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Home and Away in Pandemic Times in Rural Bihar



In May 2020, two months into the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India and a month into the country’s ongoing nationwide lockdown (see timeline of COVID-19 in India here), many of us at CDES with an active research interest in India were keen to initiate work on understanding the pandemic’s toll on people’s livelihoods, especially livelihoods of those with meagre savings and who depended on daily labour for their own and their families’ sustenance. As the pandemic started in urban centres, it was generally believed that the impact on rural livelihoods would be limited till such time that the virus could hit rural areas. This presumption however failed to take account of how India’s labour markets had evolved in the preceding decades of rapid urban growth, with migrant workers having emerged as an important link between urban shocks and rural impacts.


This became apparent to us when CDES in collaboration with the Institute for Human Development in India launched a survey of over 1600 households in rural Bihar – the third most populous state in India – to gather evidence on their experience during and following the first wave of the pandemic. (The survey was conducted between October 23, 2020 and January 10, 2021 in seven districts spread out across different regions of Bihar to be broadly representative of the state as a whole.) While the study based on the survey was wide-ranging, this post highlights four main findings focusing on migrant workers.


Migrant labour is pervasive: 55% of households in rural Bihar have at least one migrant worker, and 11% have more than one

First, migrant labour is pervasive: 55% of households in rural Bihar have at least one migrant worker, and 11% have more than one. Not only do the majority of households have migrant workers, migrant labour is the main source of income for every second household, with 85% of migrant workers working in urban centres outside Bihar. This may not come as a surprise to keen observers of Bihar, but the scale and significance of the phenomenon should alert those accustomed to thinking that internal – especially rural-urban – migration in India is low by international standards.


Second, the shutdown of employment, uncertainty about when it might resume and fears of infection led to a massive reverse migration. About 56% of migrant workers returned to their home villages using whatever means of transport that were available, dodging police enforcement of lockdowns while public transport was also shut down. These arduous and at times perilous journeys back home were covered by the media, including many gut-wrenching accounts of hordes of migrant workers just walking back home on national highways, many with their young children in tow. The return journey for the typical migrant worker in our survey took three days, cost Rs. 3000 in out-of-pocket expenses (worth about ten days of wages), while many migrant workers also left with unpaid wage arrears. This large exodus highlighted two things: (i) a complete failure of the government to plan for what should have been anticipated as an obvious outcome of a sudden and stringent lockdown, and (ii) the glaring lack of an existing safety net that could offer a measure of protection and support to migrant workers when faced with a large shock to their livelihood. The consequences of (i) were all the more serious given (ii). For the most part, migrant workers were left to fend for themselves (also documented in related studies; a catalogue of COVID-19 impact surveys for India including several covering migrant workers can be found here).


The livelihood impacts were both pervasive and severe irrespective of whether the migrant worker stayed in the urban centre or returned to the native village

Third, the livelihood impacts were both pervasive and severe irrespective of whether the migrant worker stayed in the urban centre or returned to the native village. With the sudden stoppage of work due to mobility restrictions and lockdown (the first one announced on March 24, 2202 with a four-hour notice), nearly all (94%) of migrant workers covered by our survey reported a loss of employment and earnings. Among those who stayed back in urban areas, 85% experienced loss of days of employment and more than a quarter accepted work on lower wages. The average decline in wage rates was more than 20%. Among migrant workers who headed back home, on average they had already lost 44 days of work up to the time they arrived in the native village; a quarter had lost 70 or more days of work. Upon their return, these workers found only 3-4 days of alternative work per week in and around the village. Many of the returning migrant workers were still in the native village at the time of the survey. Many others went back to the urban centres after spending 4-5 months in the native village, indicating a major loss of work opportunities over an extended period. In addition, at least about one-fifth of those who had gone back to urban areas were still to resume work at the destination sites at the time of the survey.


What constituted the primary source of income for every second household in rural Bihar collapsed for several months

Fourth, an immediate consequence of the impact on migrant workers’ livelihood was the collapse of remittances sent home. Nearly all (95%) of those who did not return to the villages cut back on their remittances, with an average decline of more than 50%. Those who returned had little to contribute to their native households’ income. Thus, what constituted the primary source of income for every second household in rural Bihar collapsed for several months.


A key lesson from the study was that for many parts of the country rural and urban fortunes are intimately connected through the labour market. The evidence demonstrated that there is no decoupling of shocks to urban employment and rural living standards. There is a clear role for urban safety nets for protecting rural households, or developing safety nets with dependable portability both home and away.


Gaurav Datt

28 January 2022