Bihar's migrant crisis compounded by resource crunch and communication breakdown

Bihar is the poorest state of the country in per capita terms. Can it find the enormous resources required to fight the virus and its impact on the economy? writes Gulrez Hoda for South Asia Monitor

Gulrez Hoda May 22, 2020
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Historical moments throw up images which come to define such times: The long line of refugees trudging wearily along dusty paths during the partition of India; a naked child running away from a napalm bombing during the Vietnam War. The enduring image of the pandemic unleashed by the coronavirus in India, especially for me writing this in Bihar, will be the pain of the migrant labour. One image, in particular, that of a young man carrying his sick mother and walking to Bihar, will forever be etched in our consciousness. 

Bihar has always exported labour. Most shipped to the Caribbean or Fiji was from North Bihar (and East Uttar Pradesh). So were the mill workers in Bengal. Once the industrial centers moved west and agriculture prospered in Northwest India, Bihari labour went in droves to Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab. Since the 1991 economic liberalisation, they swarmed to Delhi National Capital Region (NCR) to work in construction and small industry. More recently, Kerala and Tamil Nadu had become attractive destinations. It’s no surprise then that a large number of migrants from Bihar were caught off guard when the lockdown was suddenly announced by the central government on March 24.

The total shutdown with four hours’ notice suspended all transport. Labour was advised to stay put where they were given the promise of food and shelter. But the food was short or non-existent, their wages dried up, landlords kicked them out, their meager savings were exhausted and the fear of contracting the dreaded corona in their crowded living quarters became a reality. They became desperate to get back to their families and villages. With no public transport, many borrowed and arranged whatever transport informal channels would allow. Many in desperation decided to walk, some over thousands of kilometres.

There are no official figures of the number of migrants from Bihar caught in this situation. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 mandates their registration. But, as a professor from XLRI, Jamshedpur was reported as saying, “it is the least implemented law in the country”. Experts at TISS, Patna, which specialises in migration issues, estimate that up to three million Bihari labour were outside the state. One million of these are likely to be short term migrants in bordering regions e.g. Jharkand, etc. and have or can return without too much difficulty. That leaves two million Bihari migrant labour in more distant parts of the country. If half of these decide to come back, we are looking at an inflow of at least one million before the reverse migration plays itself out.

It is estimated that some 0.3 million have already trickled back by now. Another 0.25 million are expected to arrive on special trains – the so-called Shramik (labour) Trains. That would leave 0.45 million who are somewhere in between walking, hitching rides, making private transport arrangements, or surviving as best as they can in their cities, waiting to get out. Recent reports indicate that train services will be restored from June 1 to facilitate repatriation. 

Migrants still on road 

It is absolutely unacceptable that so many should still be on the road without adequate food and shelter. As a first priority, these returning migrants have to be ferried safely to their destinations. If states along the route are not in a position to do so, this responsibility should be given to uniformed institutions, which have the manpower, logistical capacity, and discipline to ensure that not a single migrant has to walk these long distances in a semi-starvation state. 

The incidence of infection is reported to be as high as 25 percent among migrants returning from Delhi. There is an immediate task of quarantine, testing, and possible hospitalisation. Because of the high infection rate, there may be reluctance on the part of many villages to allow their re-entry. This social challenge will require the cooperation of village leaders. The mistake of categorising any particular group as carriers of the infection has to be avoided at all costs. 

Hunger is the next challenge. Bihar has a labour force of around 50 million of which at least 80 percent, i.e. 40 million, are informal workers. Most are now without assured income. Add to this the new arrivals. The distribution of food grains for the next three months has been started. But significant numbers are not covered by the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Many, notably the economist Jean Dreze, have called for free distribution of food grains for the next couple of months. State-owned Food Corporation of India is overflowing with excess stock. If there was ever a time to universalise food security, this is it.

The paddy sowing season has started and many returning migrants will be engaged. Increased funding for MNREGA, the rural employment guarantee program, is a welcome step. A further step would be a provision to pay advance wages for 10-15 days. This would put some purchasing power in the hands of the unemployed. Beyond the next few months, a scheme of ramping up public works programs ought to be started. Roads, physical infrastructure in education and health sectors, etc. would absorb a lot of labour.

Where will it find resources?

Bihar is the poorest state of the country in per capita terms. Can it find the enormous resources required to fight the virus and its impact on the economy? Does it have the flexibility to ramp up the receipt and repurpose expenditures towards immediate needs? Its own sources of revenue as a proportion of total receipts are around 22 percent (average all states 50 percent). With the introduction of GST, state indirect taxes are now limited to petroleum, vehicle sales, real estate transactions, and alcohol. The first three are severely impacted by the lockdown and revenue from alcohol is zero because of prohibition. 

Central transfers are impacted because of the delayed release of GST funds. On the expenditure side, it has relatively more flexibility. Its committed liabilities i.e. those liabilities it has to pay come what may is 26 percent (average 35 percent). Of course, not all budgeted expenditures can be postponed but some amounts could be squeezed out for the corona emergency. Bihar has the headroom to borrow more under the recently permitted enhanced borrowing limits. Apart from central transfers, a promising option could be bank borrowings by special purpose vehicles (SPVs), with state guarantees, operating in road building and construction in health and education. This could also be the time to revisit direct state access to multilateral institutions, to speed up the process and give the benefit of the long tenors and pricing. 

An aspect of crisis management which seems to be missing in Bihar is frequent and reliable communication. The severity of the pandemic warrants the political executive to be talking to citizens almost on a daily basis. With the absence of full information, the picture of the young man carrying his mother becomes the whole and only story, rather than a very tragic part of a much bigger story - that of the helplessness of humans in the face of a devastating virus.  

(The writer is a retired IAS officer and a former World Bank executive who has been Member, Bihar State Planning Board and is now Founder Trustee, Hikmat Foundation. The views expressed are personal and not necessarily shared by editors of South Asia Monitor)

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