On 24 March 2020, Government of India announced a nation wide lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus disease. It restricted the movement of a billion people and shut down the economy. The lockdown left millions of migrant labourers stranded, without jobs and unprepared to cope with the fallouts.

Migration has been a key survival strategy for millions of rural poor from the Indian state of Odisha. Kalahandi, one of the most backward districts in the state, has for long witnessed large scale, long distance migration of young men to southern states.

Young, 22 year old, single men, migrate to find work as unskilled or semi-skilled labour in the hotel or construction industry. Most of them have less than eight years of education. About 70% migrate to Kerala and lesser number to Tamil Nadu and Goa.

Kerala was one of the first states to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. People started avoiding eateries, which employed most of these men. Poor business and closure of these hotels left majority of these men without jobs much before the lockdown.

Majority of the workers who returned, had arrived recently. Nearly half of them were already back in village for the Holi festival, by early February 2020 or before. About 10 per cent of the workers could not be contacted either directly or through their household members indicating their likelihood of being stranded at transit points on their way to the native place from the destination, prior to lockdown.

All the workers stranded at various destinations had places to stay, and 91% of those at their workplaces got two meals a day. But they worried about the dwindling cash, food stock and the duration of the lockdown. While their families, wives or aged parents, back in the village worried about their husbands or sons, and the absence of remittances that sustained the households and helped repay the loans.

Most of the workers did not know about the coronavirus disease symptoms or the preventive measures for the infection. This made them anxious about being infected, fearful that they will die and desperate to get back home with their loved ones.

Judhishtir Patel from Maligaon village, in Kalahandi, worked as a cook in a restaurant in central Kerala. The restaurant went out of business as the COVID-19 cases surfaced one after the other. The employer suggested that Judhishtir return home, as there were indications of a lockdown. Even Judhishtir was scared of the disease and wanted to go home. On 14 March, 2020, he managed to take a train to Odisha, although he had. not got his two months salary of ₹30,000. He realised that his arrival might trigger panic among the villagers. So, along with a couple of others who had returned, Judhishtir underwent a 14-day quarantine at a common facility in the village as advised by the local Anganwadi worker. He hopes to return to Kerala once the restaurant is back in business.

Alleviating acute poverty, indebtedness, malnutrition and starvation deaths among the migrant workers and their families need immediate, simultaneous measures to be taken.

Reach out to all the stranded workers through Helplines or Civil Society Organisations at the destinations/transit points to alleviate their psychological distress.

Connect them to right resources to ensure continued availability of shelter as well as food.

Ensure that their wages are paid by the employers.

Provide the workers with information and resources to protect themselves from the coronavirus disease.

Cash transfers are more likely to benefit these workers than the measures announced by the Government of India or the destination states given their profile and the nature of exclusions inter-state migrants experience at the destination states.

Families will find it almost impossible to send money during the lockdown owing to the financial constraints. It also takes long and considerable effort for families in remote tribal villages to send money.

Encourage workers to stay back post-lockdown to have a chance at getting jobs. This can improve incomes, revive village economies through remittances, and give them access to better healthcare from Kerala.

Support those who want to return to the villages to do so. Ensure they are not discriminated against or prevented from entering the villages. Provide them with safe and gender sensitive quarantine facilities within or near the villages.

Kalahandi has a fragile healthcare ecosystem like the rest of rural India. As majority of workers return from Kerala, a state with high number of coronavirus cases, the district is vulnerable to spiralling infections. Hence, the thrust should be on prevention, early diagnosis and treatment for coronavirus disease.

The plight of the migrant workers and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic is an unfolding human tragedy. What we need to do with urgency is to make sure that they have access to screening and healthcare services, nutritious food, and that the migrant workers re-enter work at the earliest.
Created By
Priya Pillai


Photographs by Ajaya Behera, Rufus Sunny, Aravind A.R.