In February this year, Md. Shabbir Ansari took his family from Karkardooma, Delhi to Giridih, Jharkhand to drop them off and come back to Delhi to look for work. Fired from his job repairing cars in Ghaziabad, rent for a family of six in Delhi was no longer affordable. He began working for Ola in Delhi in March but the owner of the car has now told him to look elsewhere.
"Now cases are rising again and I’m sitting empty-handed. I’ve told Nahid (his wife) that I am going to come back to Jharkhand in 10 days if things continue like this,” 24-year-old Ansari said on a phone call from Delhi with his wife on the line from Giridih.
“We had asked Jharkhand government for help in the first lockdown. They didn’t do anything,” said 21-year-old Nahid Parween, who had married Ansari and moved to Delhi two years ago. “I wanted to stay back in Delhi with him. Who would choose to stay without their husband? I had just started to understand the city, kya hisaab hain, kya kitaab hai. But only we know what it was like during the first lockdown. We don’t want that again.”
“Yeh humare majboori hain ki hum yaha phase hue hain aur wo waha phase hue hai,” she said.
While official nationwide data on the topic is difficult to find, several local migration officials and experts anecdotally report that the migration back to the workplace since the end of the first lockdown has been increasingly single, male migration, leaving more women and children at their origin homes. As mini lockdowns begin to crop up throughout the country, migration experts are weighing the future implications.
"Many migrant workers have returned to the city sans families. It’s been a tepid return to the city. While mini-lockdowns will hit livelihoods again, migrants who are alone may be more flexible about survival,” said Mukta Naik, who studies urbanisation and internal migration at the Center for Policy Research.
"We are especially seeing this for long distance travel,” said Benoy Peter, executive director of Center for Migration and Inclusive Development. “When only one person comes back to work and the family stays back, this has huge implications on the gender disparity and the continuation of accessing education.”
These trends may continue further as local lockdowns domino nationwide. Mahesh Gajera, who works in Ahmedabad at migration-focused NGO Aajeevika Bureau, is hearing that those who had come with their families back to Gujarat are thinking of dropping their families home before searching for work. “In Gujarat, small lockdowns have started and for the past seven days, workers have not had work. There has only been minor movement in the past two days but some 70 per cent of the workers I talk to are in the mood to leave.”
In Ranchi, in a large conference room that houses the state labour department’s migrant control room run by NGO Phia Foundation, volunteers are fielding an escalating number of phone calls from migrants. On Tuesday, two called to say they will be coming back from Maharashtra on Saturday. Shikha Lakra, Team Lead, says that the cell had registered 16,000 migrants (of the 10 lakh who came back to Jharkhand during the initial lockdown) had returned to their workplaces. “In these, we have seen women were very reluctant to go back,” Lakra said.
Jharkhand Joint Labour Commissioner Rakesh Prasad agreed: “Men have been leaving and women are not willing to take the risk to go far this time. It seems like after COVID, the family is not accepting to dislocate the whole family. The next challenge is to see what happens in this second wave, how to cope.”
In other states as well, on-the-ground personnel are finding that family migration has been replaced with single person traveling. Basant Kumar, who works in Dantewada for the Transformation of Aspirational Districts Programme run by the Home Affairs Ministry, said that the reduction of family migration has disrupted children’s education the most.
“We saw seasonal migrants kept their families together because they were set to come back anyway,” said Umi Daniel who looks after migration for Aide et Action from Bhubaneswar. “But those who were more semi-permanent migrants who used to go with families, the industry urgently wanted people back and the buses that I’ve seen — families couldn’t fit.”
The trends may continue, he said. "Those in Maharashtra — Nashik and Pune — who are with their families, they are asking about transportation options in fear of networks shutting down. They want to bring their families back home. We have begun to hear this news.”
Gulam Rabani Ansari, a construction worker on a train from Pune to Giridh on Wednesday, had lived in Pune for 10 years before going home in May last year. The 28-year-old went back to Pune in December and now has heard from others that this lockdown could go on for two months.
He said over the phone: "I can't say when I'll be back, if at all. Now I just want to work in Jharkhand — whatever it is. Otherwise, this is too much tension. But I have tried to get work in my district. The government is not doing anything to help us find work."