Migrant Workers’ Woes upon Homecoming

Challenges and Solutions In the Aftermath of Covid-19 Lockdown

Abstract

Migrant workers across India have been facing a multitude of hardships during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. As the nation went under lockdown imposed by the government to curb the spread of infection, factories and workplaces had to shut down abruptly across the country. This led to millions of migrant workers facing loss of work, food shortages, inability to sustain in the cities and uncertainty about their future, having to return to their homes in rural areas. To gain an insight into the current and future needs of the returning migrants AIF conducted a survey in Odisha, which is among the poorest and most migration-prone states in India. The findings would form the basis for AIF to design evidence-based interventions in these areas. A total of 2,208 returning migrants spread across 366 villages in 38 blocks were covered from 5 districts of Odisha- Nuapada, Kalahandi, Ganjam, Bolangir and Bargarh. These districts have been identified by the Odisha state government among the most migration-prone in the state[1].

The survey found that 96% of the migrants did not have a steady income. Majority of these were working as and when required (55%) and nearly 30% were not working but looking for work. A meagre 4% reported being engaged in full time work. This points towards a crucial need for creating local opportunities for work. Those who were not working has mainly been managing so far using family savings and Covid-19 relief supplies. Almost three- fourths of those who were currently working were engaged in agriculture related work (72%). Registration in the Public Distribution System (PDS) was found to be high (76%), however, the same in NREGS was significantly lower (44%). Further, majority of them did not have Jan Dhan accounts (56%). Seven in every ten returned migrants shared plans to return to their pre-Covid place of work (71%). However, almost all of them expressed willingness to stay back if work opportunities were made available here. When asked about the kind of work they would be interested in- agriculture, construction and small business emerged as the most preferred and close to four in every ten expressed willingness to do any kind of work. Nine in every ten returned migrants shared openness to getting trained for the work.

These findings clearly underscore a dire need for interventions among the migrants who had to return to their villages as an aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown. With the government- imposed restrictions easing out in many areas, the time is ripe for interventions on the ground to provide livelihood opportunities keeping in mind few key considerations that emerged in the study. Firstly, support related to registration in government schemes like NREGS and Jan Dhan Yojana would be useful for this group to access benefits they are entitled to. Second, it is evident that agriculture-related work, construction work and help in starting small businesses would be taken up most readily so these should be focused on. And finally, with most of them expressing willingness to take part in trainings to hone their skills, those already working can also be taken towards income enhancements. Thus with timely offerings and opportunities, this increased workforce has immense potential to contribute to the rural economy.

1.1      Background

Migrant workers across India have faced multiple hardships during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. As the entire nation went under lockdown imposed by the Indian government to curb the spread of infection, factories and workplaces had to shut down abruptly across the country. This led to millions of migrant workers facing loss of work, food shortages, inability to sustain in the cities and uncertainty about their future, having to return to their homes in rural areas. Many of them covered the long inter-states journey on foot, their children and pets in tow, since no means of transport were available due to the lockdown. News channels brought their plight to the fore as they followed many of these returning migrant families’ arduous journey. Taking cognizance of their situation, the Central and State governments, NGOs and individuals took measures to help them with sustenance and getting back home.

As per Census 2011, around 70% of India’s population resides in rural areas. With the economy in rural India heavily dependent on agriculture, to absorb the compounded burden of returning migrants would be a tall order. While government schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) could provide some relief to the rural economy, it may not be sufficient. This underlines the urgent need for creation of more and diverse employment opportunities in the rural set up which can utilize the skills of the returning population. However, with no reliable data on the number of migrants who have returned to the states and the skills mapping yet to be completed by the state governments, a gap was felt in understanding this population’s current situation, experience and skillset to make data driven decisions regarding future interventions to help them not just survive, but also thrive in their villages.

With this background, a survey was designed by the Learning, Evaluation and Impact division at the American India Foundation (AIF) to understand the current and future needs of the returning migrants considering that they may not be able to travel back to their place of work in the near future. These findings would become the basis of designing relevant interventions in these areas by AIF. A total of 2,208 returning migrants spread across 366 villages in 38 blocks were covered from 5 districts of Odisha- Nuapada, Kalahandi, Ganjam, Bolangir and Bargarh. These districts have been identified by the Odisha state government among the most migration-prone in the state. The survey was conducted by a team of 24 locally recruited, rigorously trained field personnel in a span of one month.

Interviews were conducted at the village level in the month of July (2nd to 30th July, 2020) taking all the due safety precautions for Covid-19. In case of Ganjam district however, the survey had to be conducted telephonically as physical visits were not possible due to the ongoing lockdown and recommendations of the district level government officials.

The key overall findings of the survey among the migrant workers who had returned to their native village due to the Covid-19 lockdown are as follows:

1.2      Key Findings Of the Survey

Profile of Migrants

A typical migrant was a currently married male, about 30 years old (median age) belonging to the backward castes. He was illiterate or had some basic primary level education and lived in a kutcha house with five other household members.  

Details on Destination of Migration

  • Respondents had either migrated alone (41%) or with spouse and child/ren (33%) in search of work, mostly to Telengana (25%), Gujarat (17%), Andhra Pradesh (17%), Tamil Nadu (15%), Maharashtra (11%) and within Odisha (6%).
  • Two-thirds of the migrants reported that these were urban areas (66%). Interestingly, almost all the migrants covered from Ganjam had moved back from urban areas (98%) and over three-fourths of the respondents in Nuapada had moved back from rural areas (78%).
  • Work at brick kilns emerged prominently in Balangir (76%), Nuapada (75%) and Bargarh (51%); while construction work came up highest in Kalahandi (61%) and work in Textile/ garment industry in Ganjam (55%).
  • The usual frequency of receipt of payment was monthly (43%) or weekly (31%). Additionally, close to 30% each in Bargarh and Nuapada also reported receiving an advance ranging from INR 30,000- 95,000.
  • The monthly payment ranged from INR 5000 – 15,000 in large majority of the cases (62%).
  • Almost all the migrants used to work for 8 hours or more prior to the lockdown (95%). Despite that, majority of them had not been paid even once during the lockdown (57%).

Covid-19 related Measures upon Return

  • Almost all of the returned migrants were reportedly quarantined (99%) upon their return to the village at the quarantine centre (97%).
  • However, 47% of these had not completed 14 days under quarantine- this issue was most reported in Nuapada (82%) and Balangir (70%).
  • When asked about preventive measures against Covid-19 infection, awareness on use of face masks and covers was found to be the highest (87%), followed by handwashing with soap and water (78%). However, awareness about washing hands for 20 seconds was relatively low (48%).

Current Work Status

  • A meagre 4% of the respondents reported to be working full time. Majority of the respondents were working as and when required (55%) and close to 30% were not currently working but looking for work.
  • Almost three- fourths of those who were currently working were engaged in agriculture related work (72%). Another 13% were engaged in construction work.
  • Those who were not currently working were managing expenses mainly using savings (49%). Other ways of sustaining that were reported were- Covid-19 relief supply (22%); other family members who were working (17%), loan from money lenders (7%), etc.
  • When asked about registration in government schemes, while the Public Distribution System (PDS) registration was found to be high (76%), the same for NREGS was significantly lower (44%). This percentage for NREGS was especially low in case of Ganjam (6%) and Kalahandi (31%).
  • Among those registered in these schemes, while all were taking benefit of PDS, 83% were availing the same from NREGS. Reason for not availing the benefits were mainly ‘no available work’ (67%) and ‘waiting for opportunity’ (20%).
  • Almost all of the respondents had an Aadhar Card (99%). However, majority of them did not have a Jan Dhan account (56%)- mostly in Ganjam (93%) and Kalahandi (79%).

Ownership of Devices:

  • Feature phones or non-smart phones were the most commonly owned devices among respondents (58%). Ownership of these was highest across districts in Kalahandi (66%) and lowest in Ganjam (44%).
  • Close to half of them owned a smartphone (47%). Across districts, smartphone usage was significantly higher in Ganjam (73%) and lowest in Nuapada (37%).
  • Four in every ten migrants owned a television. Across districts, ownership of TV was more prominent in Ganjam and Bargarh (about 60% each) as compared to the other districts, especially Kalahandi (24%).
  • Overall, two-fifths of them reported internet access (41%). This was again found to be lowest in Nuapada (31%).
  • Ownership of radio was significantly lower at 7% while computer ownership was found to be negligible (1%).

Future Plans

  • Seven in every ten returned migrants have plans to return to their pre-Covid place of work (71%) at some point in the future. However, two-thirds of these respondents were not sure exactly when they would be able to return (65%).
  • Almost all of them expressed willingness to stay back if work opportunities were available (98%). When asked about the kinds of work they would be interested in- agriculture, construction and own small business emerged as the most preferred (42%; 39%; 31% respectively). Further, close to four in every ten also expressed they would be willing to do any work (38%).
  • Nine in every ten returned migrants were open to getting trained for the work (90%).

1.3      Conclusion

The survey findings underscore a need for interventions among the migrants who had to return to their villages as an aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown and associated loss of income. With the government- imposed restrictions slowly easing out in many areas, this is a good time for interventions on the ground towards providing livelihood opportunities keeping in mind some key findings. Firstly, support related to registration in government schemes like NREGS needs to be provided to this group to access benefits that they are entitled to. Second, it can be seen that agriculture-related work, construction work and help in starting small businesses would be taken up readily by this community. Therefore, interventions designed with their aspirations in mind are more likely to succeed. And finally, with most of them expressing willingness to take part in trainings to hone their skills, those already working can also be taken towards income enhancements in times to come. While most of them have plans to migrate out at some point in the future, they also expressed that lack of opportunities in the village is the main reason for these plans. Thus, with the right offerings and opportunities this surge in workforce can contribute immensely to the rural economy.

[1] https://www.telegraphindia.com/odisha/11-districts-migration-prone/cid/1412164

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