Migrant workers put out of work by the Covid-19 pandemic board a truck on the outskirts of Hyderabad to return to their hometowns in May 2020. Photo: AFP

With hardly any scope for skilled employment in villages, nearly two-thirds of migrant workers who left the cities during the lockdown now want to return.

Nearly 29% of migrants are already back in cities, while 45% want to return, says a study, by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (India) and other social organizations, which surveyed 4,835 households across 11 states in 48 districts from June 24 to July 8.

The study also found that around 80% of migrants who returned to villages are engaged in manual labor and nearly one-fourth are still searching for work.

The survey also found widespread distress in villages. Nearly 43% of households reported reduction in meals, while 55% said they have reduced the number of meal items. It also found that one in four households is thinking of taking a child out of school (24%).

Nearly 15% have sold their livestock to cope with financial distress, while about 6% of households have mortgaged household items.

About 2% have mortgaged their land, while 1% have sold theirs, the study found, while 10% of households borrowed from extended families and 7% from money lenders.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had on March 24 announced a 21-day countrywide lockdown for its 1.3 billion people, giving only four hours’ notice. Everybody was told to remain at home while schools and colleges, trains and buses, shops and business establishments – barring those dealing with essential items, remained closed.

But the initial three-week-long lockdown got extended to two months through many extensions. It disrupted production, supply chains, transport, sales and general economic activity.

Millions of workers around the country lost their jobs and and in many instances were rendered homeless, as they could no longer pay rent. With no transport available, migrants to the cities were left with no choice but to walk the country’s interstate highways to return to rural homes.

In May, the government started running special trains to take workers back to their homes (charging them full fare). But even that was not free from misery – as many deaths were reported during the journey.

Now to compound their woes, coronavirus cases are rising in rural areas. The states of Bihar, Assam, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh that received the most number of returning laborers are now witnessing steep rises in new cases, according to media reports. India’s caseload is now over 1.8 million and is the third highest in the world after the US and Brazil.