NEW DELHI :
Hundreds of migrant workers are fleeing Indian cities as new restrictions in some states to contain the pandemic have stoked fears that they will be left jobless again.
While the reverse migration from cities and industrial centres is still a trickle, companies fear another mass exodus, like the one last year, will trigger a shortage of workers at factories and derail their revival. The shortage of workers may not only disrupt production schedules just as plants were nearing capacity but also push up labour costs.
Migrant workers in several states, including Maharashtra, were seen waiting to board buses and trains bound for their homes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, as their source of income dried up because of covid-related curbs. The Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Mumbai, from where trains to UP and Bihar depart, saw a surge in the number of passengers, as was the case in the automobile manufacturing hub of Pimpri-Chinchwad on the outskirts of Pune.
The Central Railway on Tuesday announced special trains from Mumbai to Gorakhpur, Patna, Darbhanga and Pune to Danapur, indicating that there is a surge in demand.
Automobile manufacturers and component suppliers around Pune are worried that fresh lockdowns in the state may prompt an exodus of workers. “As of now, the number of workers who have already left is not very high, but it has started. If this is not controlled now, then in the coming days, we will face a big problem,” said Sanjeev Vasdev, managing director, Flash Electronics, an automotive parts maker based in Pune.
In March last year, millions of Indians returned to their villages, many of them making the journey on foot, as businesses abruptly shut because of the nationwide lockdown, leaving them without money and shelter. Dozens of them lost their lives as they walked hundreds of miles home as buses and trains stopped plying during the lockdown.
The bitter experience of the lockdown may have prompted some of the workers this year to go home before any restrictions on travel are imposed.
Manufacturers in the textiles hub of Tirupur said that they are seeing some reverse migration because of the fear of lockdowns. This, they said, may turn into an exodus if steps to assure them are not taken.
Experts said a second reverse migration would result in surplus labour in rural areas and scarcity in urban and industrial centres. That could depress demand, push more people into poverty and increase unemployment.
According to a senior executive at one of India’s biggest auto parts makers in Pune, most automakers may face some disruption in production if migrant workers leave.
“At the moment, no one is talking about production cuts, but we have to keep the migrant workers together. Without them, we cannot run factories at full capacity. In the next few months, we were expecting to run our factories at 100% capacity,” the executive said on condition of anonymity.
Migrant workers play a key role in manufacturing belts and are a driver of the informal economy in cities.
“Around 40% of the labourers who had left last year have not returned. Yes, some people have started to leave again, but it’s not an exodus. We fear that the second wave will hit our production due to labour shortage as there is fear among workers and an urge to go back has escalated in the past few days,” said G.R. Senthilvel, a textile maker and secretary of Tirupur Exporters and Manufacturers Association.