Malani: The Return of Workers to Cities isn’t a Sign of Normalcy

The Return of Workers to Cities isn’t a Sign of Normalcy

Covid-ravaged cities may get a quick boost from returning workers but could yet lose their attraction

As India started to emerge from its lockdown, the exodus of daily-wage labourers from cities to their ancestral homes in rural areas surged. One reason was lack of work, since urban zones faced restrictions on commercial activity. The other was a fear of covid-19. Perhaps as many as 11 million left. As work and economic activity in cities splutters to life, however, we are seeing workers return. This reversal has implications both for the spread of covid and the urban economy.

During the phase when workers were returning to their home states from areas with high prevalence, there were concerns that they would spread covid to rural areas, which had hitherto avoided the epidemic. Receiving states gave returnees a lukewarm embrace. On the one hand, many workers underwent institutional quarantine for 14 days. As the flow became too large to manage, workers were asked to stay under home quarantine. On the other hand, in some instances receiving states paid for train tickets, mapped the skills of returning workers to help match them with jobs available locally, and provided financial assistance.

The outward flow from cities was so large that many feared large-scale “de-urbanization". Casual surveys of slums showed that in some of them, 25-50% of residents had left. This is a challenge for those who remain. Many residents of slums provide goods and services to customers in slums. With a quarter or more gone, so does their income. The reduction in population also reduced slums’ collective bargaining power vis-a-vis authorities, leaving those who remain more vulnerable to evictions. What’s more, cities also depend on the poor for various functions. They provide drivers, cleaners and cooks, for example; they build infrastructure and housing. Cities, in turn, generate most of India’s economic output.

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