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The Financial Express
Swasti Lankabangla Swasti Lankabangla

Pandemic and the reverse march


Pandemic and the reverse march

The way it has brought us face to face with many new realities, the Covid-19 pandemic has also made us familiar with new terminologies to name those new developments.  Reverse migration is one such new term we are using to describe the phenomenon of people leaving the big cities in large numbers for the countryside.

This is the antithesis of the earlier trend that saw people leaving their village homes either by choice or by conditions having to do with the loss of their lands, livestock, small businesses, homesteads or  whatever income sources they had due either to natural calamities, or to extreme poverty or other manmade causes. So they moved to the cities which did not finally return them but gave them at least a chance at life.

There were also others to whom the lure of the city was better job opportunities, a dream career in vocations of their choice. But this section of the city dwellers that chose city life out of a hope for a better life, is not part of our present concern.

Now an opposite drift, in all probabilities a temporary situation, is visible. The reverse march of the people, however, is limited mostly to those who came to the cities not in pursuit of a dream, but out of sheer necessity and compulsion. But now, it is as though, the rural conditions that forced them to leave their ancestral roots, have been recreated in the urban context afresh to drive them again, now out of the city. But the rural address that they once left has nothing to offer them either, and upon their return, the existing rural labour market will get further crowded depressing its (labour's) price further. 

However, being dispersed over vast areas in the countryside all over the country, the impact of the reversely displaced internal migrants from cities on the rural economy will not be felt immediately. But overall, they risk increasing the rate of poverty two-fold (from 20.5 per cent at present to 40.9 per cent, a recent study showed).

Interestingly, the impact of their departure on the city's life and economy has been too obvious to miss it.

Availability of reliable data could help experts better assess the impact of the reverse migration on different sectors of the job market and the economy in general since the economic shutdowns came into effect from March.

The said segment of the city population that comprises the uprooted people from their rural settings, who came in large numbers to cities like Dhaka and Chattogram started to work in the informal job sector. Actually, this huge informal sector employs around 85 per cent of the country's total work force.  Consider, for example, the case of domestic helps who constitute a good chunk of the female workforce engaged in the informal sector.

The pandemic-induced economic shutdowns had their immediate impact on these informal sector workers. Overnight they became jobless and were again dislodged from their newfound urban shelters and thus formed the bulk of the reverse migrants.

Their absence from city life  as such was so conspicuous from the deserted looks that the street corners  gave where rickshaw-drivers gathered, the roadside cheap hotels where they worked, the pavements where they ran micro-level businesses including peddling of foods, clothes, utensils, fruits, vegetables, you name them.

Of the formal sector workers who underwent nearly the same ordeal were again overwhelmingly women. Garment workers constitute their bulk. Being victims of massive layoffs, many of them also joined this reverse march towards their rural ancestral roots.

A large number of female members of the informal sector workforce, the domestic helps, joined the reverse march. The void they thus created in the city life did affect the occupants of the middle class residential quarters.

Just after the lockdowns were clamped, most families of the middle income bracket asked their house-helps not to come to work at least until the situation changed for the better. The new situation compelled these families to manage the household chores on their own. But soon it proved to be too onerous a task for them to continue doing for long.

 But the fear of contracting the pandemic still posed a greater risk than the tiresome housework.

Anyway, a middle ground had to be found and that was done, in many cases, by way of allowing the maids to rejoin work under the condition that they would strictly observe health protocols such as wearing masks, using hand-sanitisers frequently and such.

However, the housemaids who thus got their jobs back were fewer than who did not, because many of their employers themselves had meanwhile lost their jobs, or had their incomes drastically reduced. Such families either had to do without home-helps or did ask their maids to accept a smaller pay than they got before. 

Likewise, a large chunk of the city's population, who left for the countryside, may not all get back their jobs or the work opportunities they lost to the pandemic. That is so even if the lockdowns have been withdrawn, businesses along with the manufacturing including the garment industry have started operating.

Though many have returned to work, in a large number of cases, they are being offered much less than what they used to get as their pay before.

Such uncertain job situation will compel these informal sector workers to leave behind most of their family members in their village homes. Their children, if they were studying in the city's schools, may not continue education. Female children may face even worse by becoming victims of child marriage.

As the public has become more conservative about spending, the consumer demand has as a result fallen markedly with the consequence that business could not regain their pre-pandemic pace. With less or no profit, businesses will take more time to be able to fully re-employ all their staff or have their original pay scales revived.

So, normality in the economy is yet to be fully restored whether in the formal or in the informal job sectors. The uncertainties that drove so many people out of the cities, have not gone yet. And the uncertainties have taken away from their lives whatever hopes they had about their lives in the pre-pandemic days. 

 

sfalim.ds@gmail.com

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