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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 1, New Delhi, December 19, 2020

And the river flows upwards - Escher’s diagrams and Penrose Staircase: Unlock Phase and Reverse Migration | Atanu Sengupta and Asish Kumar Pal

Saturday 19 December 2020

by Atanu Sengupta and Asish Kumar Pal *

“Morone Kshoti nai, kintu se somoye jeno ekti snehakorsporso tahar lolate pouchai- jeno ektio koruadro snehomoy mukh dekhite dekhite e jiboner onto hoy. Moribar somoy jeno kaharo ekphota chokher jol dekhia se morite pare “

(“Dying is natural, but at least one loving hand should embrace his forehead at that time- that he should die seeing one face that is filled with sympathy for him. His life should end by seeing at least one drop of water from one eye”)

Saratachandra Chattopadhyay, Devdas (last lines) (English translation by the author)


In the underdeveloped world of India with a huge mass of unskilled workers, migration is the norm. In fact, it is one of the basic coping strategies to migrate from places of residence to one where they can get meaningful employment. However, with the unprecedented lockdown due to breaking out of the coronavirus disease, they were evicted from their work and forced to return to their native villages. They have become jobless as well as moneyless. Their plight has been well documented. But now the tide has turned in full. After returning home they are in deep waters. They cannot obtain proper job in the native villages. As a result, they are not able to maintain the family members adequately. Hence they are not agreeing to stay at home despite the assistance given by the local government. Most of them want to return to the profession immediately. Many have already arrived to the workplace. Some also want to migrate anew thus adding to the tide. The ground reality tells a miserable story of migrating workers during the lockdown and unlock phase in rural India. This paper is carried out to identify the basic issues for reverse migration.


Maurits Cornelis Escher was a Dutch graphic artist. He has provided a lot of pictures often mathematically inspired diagrams that seem to question our common concept of space. One of them is the House of Stairs built in earlier Penrose staircase. This is a diagram that depicts house with eternal staircase. The “top” and “bottom” becomes illusions. It has stairs that simultaneously leads you upwards and downwards. The life of migrant workers in our country may be well depicted by the Penrose staircase. There is no up and down in their life. They are in a Penrose staircase. They are in eternal movement.

It is a general conjecture that water falls downwards due to gravity. However there are some places of earth where there is an apparent violation of the laws of gravity [1]. Economists claim that people migrate to place when there are differences in earnings. There is a huge influx of migrants from rural area to the informal urban sector that offers higher wages. However this figure is generally invisible to us. Unprecedented lockdown that began to linger for days changed this scenario. With the lockdown, there is a sudden drop of employment opportunities in the urban informal sector. Since these workers have very little social security networks, many of them are being evicted from their jobs at the beginning of lockdown. Faced with sudden loss of livelihood in a hostile atmosphere, they craved in for their homeland. They tried to return to their homeland at whatever cost they could. Some could avail transport, other simply walked kilometres on foot. Our daily newspaper became filled with the poignant stories of their sufferings. It appeared as if water is flowing in the opposite direction. But it was all optical illusions.

The lure of home soon ended for them and the urge for monetary income rose. Having failed to find any gainful employment at home, many of them are willing to return to the workplaces of the different cities now. Many have already arrived to the workplace.
Some are making preparations for travel to the workplace once again. Some also wants to migrate anew thus adding to the tide. The reason is simple. In the native villages they are jobless and income less. They are not getting the adequate job. They cannot even enjoy the family life or which they initially craved. Their livelihoods are faced with the challenge now. In terms of Banerjee and Duflo (2019) they are in the “mouth of sharks”.

Covid-19 pandemic has already been extensively spread out across the country. There is no sign of abatement as yet. Inspite of this, facing economic contingencies, the government has started to unlock the economic activities throughout the country. In this situation the migrants want to move into their profession. They are not agreeing to stay at home despite the assistance by government. They think the government assistance is meagre for them. So, most of the migrant workers want to be in the pool of reverse migration.

Although these migrant workers are in the informal in unorganized sector, they are willing to return to their workplaces. They think the work is secured and give them higher remunerations than villages. In this paper we have focused the basic issues which are the reasons for reverse migration from the rural area to urban across the country.

Numerous newspaper clippings inform us the story of migrant workers including men, women and even children who were forced to move out of their workplace is now returning to the city labour market. In one case, we have met some migrant labours working as the construction labourers in Bangalore of Karnataka. Despite appealing for manual work under „Prime minster Garib Rojgar Yojona‟ for migrants they were unable to get proper work in their native villages. In another case, we met a person who worked as a freezing operator in an ice factory in Ernakulum district of Kerala. He told us that he will start his journey towards Kerala very soon to come back in workplace. This job gives him a more secure and higher salary than MGNRGA scheme. This has happened, in spite of the fact that the panchayats members are in constant touch with him and providing ration to his family. This paper suggests that the misery condition and financial distress has forced the migrants to turn into reverse migration.

On Incidence of Reverse Migration:

Mahale and Bharadwaj (June, 2020), have reported on how cities that had turned their backs on migrant workers for more than two months now want them back as the lockdown has lifted in most places and the economy is slowly reopening with severe shortage of labour.

Manjulaand Rajasekhar (May 18, 2020), have cited a study by the Centre for Decentralisation and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change that reveals that 77% of migrants, from Belagavi, Chamarajanagar, Dakshina Kannada, Davangere, and Kalaburagi districts, plan to return to work.

As per recent (July, 2020) data by Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), thousands of workers have been brought back by engineering firms to complete the metro projects, including Dahisar East-Andheri East metro 7 line and among others. Real estate players too are taking initiatives to bring back the workforce to complete the stalled projects.

Poddar (June, 2020), president of the Confederation of West Bengal Trade Association (CWTA), reported a survey that more than 75% labourers had rushed to their villages in Bihar, Jharkhand, Eastern UP and Odisha soon after the lockdown was announced in March. But he observed that more than 50% of them are back, and many more are either in transit or preparing to return.

A report by CIEL HR Services Director and CEO Aditya Mishra, was published (July, 2020) in financial regarding “Migrant labourers are returning to cities”. According to them around 30-40 per cent of people who had gone back home were returning to Maharashtra and Gujarat because they left in fear but in their villages they were not able to get the basic facilities there. Even MGNREGA was not enough to keep the entire family occupied

The present study is based on a rapid assessment survey of 100 migrants who want to return in the cities across the four selected gram panchayats in rural areas carried out in the period of August 01 to 14, 2020, the survey is followed by interviewing process through some relatively relevant questions. The questions are constructed to find out the basic reasons for reverse migration. To understand the economic situation of migrants this study has discussed some socio-economic features. Some other issues are also taken into account to properly discuss and understand the ground-level reality about the basic cause of reverse migration.

Analytic Information:

We provide some basic information in tabular form.

We first look at the present status of the migrant workers who had returned to their native village. The study has found that 31% of migrant workers have already returned to cities, while 44% want to return to the cities.

Table1: State of reverse migration

Migrant Returned already Want to return Not to return
100 31 44 25

We then turn to the Reasons for returning again in the cities where they have worked. These reasons may be secure job contracts, limited use of acquired skills in rural areas and of course higher remuneration. They have opined that these lead to turn into the reverse migration. 76% responded to the cause of reverse migration for secure job contracts in the various cities where they want to migrate. 79% expressed the opinion that the cause of reverse migration is the limited use of acquired skills in rural areas. And 72% migrant labour has identified higher remuneration than villages as the cause of reverse migration.

Next, our consideration is about job condition in the respective rural area where most of the migrant workers (81%) have acknowledged the absence of skill employment right now in the native villages. Still, 26% of them are searching for job in the villages although 74% are not in this search.

Table 2: Acknowledgement about the absence of skilled employment right now in the village

Migrants Absence of skilled employment Presence of skilled employment
100 81 19

Table 3: Searching for a job in the village

Respondents migrants Searching job Not searching job
100 26 74

We may now turn to the misery initiated by joblessness of the migrants who returned home. In table 4, 27% thinks of taking children out of school during the economic crisis.

Table 4: Thinking of taking their children out of school

Migrants Thinking Not thinking
100 27 73

Consumption pattern tabulated in tables 5(a) and 5(b) clears the idea about the real scenario regarding the family consumption during the lockdown and post lockdown period. 45% sample of the migrant workers have experienced that they have reduced their meal (in times) while 60% household of them have admitted about the reduction in meal items. This may lead to losing the immunity power which is very essential in the pandemic time.

Table 5(a): Reduction in meals among the migrant family members

Sample Reduction in meals No reduction in meals
100 45 55

Table 5(b): Reduction in meal items of migrant household

Migrant workers Reduction in meal items No reduction in meal items
100 60 40

Next, we have constructed a set of questions about assistance by the several schemes of government which are introduced to give the migrant workers and other informal workers in this hard time. 70%responded that they enjoy adequate food availability through the Public Distribution System. But 30% of them have answered that despite the food assistance by the government they cannot avail the adequate food for their families. 85% of migrant workers have acknowledged that their housewives are the beneficiary of LPG through "UjjwalaYojona‟ scheme under the central government. The study identified that 89% of the migrant‟s households have eligibility under "Prime minister — Kisan Sammannidhi’ scheme. 60% have also responded about the facility of cash transfer of Rs 2000/- in their bank account under the scheme. In table 6e regarding the ’zero’ balance bank account under "Janadhan-Yojona‟ scheme, we see that 68% migrants enjoy the facility of cash transfer to the bank account under this scheme although 32% does not enjoy this. In table 6f, 72% of the migrants have obtained a job being registered under MGNREGS scheme.

Table 6(a): Food availability through PDS

Migrants Food availability through PDS No food availability through PDS
100 70 30

Table 6(b): LPG availability through’UjjwalaYojona’ scheme

Migrant LPG availability No availability of LPG
100 85 15

Table 6(c): Eligibility for PM — KISAN Sammannidhi scheme

Respondents Having Eligibility Not eligible
100 89 11

Table 6(d): Receive cash Rs. 2000/- under PM- KISHAN scheme

Migrant Received cash Not received cash
100 60 40

Table 6(e): Facility about cash transfer to the bank account under the scheme of "JonadhanYojona‟

Migrant Jondhon account No Jondhon account
100 68 32

Table 6(f): Job card availability under the scheme of 100 days of work being the registered MGNREGS

Migrant Availability of job No availability of job
100 72 28

Next we consider the indebtedness of these migrants fuelled by loss in jobs. It is seen that 8% migrant has mortgaged household goods or items, 19% of them have sold livestock, 4% of them have sold productive assets of households in the tables below respectively.

Table 7(a): Mortgage household items

Migrant Mortgaged items Not mortgaged items
100 08 92

Table 7(b): Selling of live-stock

Migrant Sold livestock Not sold livestock
100 19 81

Table 7(c): Selling about the productive assets of household

Migrant Sold productive assets Not sold productive assets
100 4 96

Among the migrants, 30% have mortgaged land and 2% has been forced to sell them totally. From the borrowing pattern, it is observed that 12% migrant workers have borrowed from extended families in their localities and 8% migrant has borrowed from rural money lender or ’Mahajan’ during the lockdown period and post lockdown period.

Table 7(d): Information about selling of land or mortgaged land

Migrant Sold land Mortgaged land Not sold or mortgaged
100 2 30 68

Table 7(e): Borrowing from any source

Migrant Not borrowing Borrow from extended families Borrow from money lender
100 80 12 08

Again Table 8 shows that 35% of migrant worker families have postponed the social ceremony and 15% of them reduced the number of guests without postponing the ceremony. This is done mostly in view of resource crunch and not out of any consciousness. This is pretty clear from the fact that 50% of our sample migrants have not agreed to postpone social ceremony at all. This is an example of a dismal picture of awareness and considerations of the people in our society.

Table 8: Other relevant information relating to postponed of ceremony or reduction number of guests without postponing the ceremony

Migrant Reduced no of guests without postponing the ceremony Postponed ceremony Not postponed ceremony
100 15 35 50


The ground reality depicted a miserable story of migrating workers during the lockdown and unlock phase in rural India. They have returned home being jobless and income less caused by the instantly announced and unprecedentedly prolonged lockdown. At that time we have seen their plight on the road, railway truck from the various newspapers and news channels across India. Most of them promised not to return again to the workplace. But after returning home they are in deeply worse economic situation. They cannot obtain a proper job in the native villages. As a result, they cannot maintain their family members adequately. The migrants were forced to slide down to a lower standard of living despite the assistance of the government. This has led to reverse migration in the cities. They think the work there is more secure and more remunerative than anything that is offered in their native villages. They love their Parvati but cannot return there. They have to go to the prostitutes in the city. Their plight is akin to the legendary Devdas who has been immortalised by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.


Banerjee A. and Duflo (2019), Good Economics for Hard Times, Hachette Book Group, New York

Manjura, R and Rajasekhar, D (May 18, 2020), “77% of migrants plan to return to work in cities: Study”,

Mahale and Bharadwaj (June, 2020), “After turning their backs during lockdown, cities now want migrant workers back”,

Poddar (June 13, 2020), “Kolkata: Hint of eco turnaround in reverse migration trend”,

* (Authors: Dr Atanu Sengupta, Professor, Economics Department, Burdwan University, West Bengal, India | E-mail: sengupta_atanu[at] ; Dr Asish Kumar Pal, Assistant Professor, Economics Department, Tarakeswar Degree College, Tarakeswar, Hooghly, West Bengal, India E-mail:[at]

[1Tulsishyam in Gujarat is one such place. Other such places include the Electric Bae in South Ayrshire (Scotland), the Gravity Hill in Prosser (Washington), the Confusion Hill in Piercy (California) and the Magnetic Hill in Black Rock (Australia). They all arise due to optical illusion.

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