She pedalled across north India with her injured father in tow, making international headlines and becoming the face of the plight of migrant workers struggling with a raging pandemic and a nationwide lockdown.
Today, cycle girl Jyoti Kumari and her family are worried again. The money they received from politicians and philanthropists is dwindling, a film deal is stalled, her school education hasn’t resumed, and no one in the family has a permanent job.
“I am worried. I want to continue my education, but I am uncertain about the future,” said the 17-year-old, a resident of Sirhulli village in Bihar’s Darbhanga village.
On May 8, Kumari jumped on her purple cycle, put her father, e-rickshaw driver Mohan Paswan, on the carrier seat and started pedalling from Gurugram. He couldn’t walk due to a road accident in January and their rations were fast dwindling because of the lockdown.
With help from another group of migrant workers, short lifts from truck drivers and food from local people along the way, they reached their village in the impoverished northern fringes of Bihar around 9pm on May 17. A tweet from Ivanka Trump and national media attention brought her accolades, an offer of a biopic and a trial at the cycling federation of India.
It also improved their social status in a village where caste hierarchies are invisible but sharp, and the Dalit families live in a backward cluster. “Our family has a new social acceptance, which we did not have earlier,” Kumari said.
Earlier, higher-caste people would avoid the family in public spaces. Now, they often invite their guests to the Paswan house and refer to the teenager as the pride of the village.
“Those who never bothered to visit us, now come over for tea. There is a big change in their attitude and the manner in which they treat us now,” said her mother Phulo Devi, 40, an anganwadi worker.
Kumari is scared of Covid-19, but knows little about the infection except that it is highly contagious; she wears a mask, but almost no one else in the village does. She has heard almost nothing about a vaccine. “I don’t know about it. I am not sure if we will get it,” she said.
She rejected the cycling trial and has now joined a coaching institute to clear Class 10 examinations that she failed once before. Her film deal is stuck in contract complications.
With her cash rewards and presents – many of which are locked in a steel trunk – her family has paid off debt, financed Paswan’s medical treatment, added a second floor to their house and inscribed her name in big gold fonts on the gate.
But with no one in the family of seven working, Paswan fears he may have to go back to Gurugram soon. “With no job in the village, I am facing immense financial hardship …I could not even complete the construction work of our house as funds dried up,” said Paswan, 45.
Reverse migration in distress
The Paswans are the best-known example of the millions of migrant workers who poured out of India’s cities shortly after the lockdown was announced on March 25. They walked for miles, took buses, hitched rides on trucks, and finally took trains back to their countryside home, their plight spotlighting the perils and precarity of economic migration in India.
The tragedy held crucial lessons for the country’s public and policymakers.
It showed the uneven pace and geographical spread of economic development, and made even clearer by the routes taken by 3,800 Shramik Special trains, announced for migrant workers from May 1, from cities in the west and south to the eastern and northern districts. Even the return of workers starting in August showed that there still weren’t any real jobs to tie them to their homes in the countryside.
The crisis also showed the problems with social security and the public distribution system and how workers didn’t feel at home despite living in the cities for decades. In a moment of great stress and crisis, they chose their traditional networks of family and community over institutional delivery.
To resolve this, the government announced a raft of measures, including priority credit, jobs in rural districts and bolstering village infrastructure. But the most important among this, according to author and Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad professor Chinmay Tumbe, is the “one nation-one ration” card programme that promises holders to draw benefits from any fair-price shop in the country regardless of their home state.
“This is a big deal and its policy architecture is coming in place. It has to be better communicated, that you can get the benefits anywhere. The portability of social security benefits is a longstanding demand and it needs to be fast-tracked,” he said.
The programme is expected to be rolled out in the first quarter of 2021. “We can be more ambitious. It is now about PDS but we should be able to access public health services anywhere in India,” Tumbe said.
The crisis also underlined a dearth of data. Eight months after the first migrants appeared on highways, there is little data on their exact number and estimates vary between 30 and 150 million. The labour ministry has ordered a survey, whose fieldwork is expected to start in February.
The economic contraction – 23.9% in the April-June quarter and 7.5% in the July-September quarter — also meant that many jobs vanished, especially in the informal sector. So the neighbourhood carpet seller or the chatwallah in the corner didn’t come back to the city from their villages.
Tumbe believes this is temporary and the economy will rebound. But key to accelerating the recovery process will be a robust vaccination programme targeting migrant workers.
“The key is for migrant workers to be vaccinated. Its important to think of them as a target group because they will keep going back and forth, and if anyone is affected, it can spread the virus,” said Tumbe.
Three separate vaccine candidates are seeking regulatory approval in India and the government has announced plans to vaccinate at least 300 million high-risk people by July, including about 30 million health care and frontline workers, in the first phase.
But Tumbe believes migrant workers should also be considered a target category, and logistics tweaked accordingly – both in the home and destination state of the labourers. “There needs to be a foolproof mechanism. For example, if Bihar says vaccines are free, what do millions of Bihari workers outside the state do? There needs to be a clever way.”
With literacy and Covid-19 awareness low among many migrants, building communication channels and boosting trust in the efficacy of vaccines will be key. In the West, prominent politicians and celebrities have taken the shot to dispel myths, and India should follow suit. “There is a role for the government to actively step in and target migrants,” added Tumbe.