tamil Nadu, which accommodates more than a million migrant workers, largely in the manufacturing, textile and construction sectors.

Dipu moved his extended family of 15 out of agriculture to Erode in Tamil Nadu to pick up work in the construction sector.

“We have been stuck without adequate food for days and I have an infant. Even if we go back to Sundarbans we don’t know what awaits us. We are not sure of the prospects for earning money. Will we get our job back in Erode? Last year we could only harvest four to five sacks of paddy from our small plot of land back home,” Dipu, who hails from Satjelia island in the Sundarbans, told Mongabay-India from Erode.

The Indian government imposed a 21-day nation-wide lockdown on India’s 1.3 billion people starting on March 25, to contain the pandemic through social distancing.

The lockdown sparked a mass migration as migrant workers bereft of jobs or pay due to the three-week lockdown were left in the lurch.

Wanting to return home, millions of migrant workers like Dipu, are either stuck in the cities they had moved to for work or are in transition, moving back to their villages from cities.

Madan Mondal managed to return home to the Bali island of the Sundarbans from Mangalore in Karnataka, in the nick of time.

“I have been under quarantine for two weeks and I have been tested on entry to the islands, which was thankfully before the 21-day lockdown was declared,” Mondal said, adding that he did face intense scrutiny on potentially carrying the virus because he is a migrant worker.

But Madan who was employed in the tailoring sector in Mangalore faces an uncertain future like Dipu.

“My father used to fish for livelihood but now he is 70 and my mother is old too so they are unable to work. I can no longer depend on the mangrove forest for a livelihood because it is not safe. There are repeated tiger attacks. We are waiting and watching what happens,” said Madan

Returning to the environment pressures they left behind

Instead of solace, Madan and Dipu are back to square one at home: dealing with environmental stressors that have forced them to move in the first place.

In India’s Sundarbans region, where 54 of the 102 islands support human settlements, one in five households now has at least one family member who has migrated, said Tuhin Ghosh, a climate scientist at Jadavpur University’s School of Oceanographic Studies, referring to his study.

Environmental stresses, such as sea-level rise and erosion, indirectly disrupt livelihood security and can contribute to economic circumstances that necessitate migration in the delta. People are shifting from traditional farm-based economies to labour-based ones, Ghosh added.

Read more: Migration aiding Sundarbans youth, women to adapt to climate uncertainties

A recent estimate by India’s Labour and Employment Ministry, referring to migration between states in the country, pegs the size of the migrant workforce in 2016 at over 100 million (10 crore). The Economic Survey 2016-17 said labour migration in India is increasing at an accelerating rate. Between 2011 and 2016, an average of nine million Indians migrated between states every year for either education or work, the survey said.

According to Census 2011, 37 percent of India’s population are internal migrants with 41.4 million people migrating within the country for work/employment. As per the census, with regards to the agriculture sector in particular, the total number of agricultural workers in the country has increased from 2001 to 2011 while the share of workforce engaged in the agriculture sector (comprising cultivators and agricultural labourers) in this period has come down.

Researchers have argued that while migration from dryland, semi-arid parts of India, as well as mountain regions, has been happening because of multiple reasons, climate change is a threat multiplier, which means climate change often exacerbates reasons for migrating.

The World Migration Report 2020 states that more internal displacements are being caused due to extreme weather events than conflict or violence. More than 2.7 million people were displaced in the country due to tropical storms and floods in 2018. It also mentions that there has been growing recognition in recent years of the need to better integrate migration into global climate and environmental mechanisms, and for climate change mechanisms to incorporate human mobility aspects.

Migrants walk from Delhi to their homes in Ghaziabad after the national COVID-19 lockdown was imposed. Photo by Prerna Prasad.
Migrants walk from Delhi to their homes in Ghaziabad after the national COVID-19 lockdown was imposed. Photo by Prerna Prasad.

Public health concerns as migrant workers return home

But the mobility of migrant workers in India due to the lockdown has triggered fresh concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

However, Ghosh adds: “There are several diseases that migrant workers carry. One example is HIV/AIDS. Usually, there is not so much of a discussion on that. That is a slow and gradual process. So that flies under the radar.”

Ghosh questioned the absence of surveillance for migrant populations.

“It is important for the state governments to establish monitoring processes. If district officials maintain a register on who is going out and when and their return, that can serve as an important surveillance tool to ensure safety and security of migrant populations,” said Ghosh.

“In this emergency, it was really important to monitor the migrants returning to the delta. They should have been quarantined in any government establishment, like multipurpose cyclone shelters with sufficient supply and proper health monitoring, until they are fit to move back with their family,” Ghosh added.

Researchers working on migrant health, for instance have observed high incidence of diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, as well as chronic levels of hypertension and diabetes among workers in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Similarly, a recent study undertaken at construction sites found that a large proportion of migrant children are malnourished, explained Indian Institute of Human Settlements researcher Divya Ravindranath, adding that migrants are least likely to access healthcare services.

Ravindranath says in this water-stressed tribal belt (including parts of states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra) people started migrating much before climate change garnered attention as a migration issue. This is true even for migrants in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

“In this particular belt, family members tend to migrate together and the migration is seasonal and they all work together. For example, Ahmedabad gets workers from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of Gujarat, who do agriculture for a few months in a year in their native villages and then go back to the city,” said Ravindranath.

Ravindranath said the present situation with the migrant populations may have nutritional implications. “Due to wage loss, food security is going to be a serious concern. It could have serious implications for children’s nutritional outcomes in particular. Though some relief packages have been announced, it is simply not clear how it will be delivered,” she said.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on March 26 announced a relief package for the poor and migrant workers in the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Noting the movement of migrant workers in some parts of the country, on March 29, the Centre asked states and union territories to effectively seal state and district borders to stop movements of migrant workers back to their home states during lockdown and stressed on adequate arrangements for food and shelter of poor and needy people including migrant labourers from other states.

Kushadhwaj Maity from the Sundarbans, who has picked up work in the construction sector in Palakkad in Kerala, expressed gratitude to the Kerala government for the provision of food and water after the lockdown was announced. Responding to his distress call, a Bengal-based NGO in coordination with media persons, alerted the authorities in Kerala.

“But I am worried about my family back home in Patharpratima in the Sundarbans. We can’t make calls every day because that will cost us money,” said Maity, explaining that he fishes for hilsa in the Bay of Bengal and works in Kerala when the seasonal fishing ban is imposed in Bengal.

Meanwhile, in Odisha, at least 84,000 migrant labourers working outside the state have returned home, according to the Odisha state government. Officials said the state has ensured food and accommodation for 23,133 ‘guest workers’ from outside the state stranded in Odisha at 336 camps in the state. These workers are primarily from West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Officials said that gram panchayats and zilla parishad authorities have been asked to monitor and ensure 14-day home quarantine for these migrant workers.

“Not all gram panchayats have prepared quarantine facilities. Additionally, the village communities are also not letting the returnees enter the villages in fear of catching infection,” said Kailash Das of the Odisha-based Regional Centre for Development Cooperation, referring to an incident in Kalahandi district in western Odisha.

As many as 12 migrant returnees who came back to the district from Kerala, pitched a tent in a paddy field and quarantined themselves for a couple of days before moving onto a school building and eventually their homes, on discovering the lack of a quarantine facility in their local village hospital or gram panchayat in Kalahandi. Many households from western Odisha, such as those in Kalahandi district, migrate during years of drought in search of alternative livelihood opportunities.

In Meghalaya, where illegal subsurface rat-hole mining still continues despite a ban imposed by the National Green Tribunal in 2014, Shillong-based human-rights defender Hasina Kharbhih is campaigning to press for diverting Rs. 800 crores that are supposed to be collected from mine owners to a COVID-19 fund to help the labourers in the state, including the migrant workers in the mines. “We are exploring options to impress upon the government that the Rs 800 crores, that is supposed to be collected from mine owners as per a National Green Tribunal ruling, should be put to use to dealing with the pandemic, including the labour aspect,” Kharbhih founder of  Impulse NGO Network, told Mongabay-India.

The rat-hole-mines grabbed global headlines in December 2018 when at least 15 workers were killed following a flooding incident inside an illegal mine in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills. In India, coal mines have claimed over 200 workers between 2015 and 2017. But economic conditions drive many to continue risking lives as coal miners.

Kharbhih and her team have been addressing the issue of human trafficking and child labour in the rat-hole coal mines of the Jaintia Hills district in Meghalaya, for over a decade, said that labourers from Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam and neighbouring country Nepal are employed in the illegal mines. “There are migrant populations, including children, who are still there but they are not in those numbers that we saw earlier. We are not having the mass exodus that we have seen around the country but it’s not that they are in great shape,” she said.

At one point before the 2014 NGT order, a staggering 70,000 children were working in the mines, either digging for coal or loading thousands of trucks bound for the energy-hungry industrial sector across India and into neighbouring Bangladesh.

Saji Philip of International Justice Mission, Kolkata, cautioned that perpetrators of bonded labour may lie dormant in this season and think of strategies.

“The economic crisis due to COVID-19 is going to make many families vulnerable. The civil society should take every step to support law enforcement to contain the sinister schemes of the people behind any form of crime,” said Philip.

“Only recently, our team in Telangana rescued bonded labourers from Bihar. We have become more vigilant because those who commit such crimes are viewing this as the right time to pull off their schemes under the radar. They are constantly monitoring the vulnerable to identify easy prey for both bonded labour and sex trafficking,” said Philip.

“As the cityscape of Indian metropolises changes with lockdown, narrow lanes look broad, birds return to the trees with pollution level hitting its new low and environmentalists celebrating it as ideal, migrant labour in an irony of history rushes back home with whatever they have, loaded on their heads and shoulders. It is important that we learn the lesson before it is too late,” added Samir Das of Calcutta Research Group, which works extensively on migration-related issues.

Banner image: Millions of migrant communities rushed to return to their villages amid the pandemic-associated lockdown in India. Photo by Prerna Prasad.

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