As a part of the “Life or Livelihood” theme for GBL Access Series 1, GBL Senior Data and Research Manager, Smit Gade, spoke to Sharanya Chandran, Associate Director of Policy at JPAL South Asia. She leads the Policy, Labour Markets, and Firm sector teams, and also manages partnerships across government, civil society organizations, and the private sector.
Setting the tone of the discussion, Gade starts by highlighting two strikingly contrasting images brought forward by the pandemic: first, people coming out of their houses and banging thalis (pots and pans); and second, migrants with backpacks walking to their hometowns. Chandran furthers the discussion on the pandemic-induced large-scale “reverse migration” and says that the issue is much more complex than these images.
“The striking thing about this pandemic has really been that it took a visible outflux of large groups of people — physically on the move — for us all to recognize the extent of vulnerability of migrants, and also unorganized sector workers in the economy,” she says. With this, the conversation delves into the nuances of this large-scale reverse migration and what it meant for different states across India.
Chandran highlights that the results of this reverse migration have not been the same for all states. To explain, she says, “so many states which deploy migrant workers as agricultural laborers, for instance, faced a shortage of labor supply for harvest and post-harvest operations. On the other hand, there were states which saw a return of migrants back to their homes and then they were faced with challenges of excess labor supply.”
To further explain the pressing challenges brought forth by this exodus, Chandran emphasizes that this movement of migrant workers made it even more difficult for the government policies to have a strong impact.
“Even relief meant for people outside the Public Distribution System (PDS) through the Atmanirbhar package did not fully address the needs of migrants as many of them returned to their homes by the time the relief was announced. So they lost out,” she says.
Another major factor that hindered government endeavors to provide relief to migrant workers during the pandemic was the lack of a comprehensive unified database of migrants. “I think the lack of a comprehensive unified database of migrants led to the inability of the government to respond with speed to bring a wider net of people in the ambit of existing or new programs. That was a fundamental challenge,” says Chandran.
Chandran cites credible data as a crucial resource to improve the understanding of key elements of migration — including the reasons behind it, source and destination states, and migrant pathways — and ultimately help provide more targeted support services and other benefits to the migrant workers.
However, the conversation emphasizes that gathering credible and unified data on migrants can be challenging. To throw light on the nature of these challenges, Chandran gives the example of the definitional difference over the term “migrant worker” between the National Sample Survey (NSS) and the census data making it difficult to compare the two datasets. Adding to this, Gade recollects another challenge to collect migrant data.
“Even if we solve the technical definitions in our existing datasets, it's also hard to find migrants. The success rate of sampling surveys would be much lower [because] it’s hard to find these people [migrants], compared to someone who has a permanent house,” he says.
While Chandran agrees with Gade, she points to the long-term goal of promoting safe and viable migration opportunities for the workers as a reason to prioritize and commit more resources to migrant data collection. She emphasizes that “data would be crucial for routine and systematic monitoring of service delivery of benefits that migrants would otherwise be excluded from due to the lack of proof of residence in the area of their work or the current residence. This will also help identify gaps in program implementation and the need for new interventions to address these targeted challenges.”
Exploring possible solutions, the conversation suggests several options that could go a long way in collating a single migrant database ultimately informing and enabling, Chandran says, “adequate social protection measures [...] which follow them [migrants] where they go.” These solutions include “compiling a social registry of migrant workers by actively encouraging registrations [...] through district collectorates, through kiosks, e-kiosks, SMS registrations or even allowing employers to register details on behalf of the workers,” emphasizes Chandran.
Underlining yet another challenge to creating a unified database, Gade points to the inter-state politics behind destination state-sponsored benefits to migrant workers especially in states with a lot of hostility towards migrant workers. Further elaborating the point, he gives the example of the “hotbeds of migration such as Mumbai, or even Bangalore” that are known to be hostile towards migrant workers, specifically from Uttar Pradesh, and expresses concern over the feasibility of the state government schemes extending support to migrant workers.
“The state resources which are so fraught over, once they start getting dished towards migrants, wouldn't that [become] [...] a political issue?” he asks. “The central government has more of a role to play; because in order to ensure such a massive level of interstate coordination along with the rights of migrant workers, there is a larger architecture that has to take care of this which cannot be left to individual states,” says Chandran responding to Gade’s concerns.
Calling for collaboration between private firms and the government to gather migrant data to inform policies, Chandran referenced J-PAL affiliates’ work in collecting descriptive data in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand. She emphasizes that such descriptive surveys “can provide insights on what really is going on in the ground and such insights can provide some quick database insights to governments of what issue needs to be targeted while looking into designing support programs.”
A key insight Chandran shares from these survey results is that “the willingness to migrate among these workers depends upon their previous migration experience” and points out that this willingness is lesser among women than men, especially post-lockdown.
Gade adds to the discussion, reflecting upon GBL’s experience of surveying female workers of Shahi Exports in Bangalore that found a considerable number of them unwilling to go home. One of the major reasons for it, he cites, was the support system extended by the employer firm which in turn, is influenced by the demand side in their ability to provide such support. “Firms are increasingly prioritizing worker welfare as they see it as critical to their productivity, as well as their existence,” says Chandran, agreeing with him.
As the discussion explores the impacts of the pandemic on workers, a major group that comes up in the conversation as deeply impacted is the youth. Chandran underlines that the youth-specific challenges require targeted intervention. “It is important to understand the binding constraints that youth may face in accessing labor markets and design interventions to bridge these constraints. There is a need [for] intervention which can match youth's interests, the demand in the market, and the required skill training as well as understand the constraints they may face in accessing the job market even if they have required skills,” she says. She gives several examples of studies that show the effectiveness of targeted interventions like reducing information barriers and providing job search assistance in improving the quality of employment among youth. Yet, according to Chandran, more research is required in the field.
“Overall, while many studies on job research assistance programs have shown positive impacts of outcomes such as interview offers, job offers, and quality of employment, not all studies of this kind have shown sustained benefits on earning and total employment. So, these longer-term results need to be studied a bit more,” she says.
She emphasizes the need to focus on long-term solutions for the problems exposed by the pandemic and accentuates data as a crucial element to finding these solutions. “COVID has hit the pause button for us - to think about longer-term resilience, and not just looking at short-term band-aid solutions to some of these development problems,” she says.