Over a Year after the First Covid-19 Lockdown, Migrants Remain Vulnerable
A ferocious second wave of coronavirus infections has hit India, prompting a new round of localized lockdowns. Last year’s restrictions devastated the lives and livelihoods of poor migrant workers, leading to widespread job loss, mass re-migration, and social safety nets unable to support the most vulnerable. Policymakers have signaled their intent to minimize the economic effects on migrants through better targeted, less restrictive lockdowns and two months of free food for poor households. This is encouraging, but additional longer-term measures are needed. Many who migrated home last year continue to struggle and those who had returned to cities were only just beginning to make up for economic losses.
Since April 2020, we have tracked a group of roughly 5,000 migrants who returned to their home villages in central and northern India following the nationwide lockdown in March.
By February 2021, slightly more than half the sample had remigrated, with economic recovery differing dramatically between these remigrants and those who remained in rural areas. Remigrants reported weekly earnings of Rs. 2400 ($32.16, 85% of their pre-pandemic income) while those who remained at home earned roughly a fifth of that amount at Rs. 450 ($6.03) a week (18% of their pre-pandemic income). Those who remained at home in rural areas were more likely to report being unemployed, reducing food consumption, mortgaging or selling assets, spending down savings, and taking loans to make ends meet. To the extent it is possible to help those who returned to urban areas remain in cities through localized lockdowns, such as by providing economic support through employers and rations, we can protect migrants from another costly return to rural areas and enable a speedier economic recovery.