ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Why It Makes Sense to Leave and Stay Gone

Understanding the Mass Exodus from Mumbai

India experienced a mass exodus of informal sector workers who were heading out of cities, bound homewards. Given the paucity of transport infrastructure, this is translating into one of the greatest mass tragedies of post-independence India. This has been rationalised as a combination of people moving out because of a lockdown-induced loss of earnings and irrational fears stoked by the pandemonium. This exodus is, in fact, a perfectly rational response to the rapid spread of the virus in informal housing localities. Three different policies are outlined whose combination could have, and can still, reduce, if not entirely stop, the exodus.

The views expressed are personal. The authors are grateful to Avadhoot Nadkarni, Romar Correa, Ajit Karnik and Shrikant Barhate for useful discussion.

The mass exodus of so-called “mig-rant workers” from cities is one of the grimmest human tragedies of post-independence India. The images of hordes of people, trudging along unending highways with painful resoluteness, children in arms, bundles on heads, taking on the impossible odds of completing the journey with life and limb intact, have shaken the nation. Several narratives have sprung around the spectacle. The majority of the narratives say that these formerly invisible figures are migrant workers, who are walking back to their homes because, given the uncertainty of the lockdown, they are left with no money.

Though the general narrative is not wrong, the actual story is likely to be much more nuanced. In a society as complex as India, simplistic narratives are often grossly misleading. We have made an attempt to understand the phenomena a little better. Our conclusion basically is that those who have left are not necessarily all migrant workers. Many of them have been settled in cities for generations. Neither are they leaving only because of the loss of earnings, though that certainly is a major factor.

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Updated On : 24th Dec, 2020
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