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Surveying India's 'Invisible' Families

The Indian state of Bihar is facing a ‘Reverse Migration Crisis’. ABRAHAM DENNYSON has been explaining what this is, and how his Cluster has collaborated on a large survey to help understand and respond to it.

Tell us about this situation. 100 million people live in Bihar, but there are not enough jobs to support us all. And so millions of people leave the state to look for work. They move around India, going where there are jobs, and they send money home to support their families. They do the kind of work that keeps India’s cities running, but in many ways they are an invisible population, because official data and polls do not always recognise them.

How have they been affected by the pandemic? When the government imposed the lockdown, these workers immediately became unemployed and stranded. And because they were doing casual work outside of their home state, they could not access government welfare or social security. With no other option, many simply started to walk home to Bihar, sometimes for thousands of kilometres. And in doing so they have been stigmatised for spreading the disease. By the end of May, about 3.2 million migrants had returned, and over 60% remain stranded.

I understand you’ve heard some very sad stories about some of these migrants. Yes, there have been some haunting images. A pregnant woman gave birth on the road and had to continue her walk home for another 150 kilometres. A group of sixteen men were killed by a train as they slept on the rail tracks. And a young infant was found trying to wake his dead mother, who had died of hunger and exhaustion.

Tell us how Bihar Cluster has responded. Cluster members provided food ration for up to a month to identified vulnerable families. By the middle of May we had supported 17,500 of them in 320 villages across Bihar. However, this situation is new and knowing that it will prevail for a long time, we wanted to understand what challenges migrant families are facing, so that we can find the best ways to support them in the long-term. Following a meeting, we decided to conduct a survey among migrant returnees, so that we can use its findings to help us design an appropriate Cluster response, and to advocate for government support.

You’ve now conducted the survey – how did you do it? We created it using a free, simple online tool called Google Forms. In it, we ask questions about migrants’ experiences, food security, access to government relief, options for work now they are home, resources, aspirations, and health status. Cluster members administered this survey in the places they work, and together we collected 1200 responses in just over two weeks.

What have you found out from the survey? We’ve only just got the results through, but they show a rise in hunger, a lack of skills, and they highlight how hard it is to access government relief. For example, the survey shows that the number of migrant workers who eat three meals a day has halved since the lockdown began. It also shows that three quarters of returnees are unskilled, only 1% have had formal skills training, and less than 1% are benefiting from the government’s job guarantee programme.

And what next steps will the Cluster take? Very soon we’ll publish a full report that analyses the data. Our Cluster’s member organisations will then design projects to help meet migrant needs with regards to food security and livelihood. But we’ll also share our findings with government and media, for their information and action.

Thank you Dennyson. We’re looking forward to following the next steps in this story!

See an overview of how other Clusters have responded to Covid-19 here.


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