While the social and economic costs of lockdowns, travel bans and social distancing initially focused on international migrants, there has been increasing attention paid to the plight of internal migrants. The World Bank estimates that the magnitude of internal migration is about two‐and‐a‐half times that of international migration. Within India, an estimated 40 million internal migrant workers, largely in the informal economy, were severely impacted by the government’s COVID-19 lockdown.
With transportation systems initially shut down, many had no recourse to travel options back to homes and villages, resulting in harrowing journeys home. Those who were able to make it home found, in some instances, villages refusing entry because of fears of transmission. The shocking images of migrants forced to walk in desperation showed the enormity of the crisis as well as some of the challenges posed by an extended lockdown in India where so many people live hand to mouth and cannot afford not to work.
1. The invisible majority – India’s migrant workers and the informal economy
The complete failure of the government to anticipate the needs of this group, and the subsequent distress caused, has made visible a large workforce who experience precarity of work and often live hand to mouth. One key challenge is the lack of robust data on the scale of internal migration. While estimates abound, there is no proper data collection system in place to accurately record temporary, seasonal and circular migration patterns. However, it is estimated that more than 90% of working people in India are engaged in the informal economy, with states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar accounting for more than 80% of workers in this sector.
A recent government labour force survey estimated that more than 71% of people with a regular salary working in non-agricultural industries had no written job contract. Nearly half of workers are not eligible for social security benefits. Daily-wage workers are particularly vulnerable, with limited or no access to social security and most living in poverty. Living hand to mouth, their loss of livelihoods has led to a lack of money to pay rents or pay for food. Women are impacted whether because of their gender, responsibilities as caregivers, or as members of disadvantaged castes and communities.
COVID-19 has massively impacted this group of workers. Stranded Workers Action Network found that 50% of workers had rations left for less than 1 day; 74% had less than half their daily wages remaining to survive for the rest of the lockdown period; and 89% had not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown.
2. Access to social safety nets
According to Supreme Court proceedings, relief camps are housing some 660,000 workers; some 2.2 million people also rely on emergency food supplies. Job losses, and home and food insecurity have left this group highly vulnerable.
In March 2020, in response to COVID-19, the Indian government instituted the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package (PMGKB), a $22.6 billion relief package. The World Bank announced $1 billion funding to accelerate social protection support, in part through the PMGKB. This support would work alongside pre-existing initiatives such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), which covers 800 million people, and Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT). This cash injection could help address one of the key challenges facing India’s piecemeal and uneven social protection programmes – inadequate funding. India’s spending on public social protection excluding health is just 1.3% of the GDP.
However, there are still other challenges to overcome. One is how to ensure coordination and coverage within, and across, differing states. The second is how to transition multiple schemes into one integrated system that can be accessed anywhere within the country, particularly important when many workers are on the move. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive system, which is adaptive and flexible to needs and provides adequate social and income support.
Another coverage issue relates to the use of direct cash transfers (DCTs) to support people impacted by the loss of livelihoods, where funds are deposited within bank accounts. Such measures fail to consider the significant numbers of people who do not have access to banks and will not be able to access this support.
3. Wider impact on livelihoods and remittances
There is a risk, with extended lockdown and risks of further waves of infection, that labour shortages could negatively impact the economy. There is a wider need to support re-entry back into the workforce and support livelihoods. National Survey Sample data shows that between 2007 and 2008, internal remittances amounted to US$10 billion. These domestic transfers financed over 30% of all household consumption in remittance-receiving households.
But future migration for work is likely to be severely impacted. As restrictions begin to ease, employers and businesses cannot necessarily rely on cheap available labour. Having faced destitution and hardship, many may wish to stay closer to families and local support networks. As Irudaya Rajan notes in The New Humanitarian, it is likely ‘there will be a reduction in long-distance migration in India after this’, as many migrants will be wary of being stranded again. This would be hugely detrimental to stimulating the economy as reverse migration could push down wages and subsequently demand.
Another issue may be returning migrant workers, who have been working overseas, over half of whom work in the Gulf. It is unclear if, or when, migrants will be able to return to work, with the World Bank estimating that remittances from this group could fall by about 23%. However, what is striking has been India’s support for this group (the Vande Bharat Mission has deployed flights and naval ships to help return migrant workers, especially vulnerable groups), in marked contrast to the lack of preparation and care for internal migrants. One factor for this may be the volume of remittances these migrant workers bring to the Indian economy, but it overlooks the contribution of internal remittances, on which there is far less robust data.
But the current challenges can also be an opportunity. The scale of the migrant crisis has made visible an often-overlooked population of workers. With political will, and investment at federal and state levels, this could be an opportunity to transform livelihoods.
As thoughts will turn to how to stimulate economies and get people back to work, it is imperative that those in authority turn their minds to how to create a more just society, that invests in healthcare, and has a social protection system that supports the most vulnerable in society. Migrants are not just objects of charity that need support. Internal migrants are key income generators that play a vital role in Indian society and should never be overlooked again.
Dr Champa Patel has led the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House since September 2017. Before joining Chatham House she was most recently the regional director/senior research advisor for South Asia and South East Asia and Pacific Offices for Amnesty International, responsible for managing the research, campaigns, media and advocacy for the region. Prior to Amnesty she worked in public health for almost a decade, focused on children at-risk, refugees, asylum seekers and internal trafficking. She is a visiting practitioner/external examiner at the University of York, an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and sits on the editorial board of Human Rights Quarterly.