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Future Choices

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The inability of ‘host communities’ to care for migrant workers has led to the ongoing large-scale violation of the nationwide lockdown. Only time will tell how much of an impact it will have in spread of the corona virus, but going by the earlier problem with the Tablighi Jamaat, it is likely to be considerable. Hopefully, the experience, globally, in dealing with the epidemic as compared to three months ago will help in better prevention and treatment. Public awareness is certainly much higher than before and, by and large, social distancing norms are being followed under normal circumstances. As such, the vulnerability of societies will depend greatly on how well violations are kept under control.

The economic impact of the ‘reverse migration’ is also going to take its toll. Any kind of revival in economic activity will now have to assume the absence of this source of cheap labour. How this will come about remains to be seen, but obviously will involve greater mechanisation, entry of larger companies in a number of innovative ways into hitherto untouched areas, as well as changes in lifestyles among consumers prompted by increased cost of services. Small operators will have to network innovatively if they wish to survive.

This does not mean that jobs for migrant workers will disappear entirely. They will, however, obviously think hard about returning to their former places of employment. Earlier, they exercised the choice to shift where higher wages were available for relatively poorly skilled work. The trend, now, will be towards ‘splitting’ of the average type of employment into poorly paid, very low quality work, and more demanding better paid work.

At the same time, workers can choose to remain closer to their homes and seriously consider the more difficult path of ‘alternative employment’ offered by government’s schemes to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. Every government in migrant generating states will have to look quickly and deeply into the reasons for joblessness. Why, for instance, do young people look for employment outside of Uttarakhand? What class of worker leaves for other states and countries? After all, much of the menial work done in the state is by migrants from even poorer states, as well as Bangladesh and Nepal. What is the trend regarding generation of higher quality jobs in the state? How will the need to provide local jobs be reconciled with the slump in the tourism and hospitality industry? Are there any short term solutions available? The sooner society gets down to answering such questions, the earlier will the changes become possible.