COVID-19 and the Distress Reverse Migration in India: A Gendered Perspective

Author:   Dr. Amba Pande

School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi


The heart-wrenching images of the migrant workers walking back to their native places because of the COVID crisis, actually, reflects a larger problem that India has been facing for a long time. The COVID-19 just triggered the explosion of a simmering crisis. Despite the popular perception about the unbiased nature of the Coronavirus that treats every individual equally irrespective of social, religious and caste barriers, the preventive measures like social distancing, hygienic surroundings, and nutrition levels has a strong class factor. The ones, who belong to the lower hierarchy in this system, live in crowded settlements with bare minimum hygiene, are most exposed to the virus. It is also this section of the people who migrate out of distress from the source areas. The hugely uneven developmental level of Indian states and lack of employment opportunities becomes the primary factor in inducing such distress migrations. Nevertheless, these marginal and unskilled workers/labourers have been the drivers of the informal economy and urban growth centres in India.

The extension of the second phase of COVID lockdown, unfortunately, left these workers restless. With no future guarantee of work and response from the government authorities, they decided to walk back to their native places hundreds of miles away. Despite all the empathy towards them, for the suffering they had to undergo, one cannot deny that it was not a very wise decision on their part. The crises and suffering continue with a large number of them still stranded on roads, highways, railway stations and state borders. The migrants who have reached their native places are facing another kind of discrimination, that is of being the possible carriers of the virus.

Nevertheless, this crisis arising out of COVID and resulting in a distress reverse migration from destinations to the source areas is rooted in a much deeper problem ailing the internal migration of workers in India.  Census 2011 indicates that the total number of workers/labourers is more than 30 per cent higher than in 2001. The primary source areas/ states are Uttar Pradesh, Bihar Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal. The key destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala. However, the Census, as well as the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), fail to capture the real numbers which appears to be much higher. Short-term seasonal movements, which form a large component of the migration, remain unaccounted. Internal migration is difficult to quantify because people move freely within the borders of a country without restrictions, but, the inadequacies in the data remain the biggest challenge as far as the correct information and policymaking are concerned. In the case of international migration, India has the largest diaspora in the world and the US, UK, and the Gulf countries remain the major destinations.

Engendering the Crisis

To bring the gender dimension in this whole discourse is by no means aimed at segregating women’s issues from the overall crisis, but to highlight the specific problems that women are facing in this chaotic situation. Women do form a substantial percentage of internal migrant labourers. Even if they mostly migrate as dependents, they eventually start working at the destination areas. During the COVID induced mass reverse migration women appear to be equally participating in the process. Still, the problems that they are facing are specific to them in addition to what others are facing. There are several reports about women delivering babies during their journeys back, yet we are not fully aware of the security challenges these migrant women are confronted with while travelling on the highways. There must be other medical issues that these women are encountering apart from the scarcity of food and water lack communication. Women migrants who are returning from the Gulf countries under Vande Bharat Mission ought to be facing other kinds of challenges that are yet to come to light.

Women have always been part and parcel of the process of migration and settlement, but their voices have remained on the margins for a long time. Their experiences are different and specific to them and are slowly finding space in the migration studies. Estimates by gender confirm that in 1990, female migrants accounted for almost 48 per cent of the total number of migrants which rose to nearly 49 per cent in the year 2000 but got reduced again to 47.9 % in 2019 (UNDP 2019). Overall, the increase in the number of women migrants is almost 8 per cent higher than the men. The proportion of women migrants varies considerably across regions and in Asia, it stands at 41.5 %.

As far as Internal Migration is concerned, according to the UN, Human Development Report 2009, the number of migrants is almost four times more than the International migrants. In India's case, as per 2011 census, the number of internal migrants stands around 139 million of which women constitute almost 70 per cent (World Bank). The cause for such an incredibly high proportion is the inclusion of marriage migrations in the total number of women migrants.

Women mostly migrate either as accompanying partners or for better economic opportunities or the reasons leading to distress migration like others. Studies point out that gender and gender relations impact migration at every stage, that is, the pre-migration stage, during the process of migration as well as during the settlement in the new place along with the transfer and utilisation of remittances. However, the traditional theoretical and empirical interpretations on migration overlooked participation of women considering them as just passive agents in the process. Till the early 1970s, the term 'migrants' mostly stood for male migrants with their families that included the wife and children.

However, during the past few decades, specific developments led to a radical change in the overall discourse bringing women from margins to the centre. The term that has gained currency in this regard is ‘Feminization of Migration’ which is the consequence of a combination of factors. As mentioned before, the initial increase in the proportion of the women in international migration declined in 2019, which indicates that the number is not the only factor for the changing narrative. There has also been a significant change in the nature of migration as more and more women have started migrating independently for work as the main income-earners in the family. They are now migrating as primary migrants. As per IOM data, half of the total number of women migrants are now migrating independently or as heads of households. A rise in the women-centric occupations throughout the world, such as caregivers and nurses, has also increased the demand for women migrants. Besides, there have been changes in the patterns of migration as Asia is witnessing a growth in the percentage of women migrants. Apart from these developments, the migration studies saw an upsurge in the feminist scholarship, which brought the gendered perspectives to the forefront (Pande 2018; Boyd 1989, Chant and Radcliffe 1992). 

A significant number of studies from around the world point out that migration offers new opportunities to women making their role more diversified and substantial.  They generally witness more financial independence and improved status and authority in their family and communities. Migration also leads to a positive impact on human capital, self‐esteem, and access to resources in addition to providing new spaces and agency to women to move beyond the fixed notions of femininity and challenge the patriarchal norms of the society. Even when women are not migrating themselves and remain behind when their husbands migrate, they get a better hold over the family resources, and their position is positively impacted (Pande 2018).

Women show an interesting correlation with Remittances. As left behind wives, they receive remittances, own, and run the family business or have greater participation in agriculture.  Studies point out that in the households where women receive remittances show a significant improvement in the social index with better education, and health etc. In case women migrate, themselves they tend to remit a higher proportion of their income than their male counterparts. Even though they are generally in low wage jobs, they are more frequent and stable as far as sending remittances are concerned (Pande 2018).

Nevertheless, despite some of these positive impacts, women remain to be vulnerable, prone to exploitation and at higher risk as compared to male migrants. Female migrants tend to face greater disadvantages and discrimination and are more susceptible to mistreatment.  These conditions are particularly evident in cases of distress migration. Migration can also entrench traditional roles and inequalities and expose women to new vulnerabilities arising out of patriarchy (Fleury 2016). With the growing number of women, the number of women trafficking for sexual exploitation has also increased. Women migrants generally have limited access to information about rules and regulations and very often fail to get the required help in cases of exploitation. In other words, women experience double discrimination as both migrants and as women at the destinations. (Pande, 2018; Carling 2005).

In India, a significant number of migrant women perform the type of work that is not related to their qualification and skill. Of the total employed women, only 4 per cent work in the organised sector and the rest are, employed in the unorganised or informal sector, which is low waged, operates in unhealthy working conditions, and are not covered by labour legislation or social protection. Such women workers are vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, including sexual harassment at the places of work (Mary Kawar 2003). In this regard, it can be, said that the division between organised and unorganised sectors appears meaningless as most women work in unorganised sector. Hence, the basic norms for healthy working conditions, and protection against exploitation/ sexual harassment of women workers must be, ensured across the sectors.

The present crisis arising out of the pandemic induced reverse migration has alarmingly increased the vulnerabilities of women migrants and has also deprived them of future economic opportunities. International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more than 400 million workers in the informal economy are at the risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis, and women form a substantial portion of this. The already economically constrained source areas are going to face the further challenge during and after the COVID crisis. The pressure of reverse migration is going to be felt in the fields of agriculture and allied activities and will put immense pressure on an already broken system. Apart from the economic challenges, as it appears the social cohesion and kinship ties might also be severely compromised, and embedded hierarchies might get compounded in the aftermath of the crisis.

What Can be Done:

One can foresee many challenges as the Migrant worker/labourers set out to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. They might not be able to go back immediately or may not even wish to go back, given the travails they endured. There is a need for both relief and rehabilitation measures to help the affected and pick the threads again. However, as already mentioned, this crisis is part of a larger problem that needs, to be addressed at a larger level. We can look for solutions at three levels. 

At the first level, are the worker/labourers that have decided to stay back at the destinations where they work. They should be encouraged to continue staying back by incentivisings them and providing them with accommodation, food, and other facilities. Government has already announced free ration which a positive step but the workers who remain excluded from the ambit of this scheme would be needing special attention for basic requirements. Since Small and Medium industries are staring now with government incentive, the labourers can be further encouraged to stay back. As the opening industries/ service sectors are already feeling facing the shortage of labour, some can be encouraged to come back.

At the second level are the labourers who decided to leave. The massive exodus turned into an unprecedented crisis and received a lot of media attention. Thankfully, the state governments did respond, picked them up from wherever they had reached and took them to their destinations. However, the task appears to have just begun as a large number of workers/labourers are testing positive of Corona and quarantining them appears to be tough given their unwillingness to do so. In these circumstances, women are under severe constrain. The state governments need to send ambulance/ medical vans equipped with women health workers and councillors, regularly to various villages. There is an urgency to look into the health-related matters that particularly women returnees are facing and at the same time, counsel, the labourers towards being more patient and responsible. 

At the third level is long-term planning. India has quite a mismanaged migration system, or rather, there is no system at all. Such a situation itself leads to a great deal of exploitation of workers. To develop a migration management system is one of the essential tasks the government should have on its agenda. The first step towards this can be to launch an application(App)/portal/ or website for Pravasi Shramik (Migrant labourers) where they can register with their Names, Age, Skill, Gender, Address at the origin and so on (Pande 2020). This effort will not only create a genuine database but, can also help the state governments to manage the migration streams, help in getting employment, ensure the safety and security of the labourers and track them in the times of crisis. Several other features can be, introduced in this app for the benefit of the workers. Registering with this App/portal/website can be made mandatory as the Village Panchayats are now digitally connected and are capable of helping the migrants in this regard. This intervention can be particularly useful for ensuring the safety of female migrant labourers. The success of Arogya Setu app to track COVID cases is an encouraging example of how masses are willing to adopt such initiatives.

In all these efforts, specific requirement of  women migrant workers/labourers needs to be taken into account. Adding women into data is not enough; what we need is to involve women into policymaking and develop a gendered perspective of migration. While it is true that women cannot be clubbed together in a homogenous group as they migrate in several different forms such as wives, highly skilled professionals, skilled migrants as well as labourers, their specific needs and vulnerabilities must be, addressed, be it international or internal migration. Migrant women have started playing a crucial economic role, but their vulnerabilities have also increased. They need suitable government policies with proper checks and balances for a favourable work environment and protection. In the long run, upskilling and reskilling the women migrants (Internal as well as International) and giving them proper training about regulations and safeguard measures may prove extremely beneficial. Migration is something that humans have always followed, looking for better opportunities. However, the key concern for the governments should be to stop distress migration as it leads to various kinds of exploitation, especially for women.



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