In addition to the reverse swaying of the young migrant population, the COVID – 19 pandemic also increased the distress of the old working population, on the verge of uncertain communication, job markets and social insecurity.
Though India is undergoing a vast demographic transition, the unappalled inequity still survives and produces complex relationships laterally across institutions of work and care. The socio-economic disruption caused by the nation-wide lockdown and the precarious set of social protection measures during the COVID -19 pandemic, exposed the vast share of the invisible workforce sustaining the Indian economy. Their covert identity of functioning as ‘informal’ beings across the destination stream, affected their precarious status with respect to weak institutional policies and social support networks. A primary reason for such predicament erupts from the lack of reliable, accessible and accurate data on the migrant populations across various corners of the country. Migration of poor labourers and workers transitioning their ‘work ethics’ from the agricultural to the low-paid tertiary sector, has never been a priority for policy designs and implementation. In addition, complex issues of ethnicity, gender, caste and class also intermeshes into the work environment, reflecting complex hierarchies across national and even regional circulations. While the pandemic propelled reverse migration for the young generation working forces, the presence of the aged working population in the informal sector poses larger questions of acceptability in healthcare regime and social status. While contextualising, the expectations of ‘old-age retirement’ are sufficiently not present within the poor households, where aged members or bread earners of the family migrates from source to destination areas for earning subsistence. While these populations might be marginally represented in the insufficient statistics of migrant workers, they cannot be merely submerged within dependency ratios. The prejudgements of the old burdening the social, economic and cultural structures of the society, are often complicated by the fact that they might have to work beyond the designated age- limitations of being ‘senior citizens’, while not availing policy support conducive to their welfare.
The COVID – 19 pandemic has been a front-ranking case with regard to such concerns. The infrastructural and logistical facilities remained highly skewed towards the poor, landless and rural population in India, in the post-lockdown phase. Such catastrophe indeed affected scenarios of healthy aging.
Healthy aging often remains a class-charged concept, lying within the consolidation of one’s ability to work on one hand and spaces for induced incarceration on the other hand. While it is legible to consider that a person from the upper-class background would ensure his or her ‘healthy aging’ through insurance schemes or retirement funds, it is increasingly imperative to consider that a poor elderly man or woman would look for several unending alternatives, with fewer probabilities of finding work in a healthy environment. Sometimes the essential requirement of money overshadows such considerations. So, one can be equally sceptical of the negligence meted out to the elderly migrant workers during the COVID – 19 pandemic. Does this indicate a succinct class-based hegemonization of public policies or a universal identification of the aged under the degenerative camp of either being a retired professional, earning or sustaining on their own?
Although, it is clear that the COVID – 19 pandemic did impact the biological convictions and processes of healthy aging as well as mechanisms of immunity among the old, the social consequences are also no less driven. A pertinent fact arises in envisioning the concept of healthy aging. Healthy aging is not merely a realization of an organic way of life but a loaded concept of diversion, work culture and resultant application of the aged body. Healthy aging as a concept and practice is differentiated in terms of the economy, including the urban – rural divide, income patterns and standard of living. The demographic dividend is potentially placed within the context of healthy and active aging outcomes. Goli and Pandey’s dispensed that the unhealthy and early initiation of aging symptoms in Indian adults is often ignored in the forecasts of future growth (Goli & Pandey, 2010). In addition, Dipak Kumar Singh’s analysis of unorganized workforce in India remains a thoughtful intervention at this hour, when governmental administration is facing hard-hitting challenges in meting out the post- Covid-19 percussions. Singh stated that, “Over 85 percent of our workforce are unorganised workers, with negligible or non-existent social security. Second, the demographic transition would make India an ageing society by 2040, requiring preparations for stronger social security architecture” (Singh, 2020). However, the amorphous conditioning of such social security infrastructure pertains to the contradictory measures for the old workers within an informal economic system. The national classification of the dependent population is often a vague estimate, as several elderly men and women might function as an active earning member of the family. It is however imperative to track down the number of poor elderly migrants who made reverse returns in their hometown or village, without the possibilities of receiving better opportunities of livelihood and healthcare services. While younger working migrants have been captured through the pictorials of media highlights, negligible traces of information have been found on the elderly working population who made reverse migration during the lockdown. The poor elderly migrants also faced the ordeal of walking their way to native villages, which is not uncommon in practice, but a rare presence in institutional reports. Of the few mentions on the older working force of India, Celine Sunny and Benoy Peter’s work in Kerala remains a fresh start. Sunny and Peter (2018) states that:
The official retirement age from government jobs in Kerala is 56 years and given the life – expectancy of 74.9 years, a person in Kerala has to move out of the formal labour force during the peak of his/her experience with nearly 20 life years ahead. At the same time, many older persons who work in the informal sector, who do not have dependents or any regular means of income, are unable to move out of the labour force even if they wish to do so. The workforce participation rates of older persons are higher in the case of the poor, the less educated as well as those belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities (p. 117)
This extract reveals many such nuances of complex social roles which are class-loaded and structured. It is quite probable that the COVID – 19 lockdown further exacerbated the situations, where insufficient resources marred the opportunities for sustaining agriculture in native villages. Several conversations with migrant families revealed the fact that the elderly in their families are still working rather than being dependent upon their children and Kerala as a State attracts migrants for its massive base on work opportunities and labour markets, which were also threatened throughout the lockdown. Also, one cannot decline the fact that several States such as Assam, New Delhi, and Bihar etc. introduced DBT (Direct Benefit Transfers) and pensions for the old, the differently-abled and the widows during the lockdown. But, the progress reports of such implementations are still precarious, in the period after the lockdown. A deeper problem lies in the legitimate prevalence and acceptability of younger people as workers or labourers.
So, the issue of reverse migration is not merely a moment’s decision of saving one’s life but hints us towards a far greater challenge where the participation of the elderly within the informal labour force still needs greater attention and comprehensive researches. While working at older ages might be an emancipatory choice for some, it emerges as a vicious trap of unending poverty, decreased health and a perilous future for the others.
The ‘others’ or the poor elderly needs to be taken into account not merely through the labels of vulnerability but also through the development of constructive capabilities and inclusive policies such as supporting healthy environments for their work or the betterment of remuneration in informal work system.
Goli, S. & Pandey, A. (2010). Is India getting old before getting rich: beyond demographic assessment. In Anand S, Kumar, I. & Srivastava, A. (Eds.), Challenges of the Twenty First Century: A Trans-Disciplinary Perspective, Macmillan Advanced Research Series, Macmillan, New Delhi.
Singh, Dipak Kumar (2020, November 3). India’s informal workers need more than Modi govt’s labour code to get social security.
Sunny, Celine & Peter, Benoy (2018). Impact on Older Persons. In Muralee Thummarukudy and Benoy Peter (Eds.), Leaving No One Behind: Lessons from the Kerala Disasters, pp. 117 – 128, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, Kerala.
Ahana Choudhury is a Research Scholar at the Department of Sociology, Tezpur University, Assam. Her research interests include themes around ageing and care, ethics, principles and governance.