India’s economic recovery hinges on whether the central and state governments can help returning workers cope with the immediate economic distress they will experience when they reach home, and on whether they can ensure better protections for migrant workers in the long-run when they eventually re-migrate.
To understand the extent of reverse migration due to the pandemic, we first need to look at the data on migration: who migrated, from where, to where, and for what purpose. Unfortunately, this is not so straightforward because the definition of a migrant differs across datasets and detailed migration data is not easily available. The Census of India measures two types of migration – by place of birth and by place of last residence. Based on the place-of-last-residence definition, there were 454 million migrants in India in 2011 — of these, 60 million had moved for work or business and nearly 20 million had done so during the last 10 years (we call this last group “recent migrant workers”).
We will focus on recent migrant workers, because they are the most likely to return home during the pandemic.
How many are returning and where are they going?
A large majority of the recent migrant workers are male (83 per cent). But migrant men often bring along their families, which is reflected in the 35 million Indians whose primary reason for migration in the last 10 years was to move with their households — some of whom may also have become part of the destination-workforce upon migration.
Contrary to popular belief, not all work-related migration is inter-state or rural-to-urban. Although a majority (64 per cent) of migrant workers did move out of rural areas, nearly 6 million or 36 per cent moved from urban areas. Moreover, 66 per cent of them had moved within their own state.
An important category of migrant workers not included in the Census numbers above is that of ‘short-term migrants’, who leave home for up to six months for work. Of about 14 million such workers (as per National Sample Survey 2007-08), about 13 million originated from rural areas, 40 per cent moved across states, and only about 2 million were female.
While we do not know what fraction of these migrants are indeed going back home, it is clear that the scale of reverse migration will be unprecedented and extraordinary even if half of them return.
Impending challenges for receiving states
As migrant workers and their families arrive home, India is witnessing a massive redistribution of individuals not just across state boundaries, but also within, and not just to rural areas, but also to urban areas.
In terms of absolute numbers, states that will experience the largest movement of migrant workers — either through internal movement or through the return of out-of-state migrants — are Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar.
In the 2011 Census, nearly 1.7 million and 1.2 million individuals who migrated for work in the last 10 years reported their last place of residence in these two states. Bihar also tops the list when we consider the number of migrants originating from a state relative to its population. Other states that will be strongly affected by reverse migration relative to their population size are Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, and Rajasthan.
The homecoming of these workers with their spouses and children will constitute a massive shock to the local labour markets, healthcare infrastructure, and the public distribution system in their states. Let’s take the example of Bihar. In 2011, Bihar’s workforce was 24 million. If 3 million Bihari migrants return to their home state, not only will the population of Bihar increase by 3 per cent, its labour supply will expand significantly. It is not difficult to see how severe the economic pressure of this event might be.
Moreover, the burden is likely to be felt unevenly within these recipient states. According to a 2017 report, by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, 17 districts accounted for a quarter and 54 districts accounted for half of India’s total inter-state rural-to-urban male out-migration in 2001. These districts are concentrated in Eastern UP and Bihar. In districts like Gorakhpur, Azamgarh, and Jaunpur in UP, Siwan and Munger in Bihar, Chatra in Jharkhand, and Almora and Garhwal in Uttarakhand, the ratio of inter-state rural male out-migrants to the rural male working population is above 10 per cent.
Such a shock to the labour supply can put a downward pressure on wages and, if nominal wage rigidities prevent wages from fully adjusting downward, labour rationing, involuntary or disguised unemployment, and misallocation of labour can take place. The brunt of these labour market effects will be borne by the poorest and most vulnerable individuals of these local economies, for whom out-migration may no longer be an option in the near future. Local economies will also suffer due to the loss of remittances that migrant workers used to send back.
Another immediate consequence of the reverse migration for the receiving states will be the stress experienced by their healthcare systems that are relatively less developed than the rest of the country. Their health centres will now need to serve a bigger population while also dealing with the burdens of Covid-19 containment and treatment. The resulting shortages of medical personnel, equipment, and supplies threaten to reverse the gains that states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand have made in improving maternal and child health in recent years.
Mental health is another important area that has not received much attention in the Indian public discourse. About 10 per cent of Indian adults already suffer from a mental health disorder. Moreover, we have only 1.22 mental health professionals (i.e., psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health nurses and social workers) for every 100,000 patients, and they are mostly in urban areas. The incredible stress that the returning migrants must feel as a result of the ordeal of getting back home, losing their jobs, and the uncertainty of life back home will undoubtedly lead to a surge in cases of anxiety, depression, and other ailments, including substance abuse, all of which can in turn lead to an increase in violence against women and children within the household.
What can be done?
The problems listed are just a few of the challenges that lie ahead for Indian policymakers. There will be many more because economic recovery will take time.
Therefore, first and foremost, India needs to address the immediate economic distress and food insecurity that migrant workers are experiencing. Direct cash transfers, increase in ration quotas, universal access to the public distribution system (PDS) such as the ‘one nation, one ration card’ scheme are some of the solutions that have been proposed. Although state governments have begun carrying out some of these measures, implementation challenges remain and need our continuous attention.
In addition to disaster relief, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is an obvious avenue through which returning migrant workers can be supported in rural areas and several sensible measures to adapt MGNREGS to deal with the current situation have already been suggested. But MNERGS may not be sufficient and is at best a temporary solution given the scale of reverse migration that we are witnessing.
Moreover, the Modi government and states need to consider the economic distress of the large number of migrants returning to urban areas and of those who have chosen to stay back in urban areas — these groups do not benefit from the rural employment guarantee scheme.
This crisis can also provide an opportunity to come up with innovative solutions to new and old challenges. For example, healthcare providers in developed countries have transitioned to telemedicine to care for patients during the pandemic. In March this year, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) and the Medical Council of India (MCI) released telemedicine practice guidelines. While an important early first step, much more needs to be done to ensure both private and public availability, especially in rural areas. While India lacks the infrastructure and resources to deliver telemedicine like it is being done in richer countries, it may be possible to adapt this solution to the Indian context by providing at least some healthcare support and counselling to citizens via cell phones.
Another urgent requirement is more granular data on migration, which will enable better planning and targeting of limited resources to where they are most needed. State web portals created by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) have been collecting such data, but we can supplement these databases by entrusting the task of enumerating returning migrants to the local panchayats, which should have the necessary resources and expertise to do so. The Modi government may also need to provide extra assistance to states that are being disproportionately affected by reverse migration.
A better deal for migrants
Let’s not forget that migrant workers left their homes to earn a better living than they could afford at home. In the long run, as things gradually return to normal, the same push and pull factors may force workers to migrate again, albeit not en masse or in the same numbers as before. And when they do so, improved laws and policies should make sure that they get better deals.
The road ahead is going to be long and tortuous. But for now, the Modi government and the states must focus their attention on how to alleviate immediate and medium-term distress that migrant workers will encounter in the next phase once they are home.
Dr. S Anukriti is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston College, and Siddharth Ramalingam is a Staff Writer at the Decision Lab. Views are personal.