As the second wave of COVID-19 ravages in India, concerns are high for urban migrants

This post written by Supraja Parthasarathy (IFMR), Vasanthi Subramonia Pillai (IFMR), and Luisa Cefala (UC Berkeley) shares how the results from a phone-based survey in Chennai could inform policymaking on informal labor markets amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit: Labor stands in Chennai, India

Today, as you read this, the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic continues to rattle India — shattering the country’s capacity to cope with the disease. On 17th May, more than one year after a first, nation-wide lockdown, several Indian states — including the South-East state of Tamil Nadu — decided to implement a new lockdown.

While this was deemed necessary due to “unavoidable circumstances,” the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases and the lack of oxygen and other medical supplies raise important concerns for the millions of migrant workers who make a living in casual labor markets in the major cities (according to the latest census, in India there are about 450 million of internal migrants, most of whom are intra-state). It is probably too early to draw conclusions on the effects of the new lockdown on this vulnerable population. Nonetheless, results from a phone-based survey that the Behavioral Development Lab in Chennai, Tamil Nadu conducted between May and October 2020 might be informative of what to expect. The survey — funded by the CEGA “Spring 2020 Development Economics Challenge — Special Support in Response to COVID-19” initiative — included a sample of intra-state migrants employed as casual workers in Chennai. (Intra-state migrants are estimated to account for more than 70% of the migrant population in Chennai.) This is a population that was widely believed to suffer acutely from the restrictions and on which little data is typically available due to their transient permanence in the cities.

The sample included 401 daily wage workers — some of whom, at the onset of the pandemic, were enrolled in other projects, including a joint work with CEGA affiliated professor Supreet Kaur. The participants were primarily from a few districts of the state of Tamil Nadu and were interviewed for five rounds of surveys. The median participant was 42-years-old and about 92% of them were married. Additionally, 84 female participants who were wives of these daily wage workers were also surveyed to understand the gender-based impact.

Main take-aways

  • Migrants headed to their home villages from Chennai when the lockdown began, out of fear of being unable to earn a living in Chennai. As restrictions were eased, they started heading back to Chennai and — by the month of October — 73% of the sample resided in Chennai. Employments and earnings tracked closely the migration patterns highlighting the reliance of residing in urban areas for finding jobs in this population.
  • There were implementation gaps in the delivery of Tamil Nadu’s cash transfer program and many households experienced food insecurity. Across all five months about 43% of respondents mentioned that they did not have sufficient food for the next two weeks and about 7% said “maybe” when asked whether they had sufficient food. Additionally, about 40% of the male participants across all rounds mentioned that reducing family’s intake was their way of managing shortage in food. Close to 32% of women across all rounds mentioned that they had reduced their personal intake.
  • Men and women also reported experiencing worse mental health than before the pandemic. In addition, traveling migrant populations experienced stigma. When respondents were asked how they thought migrants who travel back to their home villages from work places would be treated by people around them, on an average almost 63% answered that these migrants would be assumed to be ill.
  • Misinformation related to the virus was widespread. To measure the extent, we gave participants a list of items that they had to identify as true or false. In all rounds on an average, 71% men believed as true at least one out of two pieces of wrong information. This was true even though respondents reported valuing pandemic-related information shared by government representatives, suggesting that there is scope for the government to implement further information campaigns to raise awareness and curb misinformation. Women, on the other hand, were more accurate: almost 80% of them recognized the pieces of information correctly as true or false.

Implications for the current emergency

As deaths due to COVID-19 in India have been consistently above 4,000 per day since May, access to resources such as hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and medicines has deteriorated for the entire population. When it comes to the more vulnerable, though, two sources of additional concerns arise: first, access to information is not equal. In our sample, for instance, a minority of respondents had access to a smartphone within the family where they could receive news (likely an upper bound given that we sampled only individuals who owned a phone). While initiatives aimed at curbing misinformation and fight scams — such as the effort to verify COVID-19 resources led by different teams of Indian-based researchers — were developed, reaching out to the very poor is still a challenge.

Second, most workers face the dilemma: should they return to their hometowns and see their earning opportunities dampened or remain in the city to secure a living? So far, respondents in our sample seem to have opted for the latter option. Regardless of their choice, government policies should place more attention on how living in the city boosts employment chances when designing lockdowns.

As the country strives to recover from this deadly crisis, it is safe to assume that migrant workers will need continuous support to recover.


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The CEGA blog is a platform for discussing key issues related to poverty alleviation and global development.

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The CEGA blog is a platform for discussing key issues related to poverty alleviation and global development.