It’s Modi’s Moment with Reverse Migration.
Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, former Director UNEP, IIT Alumni
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PM Narendra Modi is at his best in the crisis. Because he knows the path-ways to transform the crisis into the opportunity. The tsunami of COVID19 pandemic has compelled him literally to lock down the world’s largest democracy with advance warning of just about 4 hours. Many appreciated his quick action but that has triggered an unprecedented and unplanned reverse migration of 40-50 million out of India’s total 95 million internal migrants from cities to their homes in villages. They are traveling by bus, train, and even walking from their temporary shelters in the cities. The highways in India became footways. Never before India witnessed such exodus anywhere at any time. The event would go down in the Indian history as one of the darkest days.
The last time India witnessed such displacement, as reported by media was in 1947, compelled by partition triggered by ‘political virus’. The displacement of the population from both India and Pakistan was estimated to be smaller, not more than 12 million. Even in the 1970s , during the war with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) the refugees displaced were about 10 million.
Coincidentally such ‘reverse migration’ from cities to villages took place in China just recently, in early days 2020 when the CORONA virus spread had just begun. But it was a ‘happy’ moment for Chinese workers. Such ‘reverse migration’, in reality, takes place on annual basis during China’s Lunar New Year holidays when hundreds of millions of Chinese workers, much more than India’s migrant workers, travel from cities to their home in villages- by trains and air to celebrate the new year with their families during 40 days of vacation. During such time the whole country literally goes under yearly lockdown including its factories and business.
This year Chinese Lunar New Year holidays were from January 10 to February 18 during which the CORONA virus had just started spreading its wings and China was still guessing the possible consequences. In any case, no social distancing was possible during such a massive rush of an estimated 3 billion of train trips, though Chinese authorities advised the travelers to be cautious. WHO has later said that Lunar New Year’s travels in China have contributed to the faster spread of the new CORONA virus.
While India’s distressful reverse migration was the RESULT of COVID19, China’s festive reverse migration contributed to the CAUSE of COVID19. But that difference precisely provides an unparalleled opportunity for Modi-Government to possibly make a historic difference.
The migration of India’s human capital from rural to urban hubs started after India’s independence. It gathered the speed after economic reforms linked to globalization in 1990s. The exceptional acceleration to such migration was rallied due to the emergence of India’s as global soft-power soon after. Most of the migrants were unskilled and semi-skilled workers who left behind their homes, the agricultural land, and more importantly the traditional knowledge in their villages. PM Modi talks often about preserving such legacy of ‘respecting and worshipping the nature’.
Today, lured by the life-time opportunities, every minute about 30 people are migrating to Indian cities from rural areas. They are looking for better livelihood and lifestyles. Lack of infrastructure similar to that exists in urban centers and outdated agricultural practices in villages that degrade the land , water, and yields of farm-produce have now brought nearly 450 million rural migrants to the cities. That figure in next ten years would reach 600 million.
Many Keynesian economists term this migration as an unparalleled opportunity of massive enhancement of consumer demands. Obviously, those economists have no knowledge of loss of traditional knowledge and are oblivious of the causes of COVID19 and the unstoppable encroachment the humans are causing on the natural habitat. They do see the environmental benefits derived due to the lockdown but only in the backdrop of the ‘ huge economic loss’. As a result, we will soon forget the lessons of the current pandemic-the the way we lost them from Spanish flue, SARs, and MERS, and Ebola. Green economics says that costs as are being calculated today do not account for and never internalize the cost of damage to the environment.
Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on 14th May unveiled the second tranche of Centre’s Rs 20 lakh crore fiscal stimulus, which apart from providing the migrant workers with grains , attempts to address the question of their food and livelihood. There is a national and legitimate concern about migrants returning to their home states in desperation. Allowing them to take crowded trains and buses by risking them into COVID19 as against providing them with livelihood and protection against COVID19 by keeping them where they are was the key dilemma faced by the Government.
Many of them are now heading for their safe home in villages and be with their relatives. It would provide them with mental security. Now that Union Finance Minister has also taken care of their plate at least for immediate needs , there is now urgent need to provide big help to enable them to plough.
There comes Modi’s moment to transform the India and his ability not to waste this opportunity to hold the workers in their safe home and not to return back to cities, knowing well that it causes direct and indirect social, environmental and economic impacts of incurable proportion.
Modi has heralded the plan of doubling the income of the farmers, greatly enhance the efficiency of Indian Agriculture and improve the livelihood and lifestyle of the labourers. Mahatma Gandhi stated that ‘India lives in villages’. He always wanted rural India to prosper through the small and cottage industry. Village level governance, akin to self-reliance, has been the proposition of Gandhi. India’s former President Dr A Abdul Kalam gave a practical dimension to Gandhi’s dream. He thought that young Indian can only cherish and realise his or her dreams in villages if the infrastructure there is as good as in urban hubs. Dr Kalam had therefore proposed the social and economic transformation project called, ‘ PURA’ which is ‘Providing Urban Infrastructure in Rural Area’. Modi government’s Rs 20 lakh crore package includes ‘Infrastructure’ as one of the five pillars of self-reliance ( Atma Nirbhar). Focussing on starting to make rural infrastructure equivalent to urban infrastructure would strengthen that pillar.
One of the five other pillars proposed by Modi is technology. As an example, there is now very strong case for farmers to adopt a technology and start harvesting solar energy along with food. In her own maiden budget speech , Union Finance Minister in 2019 has stated that ‘Annadata’ ( food provider i.e. farmer) can also become ‘ Urjadata’ ( energy provider). Modi has also pledged to double farmers’ income by 2022. Farmers deploying solar panels in their arid land and government leasing the degraded land ( instead of transfer of money) to farmers to install solar panels has multitude of advantages, including moving away from fossil fuels, reducing air pollution, meeting pledges given in Paris Climate Agreement, growing better crops in the scattered shadows and even harvesting the water for agriculture from the rain and dews falling on the panels, as is practiced in France.
The simple calculation shows that with 30 percent of degraded land India can easily provide enough solar energy to meet most of India’s needs. The vibrant demography ( high proportion of the young population ) and the demand ( for energy) i.e. other two pillars of Modi’s self-reliance theme can be further strengthened. As regards finance for such projects, India already has instruments nurtured by Modi like International Solar Alliance, Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, World Bank-that has pledged the green finance for climate change and even the Paris Climate Agreement’s financial mechanism where India should use its global positioning and press for much-needed finances.
Solar energy is just an example. Moving the big industries like electric vehicles ( EVs), Health products, IT industries to rural areas with urban infra would provide a much-needed boost to ‘India living in villages’.