The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown have severely impacted migrant labourers from Odisha. It has not only thrown them out of job, but 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 labourers, their post-lockdown behaviours have a pivotal role in reviving the village economies of Odisha. In order to understand the coping strategies of migrant labourers from Odisha, Gram Vikas, in partnership with the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) conducted a rapid assessment among them during May 1-4, 2020.
A total of 392 labourers who had migrated for work from 13 Community Development Blocks across Ganjam, Gajapati, Kalahandi, Kandhamal and Nayagarh districts of Odisha were contacted over the phone by a trained research team who speak Odia. The workers were enquired about their current location, access to money at disposal, food and shelter. Information was also gathered about their plan after lockdown, if they were staying back at the destination after lockdown and whether they had a job and accommodation available. 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. Slightly over half the of labourers were Adivasis and nearly 20 per cent belonged to Scheduled Castes. All those who were aware of the type of ration card their native households possessed belonged to priority households (PHH). About 11 per cent reported that they were currently in debt. Out of the migrant labourers who were currently indebted, one in every three had an outstanding debt of over ₹10000.
Most labourers had migrated out of Odisha and four-fifths had moved to southern Indian states. While most of them continue to be at their usual workplaces with access to food and shelter, seven weeks of lockdown has made them financially and psychologically drained. Nearly a quarter of the labourers shared that they did not have any money at all left with them. The median amount at disposal was ₹1900 only.
Three-fourths of the labourers planned to return to native places once the lockdown is over. Only about one-fifth of those who planned to come back are able to manage their expenses on their own once they return. This points towards the fact that significant external interventions are needed to ensure that the households in rural Odisha that depend on migration for consumption 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 labourers plan to return to their workplaces within three months from their arrival, their return depends 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 for work. In the context of the discussion above, the following recommendations are made towards alleviating the miseries of the stranded migrant workers and improving their resilience post lockdown:
Government of Odisha should take immediate measures to ensure cash transfers to the migrant labourers stranded elsewhere: It must be noted that nearly a quarter of the workers stranded do not have any money and about seven per cent of the workers were unable to have two meals a day. Even if they wish 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 for cash transfers to the stranded migrant labourers. This can help alleviate the misery of the stranded workers in the interim and also enable them to buy tickets and board trains if they wish to return.
Provide telecounselling to stranded migrant workers through outbound calls and facilitate logical decision making: The earliest re-entry of the migrant labourers into livelihoods is important in reviving the village economies through remittances. Hence, encourage the labourers to stay back and work if non-exploitative livelihood opportunities are available wherever they are. Providing telecounselling to stranded migrant workers through outbound calls and facilitating logical decisions than emotionally charged ones, appear to be strategic given the course of the COVID-19 epidemic in the country.
Reimagine rural development within the state rather than leaving the labourers to be exploited in other states: It is time Odisha geared up its safe migration programme by providing livelihood alternatives beyond NREGA, 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 a livelihood opportunity that fetches a monthly income of around ₹10000. Given the manner in which some states including Odisha plan to suspend/modify select labour laws that safeguard the welfare of the workers, the state needs to reimagine rural development within the state rather than leaving the labourers vulnerable to exploitations elsewhere.
Prioritise households with migrants for lending: Migrant workers who return to their native villages and plan to find livelihood alternatives there should be encouraged to invest in medium and long-term livelihood options. Banks, other financial institutions and SHG networks should be motivated to offer customised loan products with limited collateral security, flexible repayment options and wherever possible, at lower rates of interest.
Focus on skill training/recognition beyond current initiatives: 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 PMKVY and DDU-GKY schemes, that focus on placement-linked skill training are not appropriate for these workers. Anecdotal evidence reveals that such programmes 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 labourers in different sectors. This will benefit both those who wish to find job options locally and those who explore livelihood options in other states.
Source-destination collaborations with the southern states such as Kerala can ensure the worker’s decent wages and better social protection: In order to ensure the best wage rates and relatively less exploitative working arrangements for the interstate labourers, Government of Odisha may forge partnerships with destination states such as Kerala which offers the best wage rates in India and relatively better social security measures for migrant labourers.
Promote adaptive behaviours among migrant labourers so that their remittances substantially improve the resilience of the households: Promote adaptive behaviours among migrant labourers 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.
The report is available for download at https://www.gramvikas.org/wp- content/uploads/2020/05/Road-to-Resilience-Post-Lockdown-Coping-Strategies-of-Migrant- Labourers-from-Odisha.pdf
About Gram Vikas |
Gram Vikas is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organisation, working in partnership with village communities in remote, hilly and Adivasi dominated parts of Odisha since 1979. The mission of Gram Vikas is to ‘to promote processes which are sustainable, socially inclusive and gender-equitable to enable critical masses of poor and marginalised rural people or communities to achieve a dignified quality of life’. Currently, our work is spread over 10 districts in Odisha and one in Jharkhand. It benefits approximately half a million persons in about 1,500 villages.