The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a severe impact in many countries, particularly developing ones. According to the World Economic Situation and Prospects as of mid-2021, this global crisis has “clearly worsened poverty and within-country inequality”, and it is expected that “will leave long-lasting scars on labour markets, while reversing progress on poverty and income inequality in many economies.” The context in India in this sense, is complex.
Last year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned about the effects of the “sudden announcement” of a lockdown in the country. She stressesed the need to ensure that measures to counter COVID-19 are neither discriminatory “nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities.” Later, in June 2020, two UN Special Rapporteurs alerted about the “well-being of more than 100 million internal migrant workers suffering hardship after COVID-19 measures forced them to travel long distances home, many on foot.”
At this juncture and precisely with a focus on the current situation in India, a group of scholars from Kristu Jayanti College, a UNAI member institution also serving as the Hub for Goal 1: No Poverty, that advocates for more adult literacy as a long term solution, conducted a study through a group lead by Dr. Juby Thomas and integrated as well by Fr. Lijo P Thomas, Prof. Sashi Kumar and Dr. Sheeja Krishnakumar. Its objective was to identify the status of domestic migrant workers. Even though there are different patterns of internal migration in India, this study focused only on rural to urban and semi-urban to urban migrants.
Through a triangulation method the project aimed at examining the consequences of COVID-19 on the lives of these persons. Two hundred workers living in the city of Bengaluru in the Indian state of Karnataka, were part of the study, all of them being from other parts of the country. In-depth interviews were conducted to scholars, political leaders, representatives from civil society organizations, contractors and senior workers.
The absence of comprehensive data on domestic migrant workers makes it difficult to communicate or reach out to them with financial support, food security or healthcare services efficiently. Despite this, migrant workers are the backbone of several sectors in the country and their contributions are significant in infrastructure development, food processing, manufacturing, textiles, security forces, domestic service and even in tea and cardamom plantations.
This study observed that almost 70% of the respondents were below the age group of 35, out of which 96% are married. Almost 70% of them were dropouts after primary school education. These factors force them to be daily wage workers since their opportunities are very limited due to lack of educational and professional qualifications. At least 83% of them migrated from rural parts of India, and almost half of those cited unemployment as a major reason, other motives being agricultural failures, natural disasters and poverty.
Despite the living expenses being relatively high in large cities as compared to villages, their wages are considerably low causing poor living conditions including limited or non existent public services such as water and sanitation, which is something critical in times of COVID-19, in addition to food shortages and malnutrition. Sumit Kumar, a construction worker for more than a decade, explained: “We live in small worker sheds which neither can provide quarantine spaces for the infected, nor has sufficient toilet facilities. Getting quarantined in such spaces will be more sickening. Food is a major concern (…) Hence, we cannot survive without a job.”
Furthermore, most of the migrants who returned due to the ongoing pandemic had the challenge of traveling to remote areas. Some argue that existing policies have failed in securing legal or social protection for these vulnerable groups. Sanjay Yadav, mentioned that those “who returned to villages are still unemployed.” “Even the neighbors and family members approach us with fear, we do not have money to return to the cities for jobs (…) All of these are affecting us both mentally and physically,” he said. “More than the fear of the virus, it is the dread of economic uncertainty that bothers us,” another respondent commented.