April 29 2020

#COVID19 in India – The migration crisis and an uncertain future

20 years of rural exodus: between opportunity and illusion

Over the past two decades, India has witnessed a massive exodus from rural areas. The last census in 2011 showed that the population was still overwhelmingly rural: only 31% of the population lived in urban areas.. In comparison, 80% of the population in France is urban. Since then, the country has been rapidly urbanizing, and its large cities such as Mumbai and Delhi are among the most populated urban areas in the world, with a combined population of nearly 50 million inhabitants. Within 20 years, almost 7% of India’s population has migrated to cities according to the World Bank. It is estimated that one in five Indians has already migrated within the country. There are many factors that encourage this migration to the cities.

Poverty in rural areas is one of the main motivations for migration to the cities, but it is not the only cause. Living in the city means having access tohealth facilities, economic opportunities, education, recreation, as well as new social norms: a better place for women in society, the possibility of inter-caste marriages and social change. Another of the many causes of migration is the lack of new opportunities in the agricultural sector. On the one hand, market leaders are appropriating land for intensive agriculture, while on the other hand, small producers are struggling to cope with the impacts of global warming and are seeing their cultivation area reduced.

But reality is often quite different within the city. Many work on a daily basis in the informal economy (all activities that are beyond the control of the state), such as driving a tuk-tuk or selling at markets. The high population density makes access to housing a challenge for the poorest who have no choice but to live in slums in or around cities. The environmental situation is also becoming alarming in cities: waste management is complicated and the pollution created by so many activities has considerably degraded water and air quality. As a result, the daily lives of many people living in large cities are very unstable.

A fragile and precarious society, the balance threatened

The COVID-19 virus has resulted in the total containment of India in order to ensure the country’s health security. This unique situation has upset the very fragile balance of Indian society. In this country of 1.3 billion inhabitants, the poorest populations, already fragile, are facing new difficulties, threatening their very existence. The crisis is multifaceted: it is health-related, as well as economic and migratory.

Indeed, many day laborers in cities lost their jobs the day after the announcement of the confinement. They instantly found themselves without income and without the capacity to provide for their families, including paying for the housing they occupy. This situation was exacerbated by the general food shortage. A large part of the poorest population survives solely on the rice and lentil rations distributed by the government. The interventions of non-governmental organizations on the ground are largely slowed down by the panic movements of a hungry population. Their health, already very fragile, is also seriously threatened. The slums are unhealthy, chronically lacking in infrastructure and extremely densely populated – often with large families living in one room. Under these conditions, it is impossible to comply with basic hygiene measures.

The third dimension of this crisis migratory movements – is the result of the first two. Due to lack of money, many lose their homes and all means of subsistence and seek to return to their home villages where they can find shelter and food. Confinement has therefore led to massive return movements to the countryside. In order to ensure containment, the government has stopped all trains, buses and planes to keep people in place. The lack of transport has therefore led some to walk for days, without food, sometimes with children. The media has shown these human tides of urban workers trying to escape from the cities to the countryside.

Outside the cities, the situation is very different.. Villages are for the moment protected from a massive spread of the virus, especially in the areas where Karuna-Shechen operates. Our sustainable projects are improving living conditions, particularly in these times of crisis: access to drinking water and organic vegetable gardens are currently helping to ensure the autonomy of families. Rural areas are therefore very attractive for people in cities.

For the time being, feeding and housing a few more people is not difficult, and solidarity allows us to help those who are most in need. The harvest and harvest time still offer work and food in rural areas. But if the confinement is prolonged, then the food and health security of the whole country will be seriously threatened. The situation is uncertain and frightening!

Post-COVID-19: What will the future hold for India?

Despite the complete temporary shutdown, of our activities in India, the Karuna-Shechen teams are working hard to ensure that our activities resume as soon as the containment ends, for the moment planned for May 3. Our members on site are in daily contact with the village motivators (the inhabitants who coordinate with Karuna-Shechen) in order to take stock of the situation on site. We can therefore understand the current issues, measure future needs and the impact of the crisis on the populations we are helping. When necessary, we work with the local authorities to solve the most serious cases of disease reported to us.

For the time being, the villagers remain self-sufficient in terms of food. Organizing a food distribution is therefore not needed, but we stand ready to act when it becomes necessary. To do this, our social workers identify the most isolated and vulnerable groups of families who will be the first to suffer from hunger.

It is also important to establish a long-term aid plan because, although it is far from over, this multidimensional crisis will have a strong impact, not only on health, but also on the economy.

The very likely recession and the employment system in India will leave millions of people in extreme poverty for an indefinite period of time. For a person in rural India, there is nounemployment insurance or social security!

Action scenarios are being studied, but it is certain that Karuna-Shechen will put in place aid to promote a return to employment, the creation of economic activity, and solutions that favor the empowerment of populations and respect for the environment.

Altruism must continue to be put into action and lead us together towards a better future!Change is needed, but in what direction? Matthieu Ricard refers to the creation of sustainable harmony: living simply but living respectfully.



“A situation that would ensure a decent lifestyle for everyone and reduce inequalities, while ceasing to exploit the planet and the living world at a To achieve and maintain this harmony, we must realize that unlimited material growth is not necessary for our well-being and that what is left of the wilderness part of the world must be preserved for its own sake and not for our use.” ~ Matthieu Ricard