Impact of the Covid-19 Lockdown on the Indian Village Economy

Luisa Cefala
Supraja Parthasarathy
Vasanthi S Pillai
Researchers studied the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on the employment, food security, mental health, and beliefs of temporary migrants and their families in Tamil Nadu, India, by conducting five rounds of phone surveys. Many migrants left Chennai to move to their home communities when the lockdown began, but started returning to Chennai by July. Researchers found that employment was much lower during the months of May and June at almost 45 percent, however the month of October witnessed a transition to almost 87 percent, as more migrant workers returned to Chennai.

Project Summary

Location: Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Sample: 401 temporary male migrants; 84 wives of the migrants
Timeline: May - October 2020
J-PAL Initiatives providing funding: Jobs and Opportunity Initiative
Target group:  Migrants, informal workers, men and boys, women and girls
Outcome of interest: Employment, food security, mental health, remittances 
COVID-19 dimensions: Economic shocks on individuals, households and SMEs, migration and condition of migrants, access to government relief measures, mental health and well-being, food security
Mode of data collection: Phone surveys
Nature of activities: Surveys to understand the impact of the lockdown on intra-state migrants in Tamil Nadu.
Research paper(s): Cefala, Luisa, Supraja Parthasarathy, Vasanthi S Pillai, Supreet Kaur, and Heather Schofield. “Impact of the Lockdown on the Indian Village Economy: Survey on Migrants’ Health, Household Economy, Access to State Services, and Beliefs During COVID-19.” Working Paper, December 2020.

Project Details

In Chennai, India, many casual laborers--individuals who provide temporary, part-time work, often hired on an hourly or daily basis--are temporary migrant workers. These workers travel from their homes to the city for periods of time in search of work.  In March 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, India instituted a strict lockdown. While some shorter-term restrictions were already in place, a strict all-India, three-week lockdown was announced with only a four- hour notice, stranding many migrants in the city without resources or access to important social services. Additionally, many migrants had limited savings and were unlikely to be able to sustain themselves for weeks or months without working. 

Leveraging contact information and infrastructure from a previous randomized evaluation, researchers were able to quickly roll out phone surveys to male migrant workers and a subset of their wives, surveying the same individuals across five rounds of surveys from June to October. Survey questions solicited information about employment, household food security, mental health, and beliefs about the pandemic, among other topics. Researchers studied the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on intra-state migrants and their families in Tamil Nadu, India, through these five rounds of phone surveys.

Research Results

Migrants headed to their home villages from Chennai when the lockdown began, out of fear of being unable to earn a living in Chennai. By July, they started heading back. Almost 41 percent of the sample reported being in their home district in the month of May-June. This figure fell to 27 percent in the month of October, when 73 percent of the sample resided in Chennai.

Employment was lower during the months of May and June, at almost 45 percent, while in October employment had increased to almost 87 percent. There was a significant change in employment status between rounds and the overwhelming majority of this came from changes in how many people were seeking and finding work. Moving back to Chennai marked a clear improvement in chances of employment and, likely, drove much of this trend. Among women, roughly 30 percent of the population find work after the lockdown, a decrease from 66 percent before the pandemic. 

There were implementation gaps in the delivery of Tamil Nadu’s cash transfer program, and many households experienced food insecurity. Across all five months about 43 percent of respondents mentioned that they did not have sufficient food for the next two weeks and about 7 percent said ”maybe” when asked whether they had sufficient food. Additionally, about 40 percent of the male participants across all rounds mentioned that reducing family’s intake was their way of managing shortage in food. Close to 32 percent of women across all rounds mentioned that they had reduced their personal intake.

Most migrants had a growing awareness of various Covid-19 precautions, though many reported experiencing fear related to the pandemic. People also had worse mental health. Guidelines such as wearing masks and washing hands were broadly considered important. However, there remained a level of fear associated with the pandemic and its uncertainty. About 45 percent of male participants reported being very scared or terrified about this situation. Men and women also reported experiencing worse mental health than before the pandemic. Additionally, both men and women reported valuing pandemic-related information shared by government representatives the most compared to other sources of information, followed by local governments.

Traveling migrant populations experienced stigma. When respondents were asked how they thought migrants who travel back to natives from work places would be treated by people around them, on an average almost 63 percent answered that these migrants would be assumed to be ill.

Researchers note that important considerations for future Covid-related policy include considering the positive effects of living in the city on employment chances when designing lockdowns and considering debates on funding migrants’ transportation. Additionally, elected representatives may be able to further increase awareness and adoption of Covid-19 best practices and access to needed supplies such as masks. Finally, it is also extremely important to apply a gender lens and address the double burden on women - in both paid work and unpaid work.


Related Links

Impact of the COVID-19 Lockdown on the Indian Village Economy, Behavioral Development Lab

Impact of the Lockdown on the Indian Village Economy: Survey on Migrants’ Health, Household Economy, Access to State Services, and Beliefs During COVID-19.

Raw data