The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown have severely impacted migrant laborers from Odisha. It has not only thrown them out of job, but has also pushed them into a long and winding road of uncertainty.
Given the long-lasting impact of the lockdown on the Indian economy and the lives of the laborers, especially the migrants, their post-lockdown behaviors have a pivotal role in reviving the village economy of Odisha.
To understand the coping strategies of migrant laborers from Odisha, Gram Vikas, in partnership with the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) conducted a rapid assessment survey among them from 1 May to 4 May, 2020.
The survey revealed the vulnerability of the migrant households and the need for migrants’ remittances to revive Odisha’s rural economy. If the state government develops strategies and interventions, the same can help migrants cope the lockdown as well as post-lockdown distress.
A total of 392 laborers who had migrated for work from 13 Community Development Blocks across Ganjam, Gajapati, Kalahandi, Kandhamal and Nayagarh districts of Odisha were contacted over phone by a trained research team who speak Odia.
The team members enquired the workers about their current location, money at disposal, food and shelter. The team gathered information about them if they were staying back at the destination site after lockdown and whether they had a job and an accommodation.
Those who reported that they wished to return to native places were enquired if they had registered at the portal by Government of Odisha to return to the native place. They were also enquired about their strategy to manage the household expenditure once they arrived home. Their plans to return to workplace were also explored.
The migrants were mostly young men with a median age of 23 years, three-fourths of them being less than 30 years old. A little more than 50% of the of laborers were Adivasis and nearly 20% belonged to Scheduled Castes.
Those who were aware of the type of ration card said that they belonged to priority households (PHH). About 11% reported that they were currently in debt. Out of the migrant laborers who were currently indebted, one in every three had a debt of over Rs 10,000.
About four-fifths had moved to the southern states. While most of them continued to be at their workplaces with access to food and shelter, seven weeks of lockdown had drained them financially and psychologically. About 25% of them said that they did not have any money at all. The median amount at disposal was Rs 1,900.
Three-fourths of the laborers planned to return to native places once the lockdown is over. Only about one-fifth of those who planned to return would be able to manage their expenses on their own once they returned.
This points towards the fact that significant external interventions are needed to ensure that the households in rural Odisha that depend on migration do not experience a deepening of misery which might force them to liquidate their minimal assets or borrow from moneylenders.
Such experience is likely to accentuate distress migration in the post-lockdown scenario. Although most of the laborers plan to return to their workplaces within three months of their arrival, their return would depend on how COVID-19 unfolds in rural Odisha as well as in the destination states.
Hence, Odisha may have to prepare a medium-term strategy for safeguarding the households that depend on migration. In the context of the discussion above, the following recommendations are made towards alleviating the problems of the stranded migrant workers and improving their resilience post-lockdown:
It must be noted that nearly 25% of the stranded workers do not have any money and about 7% of them were unable to have two meals a day. Even if they wished to return to native places, the workers will have to buy train tickets on their own.
Given their plight, similar to what other states with high outmigration have done, Government of Odisha should take immediate measures to transfer cash to the stranded migrant laborers. This can help the stranded workers in the interim and also enable them to buy tickets for their journey home.
The earliest re-entry of the migrant laborers into livelihoods is important in reviving the rural economy through remittances. Hence, the government should encourage the laborers to stay back and work if non-exploitative livelihood opportunities are available where they are.
The government should facilitate tele-counseling to stranded migrant workers and help them make logical decisions than emotionally charged ones, as that would be strategic, given the course of the COVID-19 epidemic in the country.
It is time Odisha geared up its safe migration program by providing livelihood alternatives beyond MGNREGS, that make migration for work a choice than a desperation. Majority of those who currently move to other states for work are likely to stay back and work locally if they are assured of a livelihood opportunity that fetches a monthly income of around Rs 10,000.
Given the manner in which some states including Odisha plan to suspend / modify select labor laws that safeguard the welfare of the workers, the state needs to reimagine rural development within the state rather than leaving the laborers vulnerable to exploitations elsewhere.
Government should encourage migrant workers who return to their native villages and plan to find livelihood alternatives locally, to invest in medium and long-term livelihood options. Banks, other financial institutions and SHG networks should offer customized loan products with limited collateral security, flexible repayment options and wherever possible, lower rates of interest.
Given the job market uncertainties, there is a high likelihood of wage cuts and fluctuating demand for unskilled / semi-skilled workers. The current break could be a good opportunity for the state to formulate a comprehensive skill development strategy.
The ongoing Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana (DDU-GKY) schemes, that focus on placement-linked skill training are not appropriate for these workers. Anecdotal evidence reveals that such programs have negatively impacted the retention rates of girls in schools in Odisha.
The Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) needs to be given a fillip, to acknowledge the experiences gained by the migrant laborers in different sectors. This will benefit those who wish to find job options locally and those who explore livelihood options in other states.
In order to ensure the best wage rates and relatively less exploitative working arrangements for the interstate laborers, Government of Odisha may forge partnerships with destination states such as Kerala which offers the best wages in India and relatively better social security measures for migrant laborers.
Promote adaptive behaviors among migrant laborers so that their remittances support investments for livelihood diversification than consumption. This can substantially improve the resilience of the migrant households so that the majority of them are able to manage on their own during shocks. This is particularly strategic in the context of Odisha which is highly vulnerable to natural disasters.
Liby Johnson is the executive director of Gram Vikas. Benoy Peter, an expert on internal migration in India, is the executive director of Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development. Peter has a Ph.D. in Population Sciences. Views are personal.