ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The COVID-19 Pandemic and Migrant Workers from Rural Bihar

More than half of rural households had at least one migrant worker prior to the pandemic, and for 94% of these households, their migrant workers’ livelihood was adversely affected. There was large-scale reverse migration with a huge fraction of returning migrants spending as much as four to five months in native villages with limited opportunities for alternative work (including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act employment). The disruption of employment among migrant workers who stayed in destination areas led to drastic cuts in their remittances back home. About one-fifth of the migrant workers who had gone back to the destination areas were yet to resume work at destination sites at the time of survey.

The research project on which this paper is based was supported by a grant from the International Growth Centre.

At the time of writing (15 August 2021), India had already been through a more virulent and devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. With an official total count exceeding 4,30,000 deaths (about 2,80,000 since the beginning of March 2021 alone) and an estimated excess mortality due to COVID-19 which may be up to 10 times higher, the scale of the human calamity has been colossal.1 Besides the tragic loss of human lives, there was also the large toll on people’s livelihoods that were severely disrupted by the pandemic either directly by disease and death among family members or indirectly by the shutdown of large parts of the economy through lockdowns and mobility restrictions imposed for shorter or longer periods in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

India initially went in for an aggressive suppression strategy with a series of national lockdowns beginning late March 2020. The lockdowns, however, also caused an economic shutdown with a decimation of work, livelihoods, and incomes for large sections of the population. With no vaccine in sight till well into 2021, the economic costs of the pandemic had been mounting throughout 2020. While the well-off have more staying power, this raised grave concerns about how the poor and those with meagre livelihoods even in normal times could cope and survive the lockdown period and beyond.

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