Just a few months ago, we all had seen the news flashes highlighting the plight of hundreds of people stranded in airports, railway stations and bus depots. We saw frightened people waiting with bated breath to return home. The gloomy images of migrant laborers walking for days on the national highways from their workplaces in big cities to the safety of their village homes still give the shivers. Work from anywhere policy which is widely in practice now, could have been a life-saver for many if it had been properly thought out and implemented before the pandemic. Here is how!
The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc, tossed up many unprecedented challenges in front of us. It has drained us financially as well as emotionally. It has inflicted human psyche, like never before, especially of those who had to leave their hometowns and work in faraway cities.
Thousands of people lost their jobs and remained stuck in big cities due to the lockdown for months. Those who were dependent on office canteens, mess, restaurants, hostels, and maids for food had to fend for themselves. Their families suffered in villages or small towns.
Daily wage earners, construction labourers, factory workers suffered the worst. With no job, money, and food, they eventually embarked on days-long walks towards a glimpse of hope (their hometown), but many perished on the way.
The pandemic exposed, among others, a skewed trend that drives crores of people from small cities and villages towards a handful of big cities for jobs. As UNESCO reports suggest, about 30% of Indian population live as internal migrants. They leave their homes for better jobs and livelihood. Those few big cities might have provided some financial security in good times. But, they have failed to ensure social security during this troubled time.
Core Problem: Growing burden on select metros
For many decades or even centuries, migration has been towards a few big metro cities. This fact forms the core the migration crisis. In search of a better livelihood for themselves and their families, crores of people moved from their villages or rural towns to the big cities across India.
As per UNESCO reports, corridors where internal migration is predominant in India, are all notably between far-off states. Odisha to Gujarat, Bihar to Haryana and Punjab, Bihar to NCR, Uttar Pradesh to Maharashtra are the common migration corridors. Crores of people had to to walk or cycle for 1000s of kilometers back to their homes. They were left stranded with empty stomachs and dry throats. Had they been provided an opportunity to work in and around their home states, things would have been better. In major cities, like Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Chennai, and Hyderabad, about 50% of their population are migrants. A significant portion of these migrants are from other urban towns, tier II/III cities and not from rural areas.
Why are metros overburdened?
Till date, an organization looks at only the big metros while setting up offices and hiring talents. These cities provide businesses with essential infrastructure, like multistoried office spaces, high speed internet connections, good rail, road, air connectivity. The also receive governments’ support through tax reductions, and areas like industrial parks and estates etc. for ease of operations. The fact that big companies set up offices only in metros and tier I cities, has been driving people from all over the country towards these cities. As a result, the metros and tier I cities now need to accommodate a significantly high population. As a result, the migration crisis has become a catch-22 problem. Businesses cannot move out of metros and remain efficient, while people from tier II/III cities or rural parts cannot stay in their own places and earn their livelihood.
Consistent but inadequate efforts to better equip tier II/III cities
Clearly, attempts are being made over the last couple of decades to equip tier II/III cities with infrastructural capabilities to meet the requirements of large employers. The governments have nurtured cities like Kochi, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Coimbatore, Lucknow, Nagpur in many ways. The government aimed to keep a check the overurbanization in the metros with these measures. Since 2007, there has been 16 new Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and 14 new Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) established. Tier II/III cities serves as the host of all these new IIMs and IITs.
The government also launched National Smart Cities Mission and Udaan Scheme. The intent was to make tier II/III cities attractive enough for large employers and reduce the over-urbanization problem. E-Commerce is one industry which has seen steep growth over the past decade. This has made tier II/III cities more relevant, because of the cheaper lands which facilitate construction of large warehouses.
But evidently all these were not enough to stop the pace of migration towards the metro cities. These steps were not adequate to attract sufficient number of employers to tier II/III cities. They were not effective enough to prevent thousands of people from losing their livelihoods or suffering from hunger and thirst. They were not able to prevent migrants from having to walk thousands of kilometers to their homes and loved ones.
The way ahead – work from anywhere policy
Work from anywhere policy can help us progress towards achieving the goal of generating more job opportunities in tier II/III cities. If organizations enable a sustained remote work, migrant employees would not need to relocate to metros anymore. While they can work productively from wherever they live, the overurbanization in metros would slow down. This will not only benefit the white-collar employees, but also the blue-collared employees.
If the white-collared population becomes spread evenly across the many tier II/III cities, blue collared workers like drivers, construction workers, food-service workers etc. who are directly or indirectly dependent on these white collared workers will also begin to find opportunities away from metros. A slow and steady reverse migration would be set in motion. In the long run, the entire working class will be able to live a life of better quality, while cutting down on many high unnecessary expenses a life in any metro would require.
The improved educational infrastructure in tier II/III cities also makes this transition of employees to such cities easier. High-quality education is now more affordable and accessible in these cities. Overurbanization, overpopulation, pollution, poor quality of life and such other perennial problems in metros would slowly start to subside with increase in work from anywhere.
Business outcomes matter
As long as employees produce positive business outcomes, employers would not really worry about from where the employee is working. But in reality, work from anywhere policy does more than just ensuring usual business activities. It provides added benefits to employers like reduced real estate expenses, and other infrastructural costs. They also get access to wider pool of talent, increased employee productivity and employee retention rates.
Most importantly, lakhs and crores of people will get to stay close to their family and loved ones. In case of any crisis in the future, they would not face the struggles they had to go through recently. They will get back to their homes safely.
By Nandan Bhatkal, VP Enterprise Solutions at Accops Systems
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