Economists and members of the business community say the trend, backed by anecdotal evidence and surge in business activities in the city’s wholesale and retail hubs, has raised hopes of a quicker economic recovery in Bengal because it resolves one of the biggest issues of labour constraints in sectors like logistics, textile, manufacturing, goods and public transport and construction.
Conversations with several labourers who have returned revealed depletion of savings, mounting debts and absence of any direct transfer of benefits in their home states prompted their return. Many labourers who returned to the state from Maharashtra and NCR are also heading to Kolkata, primarily because of rising Covid-19 cases. Even if the disease itself weren’t a problem, few of them have the resources now to travel back so far.
“It is a very encouraging sign for the economy of the state and the business community, as labour shortage would have become the biggest constrain in the coming days,” says economist Abhirup Sarkar, a member of the state planning board. “This also indicates that the business activities in the city have picked up, which is creating a demand for these workers. Earlier, it was being expected that it would take a few months for the process of the workers’ return to start. But this happening within a few weeks of unlocking raises a lot of hopes.”
According to a survey by the Confederation of West Bengal Trade Associations (CWBTA), the apex body of leading trade associations of Bengal, 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 the good news is that more than 50% of them are back, and many more are either in transit or preparing to return,” says CWBTA president Sushil Poddar. “Labour constraints were one of the biggest issues when we started opening up, but it is easing with many of them arriving in the city each day.”
Incentives to bring labourers back
The return of labourers, which started as a trickle in the last week of May, turned into a steady flow in the beginning of June.
The wholesale markets of essential commodities in Posta and Burrabazar, which operated with only 20% labour during the lockdown, are now bustling with commercial activity. “The entire market is now open because more than 70% of the labourers, including mutias, drivers and helpers who had left at the start of lockdown, are back. The rest will return soon as we need more people,” says Biswanath Aggarwal, secretary, Posta Bazar Merchants’ Association.
The textile industry in the state was facing a shortage of 90% labourers at the start of Unlock 1.0. “Our industry is a labour-intensive one and totally dependent on workers for the movement of raw materials and finished goods and manufacturing. Many traders are now even offering incentives like money, higher wages and better staying conditions to convince them to return to Kolkata,” says Mahendra Jain, secretary, Chamber of Textile Trade and Industry, an umbrella body that also includes affiliates.
Hundreds of these workers are reaching Kolkata every day in goods vehicles and in cars that operate as app cabs, which their owners took back to their hometowns when the lockdown began.
“Many of them are reaching in lorries from Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh,” said Sanjay Upadhyay, president of the Posta Goods Transport Operators’ Association.
Anil Singh, a van-rickshaw driver in Burrabazar, said he had exhausted all his savings and was running up debts at his village in Bihar’s Banka. “Covid is a reality, but so is hunger. When I heard markets were reopening in Burrabazar, I paid Rs 1,200 to a lorry driver and came to Kolkata. At least I will earn a few hundred rupees at the end of the day and manage to send something home,” he said.
“Many of these labourers thought the governments in their home states would directly transfer money to their bank accounts, which would sustain them for a few months. But that did not happen, so they were forced to return,” said Amitava Dasgupta, a city-based economist.