"We are the wandering bread-earners of Kalahandi." This is our story during the covid-19 pandemic.

Hello, I am Ashok from Kalahandi in Odisha. My friend Ramesh and I want to tell you the story of 392 of us stuck in different parts of India due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

Kalahandi is our home, a place that is very dear to us. But most of you would know about it as one of the most backward districts in India. It is difficult to find work back in our villages. Even if we do find work, it pays less than ₹ 200 per day. A lot of us have not been able to study beyond middle school.

We migrate, looking for better paying jobs. We have to travel long distances to places with unfamiliar languages, cultures, food preferences and without any social support. We have entire families dependent on us, young children, old parents and spouses. We need the income.

So we stay, try our best to belong and work hard.

Most of us from Kalahandi migrate to South India, mainly Kerala. Many of my friends are in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The lockdown was so sudden. Hardly any of us could go back home.

It is largely men who migrate from our villages. More than 50% of us are Adivasis or Scheduled Tribes, and nearly 20% are from the Scheduled Castes. Many of our families own some land, often small holdings. It is not enough to feed the whole family. 

Almost all of our families need the food and fuel given by the government to get through the year. The government categorises us as 'priority households'. Some of my friends' families are so poor that they find it difficult to have two meals a day. Like Ramesh's family, who has the Antyodaya Anna Yojana ration card.

Few of my friends are in debt. But I have been able to save. You know, I have a smartphone now bought with savings from my income. About 70% of my friends use a smartphone. But Ramesh tells me that some others use regular mobile phones and few of us don’t own any.

We left home to find work and build better lives for our families. But we are all scared now. Now, most of us just want to go back.

We are not sure we will find work after the lockdown. We are worried about our families. Our wives and mothers are worried about us. Some of us have young children. We want to be with them. What if we get infected? Who will take care of us here?

It is so lonely to be so far away. We want help to get back to our families.

The businesses that we worked for closed due to the lockdown. We have not got any work or money for weeks.

I have been speaking to my friends from different places. Many have run out of money and most others have less than ₹ 2000.

Once the lockdown shifts, we don’t know if we will find work. There is so much uncertainty.

What do we do? We are not sure how we will survive if we go back home.

The government may support us, or maybe, we will find some work in our villages? Some of us think that we can work in the farms, as the rains will be coming soon. Some of our friends have savings. But that will run out soon and we will have to find work again.

For many of us, if we can get ₹ 5000 to ₹ 10000 in a month, we will be happy to stay back in the villages. But some of us have debts and we will need to earn more than ₹ 10,000.

Well, thinking about it again, maybe we should stay back in our workplaces. Work should pick up after the lockdown, right?

Many of us still have a job even though we are not going to work. We also have a place to stay. We are shaken by the crisis but maybe we need to consider staying back. We have to migrate.

Our wish, as always, is to find work back home. But that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Even so, a lot of my friends are not sure what they want to do.

We just want to see our families and feel comforted. We may then feel ready to come back to where we are now. Maybe in three months or in a year?

But you know, some of my friends are so poor that they have to return very soon. They need the work and the money.

All of us know about COVID-19. Everyone, everywhere, is talking about it. Most of us know about the symptoms of the coronavirus disease and how to stay safe from it.

The other day, we heard that we have to register with the Odisha government if we want to travel back home. Many of us did.

Do you know when we will be able to go back to our villages?

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Gram Vikas and Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development reached out to stranded migrant workers to make sure that they were safe and had access to basic necessities. Between 1 to 3 May 2020, we spoke to 392 migrant workers. This data story is a summary of part of what we heard from them.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown have severely impacted migrant labourers from Odisha. It has not only thrown them out of jobs, but also into a long and winding road of uncertainty. While most of them continue to be at their usual workplaces with access to food and shelter, seven weeks of lockdown have left them financially and psychologically drained.

Significant external interventions are needed to ensure that migration-dependent households in rural Odisha do not experience a deepening of misery. This 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.

It is time Odisha reimagined rural development within the state rather than leaving the labourers to be exploited in other states. What could be done to alleviate the miseries of the stranded migrant workers and improve their resilience post-lockdown?

Government of Odisha should take immediate measures to ensure cash transfers to the stranded migrant workers.

Provide tele-counselling to migrant workers through outbound calls and encourage them to stay back and work if non-exploitative livelihood opportunities are available wherever they are.

Government of Odisha should prepare a Safe Migration programme by providing livelihood alternatives beyond NREGA, which make migration for work a choice than an act of desperation.

Government of Odisha should forge source-destination collaborations with states such as Kerala and others that offer better wages and social protection for migrant workers.

Encourage banks, other financial institutions and self help group networks to offer customised loan products with limited collateral security, flexible repayment options, and lower rates of interest where possible. This can help migrant workers to invest in medium and long-term livelihood options locally.

Government of Odisha should formulate a comprehensive skill development strategy with a different focus than the placement-linked training offered by PMKVY and DDU-GKY schemes. It should acknowledge and leverage the experiences gained by the workers in different sectors. This will benefit those who wish to find jobs locally and also explore options in other states.

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.

"They left homes and travelled to unknown places. They lived in strange and difficult conditions. Kept going by the dream of a better tomorrow. Then came the pandemic and went the life as they knew. Guests or Migrants – workers they were and workers they hope, they will be."

Gram Vikas' COVID-19 response began on 15 March 2020. In the first 45 days, we have supported 15,842 people in 522 villages in Odisha and Jharkhand in different ways - health awareness, education and screening for coronavirus disease; survival kits for daily wage workers to ensure that that their families don't go hungry; supporting people to access social entitlements and work through NREGS; evidence informed outreach, the Bandhu helpline and Khelo Bandhu initiative to ensure the wellbeing of migrant workers; and strengthening local government work in pandemic response.

Your support can go a long way to help us help them.

Created By
Priya Pillai


Text by Priya Pillai. Graphics by Chow Parij Borgohain. Photographs by Ajaya Behera, Aravind A R, Chow Parij Borgohain, Jaison Thomas. Quintain on the last image by Liby T. Johnson.