Reality and fear haunt migration labour in lockdown times

M. A. Siraj

The exodus of lakhs of labourers from worksites and their bare-feet march to home states will perhaps remain the most gripping and enduring reminder of the COVID-19 catastrophe on the national retina. Nearly six million migrant workers were seen crossing state borders—often multiple states—during the second fortnight of March this year. It is estimated that nearly 40 lives were lost due to exhaustion, hunger and dehydration during the second major displacement in the Indian history after the 1947 Partition. However, their plight was different from both émigrés and refugees and it calls for solutions that may not fit the traditional mould.

Coronavirus lockdown: Migrant workers walk to their villages
New Delhi: A group of migrant workers walk to their native places amid the nationwide complete lockdown, on the NH24 near Delhi-UP border in New Delhi.

Changing contours

The migration map of labourers has been constantly changing with the shift of economic dynamism. During the 19th century, it was Kolkata’s jute mills, Assam’s tea gardens and Myanmar’s (then Burma) teak forests that were attracting labourers from across India. Dawn of 20th century saw the tide turning westward what with cotton textile mills began to whir in Bombay, Surat and Ahmedabad. Mumbai’s chawls are the reminders of that bygone era. Oil wealth in the Gulf took nearly three million Indians offshore. Come the 21st century, the rush was southward to the five Dravidian states where the concentration of IT/ITeS industries triggered a construction boom and growth of vast supporting infrastructure.

While accurate data is hard to obtain, Union Labour Ministry statistics put the number of migrant labourers in India at 41 million. The Census 2011 had put the number of internal migrants within the country at 139 million. However, this number also includes women who migrate due to marriage or with their migrant husbands. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (and their splinter states), Rajasthan, West Bengal, Odisha and the North East contribute nearly all the labourers who need to move between states.  These are called ‘source’ states while Gujarat, Maharashtra and the five southern states are known as ‘destination’ states. Among the southern states, Kerala is both a ‘source’ and ‘destination’ state. The State is unique in the sense that it has nearly 1.5 million of its people working in the Gulf and a sizeable number of individuals working as white-collar professionals in other Indian states. But the State has also attracted as many as three million menial labourers from across the nation working in its plantations, farms and construction sites. The case of Karnataka is exceptional as northern districts of the state send out nearly five million workers to districts in the southern part. It is estimated that nearly nine million labourers migrate outside their states and five millions of them move to cities within the states from the rural hinterland.

COVID 19 lockdown: Migrant crisis
Ghaziabad: Migrants board a crowded bus to their native village, during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Ghaziabad.


Migration is the social byproduct of economic growth and therefore cannot be seen in isolation of the larger economic activity. Even though the influx of people might lead to a sociological imbalance in regional demography, they are seen more positively as contributors to economic growth rather than a social burden. Though this realization has led to a benign view of migrant labourers, it has not mitigated the social indifference to their plight. Migrants labourers have precarious existence in states where they work. Most of them work under contractors and lack of awareness of labour rules renders them vulnerable to exploitation in terms of wages, hazardous nature of jobs, long working hours, denial of minimum wages, and next to nil health facilities. Absence of proficiency in provincial language deters their bargaining capacity.

COVID 19 lockdown: Migrant workers
Ghaziabad: Migrants wait for a bus to their native village, during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Ghaziabad.


They mostly live in slums and shanties in vulnerable areas that may be prone to flooding or settle on railway embankments. They fall outside the BPL cover in the destination states and lose out on attendant health benefits. Ration cards and civil supply network, Work IDs, social security cover elude them. In times of social unrest, they emerge as the prime suspects and target of violence at the hands of chauvinist forces. Tamilians in Karnataka bore the brunt of Cauvery-related riots in 1990. Unfavourable comments with regards to people from the North-Eastern states set off their exodus in 2012. First Muslims were blamed for this but ultimately the culprits were identified from among outfits affiliated to the Parivar. The 2002 Gujarat mayhem pushed out lakhs of Odiya workers from Surat. The innocent workers have to keep their antennae alive against fissiparous forces.

Coronavirus lockdown: Migrant workers walk to their villages
New Delhi : A group of migrant workers walk to their native places amid the nationwide complete lockdown, on the NH24 near Delhi-UP border in New Delhi.

Below subsistence level

A survey by the NGO Jan Sahas anticipates that 80% of the nation’s migrant and daily wage population fears that it will run out of food before the end of the lockdown—which is likely to be extended—on April 14. It also found that a little over 92% of labourers had already lost one to three weeks of work. This is mainly attributed to the low wages and financial insecurity they face. Against the prescribed Rs. 692, Rs. 629 and Rs. 625 for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers respectively, an Indian labourer receives merely Rs. 200 to Rs. 400 depending on the town, city and state where he works.

Ghaziabad: Migrants travel in a crowded bus to their native village, during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Ghaziabad.


The portability aspect of social security has not yet been taken up for implementation on an official level in India, although India is a signatory to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration 2108. The migrant labourers lose out their PDS and health entitlements in their home states due to their absence there and cannot avail of it in destination state as they are registered elsewhere. This Compact talks about the portability of social security not only between two regions but also between nations. It is time such provisions are incorporated into the legislations pertaining to Migrant Labourers on a national scale. Kerala and Tamil Nadu have taken some lead in extending social security benefits such as health benefits to interstate migrants. But major destination States such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi and Karnataka are yet to initiate measures on this account.

The COVID-19 catastrophe can be turned into an opportunity if such measures are taken up for earnest action.

Worst affected by COVDI-19 ware migrant workers
Migrant workers in search of food and work moving from one place to the other in Hyderabad. Photos: Mohammed Hussain

Migrant Labourers: A Statistical profile

  • Total migrant workers in India 41 million.
  • Migrant labourers affected due to sudden Lockdown 5 to 6 lakh.
  • Lives lost during the lockdown exodus over 40

Top states with outmigrations

Uttar Pradesh12.31 Million
Bihar7.45 Million
Rajasthan3.75 Million
Maharashtra3.06 Million
Madhya Pradesh2.9 Million
Karnataka2.5 Million
  • Nine million Indians migrate out of their states every year in search of livelihood.
  • About 5 million migrate to cities in their own states.

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