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COVID-19: The Pandemic Unveiling the Ironic Conditions of Migrant Labour in India

(Written by Yukti Choudhary)


Soon after the imposition of the first nation-wide lockdown, migrant workers returning to Bareilly (in Uttar Pradesh) were made to squat down while officials ordered medical and fire department officials dressed in hazmat suits to spray them with chemical solution to sanitise them.

Contrast this with the passengers who deboarded at airports in India and did not have to undergo degrading treatment at the hands of the authorities. Arundhati Roy has rightly remarked that, “In the era of the virus, a poor person’s sickness can affect a wealthy society’s health”[i].



(Image Source:Outlook Web Bureau, retrieved from https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-coronavirus-migrant-workers-sprayed-with-disinfectants-in-up-priyanka-gandhi-tweets-video/349709)


After wrongly assuming an early victory over COVID-19, India is now facing a major crisis. An already failing economy in the clutch of stagflation, is now in for a tailspin. With an exception of a handful of essential goods and services, allowed by the Ministry of Home Affairs to function during the Lockdown, all the other economic activities in the country were brought to a stand-still.

As per the estimates of the World Economic Forum (based on the Economic Survey of India 2017), India has approximately 139 million migrants. The number is inclusive of both inter-state and intra-state migrants. The major source states are Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal. The main destination areas include Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

When the Lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, the Government in a state of urgency forgot to address the most vulnerable in the Indian society- the poorest. It was conveniently forgotten that the majority of the labour in this country belong to the unorganized sector, and are hence not entitled to any economic safeguards in situations like these. This implies that the majority of the labour laws which guarantee some basic safeguards for labour to live a life of dignity are not applicable for the poorest in the country. The factories that shut down were not mandated to provide the labour any form of housing or food or money, thus leaving them helpless. The migrant labour was the worst hit- because not only did they lose out on economic safeguards, but also could not access the social sector schemes.

It is imperative to understand that if the schemes cannot be availed by the targeted beneficiaries, then there is an intrinsic failure in policy formulation and implementation. This aspect becomes especially pertinent in understanding the migrant issue in the light of COVID-19 as most of these schemes are administered locally i.e. from where a person actually belongs. To understand better let us take the example of the Public Distribution System (PDS), one of the flagship schemes of the country to ensure that everybody in the economy gets access to basic food staples. This scheme is not portable i.e. for a migrant in Bihar, he can avail the benefits in Bihar only. Once the migrant moves to Delhi, he can no longer avail the benefits of the same, and will have to pay for the food staples from his own pocket. Perhaps it was this fear of death from starvation that led many to flee towards their hometowns and villages.

Perhaps this lack of economic and social safety nets led to law and order upheavals in some parts of the country despite the harsh methods being adopted by the forces. Major industrial hubs like Surat and Mumbai saw a backlash, when migrant labourers defied all the laws imposed during the lockdown and protested.

After acknowledging that indeed the Government had overlooked the fact that the migrants would be caught in a difficult situation, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare finally issued an Advisory. It categorized migrant labour as Migrant workers who are in the cities of their local residence, Migrant workers who are on their way and are yet to reach their destination city or village and Migrant workers who have reached their destination[ii].Later, a Standard Operating Protocol relating to migrant labour was also released which categorically stated that no movement of labour from one state to another would be allowed[iii]. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare also released a clarification stating that there is no scientific basis for spraying individuals or groups with disinfectants in order to ensure that they are “sanitised” against the corona virus[iv]. However, these notifications came a little too late. The country was already amidst a major migrant exodus.

The lockdown saw the worse come out in citizens. Some factories sacked labour without paying them for any contingency expenditure, middle and upper class queued up outside supermarkets and started hoarding leaving little for the poor; and many of the poor were evicted by employers and landlords.

While the Government appealed to everybody to stay inside their homes and maintain social distancing during this period of Lockdown, it is imperative to examine why migrant labour is defying these directions. Here are some reasons why it is not possible for migrants to abide by the laws of the Lockdown-

1. Most of the migrants were employed in the unorganised sector, and hence had no economic security. There are no legally binding contracts signed between them and the employers. As a result, they were immediately laid off when the Government announced the Lockdown.

To add to their miseries, when lawyer activists approached the Supreme Court[v] seeking immediate payment of wages to migrant workers by the Centre and State Government, the Court refused to interfere in policy decisions of the Government[vi]. The Supreme Court pointed out that the workers were being provided food by the Government and hence do not need to be paid. The Court overlooked the fact that a migrant needs to remit some part of the money back home if he is living alone in the city, and there are other daily expenses incurred towards medications, procuring products for buying soap and hygiene products. These are basic essentials which contribute to a decent standard of living, a fundamental right as per the Constitution of India[vii].

2. The laid off migrant labour suddenly faced a case of double depravation; being laid off and homeless. The migrants were left with no other option but to return to their native lands.

3. Many migrants who move to urban clusters from peri-rural, rural or tribal areas are individual male members of the household. Their families are dependent on the remittances sent by the migrants. In cases, when the migrant labour is suddenly laid off, the source of income for the entire family is disrupted. In such a scenario, migrants attempt to return to their native lands so that they can be with their families and struggle together to stay economically afloat. Also, the lack of adequate banking services to ensure remittances to the families in times like these also have a pivotal role in the movement of migrants.

4. Majority of the poor in the country depend on the Public Distribution System for food. The PDS system is not portable. Hence, the food is available to the migrants only in their native lands, and not in their destination industrial hubs. In the lack of accessibility to food (since they have no money at their disposal), migrants cannot wait till starvation. If corona does not kill them, starvation definitely would.

5. In India, there is no official system of keeping a record of Migrants- whether inter-state or intra-state. It was probably this lack of record that led to the Government not anticipating the scale of the blow that would accompany the Lockdown. The Government was not prepared to address the concerns of the migrants stranded in between states. This reflects on the poor policy decisions of the Government. It also hints at the hidden biases of our society, which with its structural economic flaws forgot the most marginalised.

6. Many of the migrant workers are home-less, de-hadi(daily-wage) workers, sleeping on the roads. They do not have homes where they can abide by the rules of the lockdown.Even if one assumes that they do have homes, there are too many members staying together in one room e.g. slums and chawls. The Government has laid down no guidelines on how social distancing have to be followed in such areas. Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in Asia is an example. Additionally, people living in such places do not have savings that they can depend upon for medical needs or food requirements.

7. The bigger industrial hubs which attract most migrants are also the strictest. For slight disobeying of orders, poor people are being mercilessly beaten up. There have been reports of women giving birth without proper medical aid. In another case, a man carried his old ailing father on his shoulders because the police didn’t allow him to take an autorickshaw to the hospital. A positive discretion has to be maintained, or people would succumb to over-zealous, insensitive police personnel than corona.

Businesses have proven that they can be saviors during such Emergencies. While some businesses paid heed to humanity and contributed to the call of the hour by ensuring food and lodging for their employees; many others completely disregarded human rights. COVID-19 tested the intersection of Business and Human Rights. Internationally, the European Union and the Government of Sweden along with UNDP prepared a Rapid Self-Assessment Tool for Business in the wake of COVID-19. No such measure has been taken by the Government of India which is yet to publish its final National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.

With all due faith in ‘human potency’, it is only one fatal mistake (read COVID) to bring our lives to a halt, both literally and figuratively. Perhaps, this was a much needed and much awaited lesson in humility. And picking up the threads from here is our only way forward. As a society, we need to encourage the Government and corporates to work together to ensure that migrant labour is not left on his own in times of crisis. They are the fundamental building blocks of an economy, and deserve to be treated with dignity.

[i]Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal”, Financial Times as published on April 3 2020, available at https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca [ii]Detailed notification retrieved from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare website can be accessed here: https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/Advisoryforquarantineofmigrantworkers.pdf [iii]Detailed notification retrieved from the Ministry of Home Affairs website can be accessed here:https://www.mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/MHA%20Order%20Dt.%2019.4.2020%20with%20SOP%20for%20movement%20of%20stranded%20labour%20within%20the%20State%20and%20UT.pdf [iv] Directorate General of Health Services, advisory against spraying of disinfectant on people for COVID-19 management, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/AdvisoryagainstsprayingofdisinfectantonpeopleforCOVID19managementFinal.pdf [v]Harsh Mander v. Union of India, Diary No(s). 10801/2020, order dated 21.04.2020 [vi]SC denies need of payment to migrant workers, says Food is being provided as retrieved on April 7, 2020 at https://www.indialegallive.com/constitutional-law-news/courts-news/sc-denies-need-payment-migrant-workers-says-food-provided-95054 [vii] Article 21, Constitution of India

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