Migrant labourers are mostly poor people. They migrate because they wish to extricate themselves out of poverty and to provide their families with essentials of daily life, if nothing more. Poverty in a practical sense means more than inadequate consumption, education, and health. As the voices of the migrant labourers reverberated ever since they were struck by the lockdown, it also meant dreading the future—knowing that a crisis might descend at any time, not knowing whether they would be able to cope. Living with such uncertainty is part of life for poor people, and future changes in economic conditions in the country may well be increasing the riskiness of their everyday life. Migrant labourers are among the most vulnerable in our society because they are among the most exposed to a wide array of risks. Their low income means they are able to save less and accumulate assets. That in turn restricts their ability to cope with a crisis when it strikes. The mechanisms that migrant labourers have at their disposal for dealing with risk have been found inadequate, thereby severely limiting their capability to eliminate vulnerability and enhance resilience. The policy response to vulnerability must be aimed at guiding poor people manage risk better by reducing and mitigating risks and lessening the impact of shocks like the coronavirus pandemic. Such policies must make an attempt to address the immediate problems of shocks and the inability to cope with them. But they must simultaneously also lay a solid and resilient foundation for investments by poor people that can take them out of poverty. The policy responses must ensure provision or availability of health insurance, old age assistance and pensions, unemployment insurance and assistance, short-term work programmes near their habitats, access to social security funds, inclusion in microfinance programmes, and cash transfers whenever required. However, these are largely not reaching the migrant labourers and other poor people in their communities (non-migrant wage labourers or other people affected by poverty) although these are very much available in the public domain. This study made an attempt to examine what happened to migrant labourers in the aftermath of the lockdown in four migration prone districts of Odisha – Kalahandi, Koraput, Nabarangpur and Rayagada. While looking into conditions of migrant labourers, it was thought necessary to also examine the conditions of other poor people of their own communities who had never migrated before but also faced the adversities of lockdown. Primary data was collected through two structured questionnaires – one for each group.

Select information of the research study based on data collected from the field are:

  • The total number of households studied are 156 out of which 120 are returnee migrant households and 36 are non-migrant families (no one from these families ever migrated).The number of members in the households of migrants and non-migrants are 562 and 172respectively which totals to 737. Out of this, 187 are returnee migrants which is exactly one-fourth of the total. This means one out of every four persons (in the sample understudy) is a migrant.
  • Among the returnees after lockdown, 70% were males and 30% were females. Irrespective of social groups, more than 25% of returnees were women.
  • Almost 90% of the migrants worked in the southern states – Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Tamil Nadu, Karnakata and Kerala. Negligible percentage of migrants worked within the state.
  • Search of employment was the most dominating reason (almost in 68% cases) behind migration followed by debt repayment (almost 28%).
  • A little over half of the migrants have been at their place of work for less than six months. And almost 40% of them were at their place of migration for less than 12 months. Above81% of all STs were at their place of work for less than six months.
  • Almost 90% of the migrants are first generation migrant workers.
  • About 75% of all migrant respondents reported to be jobless when they were interviewed. The number was much less at 53% for STs and it is so because they have access to cultivable land where they live in comparison to other two migrant social groups – SCs and OBCs.
  • More than half of the non-migrant families also reported to be jobless at the time of interview.
  • Educational attainment among migrant and non-migrant families is quite low. Half of the migrant households have never been to school.
  • A significant percentage (40%) of migrant families do not possess any land.
  • Penetration of different kinds of pensions (old age, widow, disability, etc.) into the households of both the migrants and non-migrants is less than 25%. The status of housing for the poor is no better. In case of centrally schemes like LPG and toilets, the penetration is more than 40%. Further, the state government’s agriculture assistance scheme KALIA is reaching about 40% of migrant families.
  • Among the migrants and non-migrants, more than 87% of the respondents did not receive any benefit under the MGNREGA.
  • Those who are employed among migrants, more than two third reported to be engaged in agriculture and allied activities. Only 18% reported to have worked on MGNREGA projects.
  • More than 40% of the non-migrants are employed in farm-based activities and none reported to have found work in MGNREGA.
  • Among the migrants, 45% sought help (debt and assistance) from different sources. More than two third of the migrants approached others rather than seeking help from family or relatives. In more than half cases (54%), cost of travelling back was self-financed. Host government provided help to 21% migrants and home government (Government of Odisha) helped only less than 7% of migrant workers. Others (inclusive of contractor called sardar) helped 16% of migrants.
  • Almost 87% of migrants are not registered under the ISMW Act and few are not even aware of existence of such a legislation.
  • More than half of the migrants did not have any PMJDY account. More than 60% did not receive any cash transfer (Rs. 500 monthly assistance amount was announced by the Government of India for three months) and this percentage is as high as 86% in case of ST migrants.
  • While PDS benefits were availed by 78% of all migrants, 63% did not receive any pension advance announced by the Govt. of Odisha.
  • Among non-migrants, PDS benefits were availed by half of all respondents, while 75%didn’t receive any pension advance announced by the Govt. of Odisha.
  • More than 87% migrant respondents reported income depletion to complete and great extent taken together. More than 81% also reported food consumption depletion either completely or to a great extent.
  • Among non-migrants more than 83% reported income depletion to complete and great extent taken together. However, depletion of their consumption (complete and to a great extent combined) has been to a much lesser extent (61%).
  • Almost 56% of migrants said they would migrate again despite whatever they have experienced as this is the only alternative left at their disposal. Since, no support is available back home, they would prefer to get back to employment in harsh conditions in order to support their family. However, a sizeable percentage of migrants (44%) do not wish to migrate again underlines the fact that life is not easy for them irrespective of the place. Among the social groups, almost 75% SCs expressed willingness to migrate again for work and income. This percentage is significantly lower in case of OBCs (almost 56%)and further lower for STs (40%).

The key findings corresponding the research objectives are as follows.

  • Despite steady increase in indicators of development at the aggregate level, migration has intensified in the districts where this study was conducted. Most of the migration is seasonal/ circular in nature and covers all demographic groups except the general caste. Predominantly dalits and tribal groups migrate in search of employment and for debt repayment.
  • There is high incidence of first-generation migrants. They do not have a family history of migration. Hence, the impoverishment that pushes people to migrate is a recent phenomenon. This raises a huge question mark on effectiveness of different schemes that are in place for protecting the poor.
  • All migrants returned home to their native places when the lockdown crisis triggered by Covid-19 struck them. Migration has not positively impacted peoples’ ability to move out of poverty. They have rather remained trapped within it as they keep facing one crisis or the other which jeopardise their ability to breach the vicious cycle of poverty.
  • People tried to cope with the situation in spite of job and income loss by curtailing food consumption. They tried to look for alternative employment back home and also tried to access protection measures offered by government schemes. However, except PDS, the penetration of other existing measures that could have been helpful were found largely missing. Hence, they suffered more without any significant protective cover available to them in the shape of schemes and programmes that are in operation. In other words, the actual impact of schemes and programmes was insignificant in comparison the sufferings experienced both by the migrants and non-migrants.
  • The dominant coping strategy adopted by STs was falling back on cultivation. However, landlessness among other groups is more pronounced and hence, they had to simply suffer the agony of severe depletion in income in the absence of protective cover. The resultant effects were mitigated to some extent through personal loans which has exacerbated their indebtedness.
  • People across social groups have experienced extremely adverse situations immediately after lockdown. They did not have a better experience once they came back home. Hence, a significant proportion wants to travel again because that is the only solution available with them. The rest wishes to endure suffering at home rather than getting themselves exposed again to a hostile ecosystem.
  • These realities have significant and far-reaching implications for planning, strategizing and implementing various state and central government schemes.

Policy recommendations can be with regard to short-term and long-term measures.

In the short-term, some recommendations are:

  • It was found that PDS has worked well on ground. However, the same is not true with all other programmes such as MGNREGA, different pension schemes, PMJDY, etc. One needs to find out what enabling factors worked well in the case of PDS which are absent in implementation or strategizing of other schemes and accordingly take required measures.
  • Almost 87% of migrants were not registered under the ISMW Act and few were even unaware of existence of such a legislation. Almost all who had registered themselves received journey allowance to travel home. It needs to be ensured that all migrants are registered as per relevant provisions of ISMW Act so that they remain within the relevant protective umbrella.
  • Since people fell back on agriculture and allied activities when the crisis hit them, organised and structured support to agriculture and farm-based activities need to be mobilised.

Suggested long-term recommendations are:

  • Educational attainment among migrant and non-migrant families is quite low. Half of the migrant households have never been to school. So suitable skilling programme need to be provided to enhance capability of migrants for better earning which will positively impact their coping abilities through improved savings and asset building.
  • Search of employment was the most dominating reason (almost in 68% cases) behind migration followed by debt repayment (almost 28%). People have not gained anything significant out of migration. Hence, the governments and its agencies need to work on creating employment opportunities near their habitats to ensure that people do not migrate.