Migrants labourer crisis amid coronavirus.


Author: Ashutosh Kumar, CNLU Patna


They were sixteen of them, the best and the bravest of the hero’s companions. Lifted their luggage, struggling, into the air, to hear their screams and the desperate repetition of names of the Gods. When they had satisfied their thrust and hunger, they thought of their dear companions and wept, and in the midst of their tear sleep came gently upon them amid the severity of the ruthless lockdown. Living in shelters, sleeping on foot-path or flyovers, or railway tracks, the migrants are restless. After losing their jobs, in desperation, they begun fleeing the cities.

Buses had left and there were lakhs like them still stranded. The mismanagement of the migrant crisis and the treatment of its poorest citizens during the pandemic could be India’s shame. Rumors fuelled fresh anxiety among them which triggered exodus of labourers gathered defying rules of social distancing, putting themselves and others at risk.

Depended on food handouts from government or charities for survival; life, liberty and dignity caused hole in the longest constitution of the world. Petitions were filed in the courts asking for migrants to return home but the lower court denied and ruled “whole nation has accepted the restrictions for the well being of mankind”. At last, the apex court corrected this “serious error” and the central government gifted “shramik special trains” on the eve of labour’s day.

Unfolding of disaster 

Spring season has just entered the calendar, migrants have just returned from their home after celebrating Holi. Officials in New Delhi were being alarmed by international organizations about the pandemic. Soon, the caller tune of every mobile phone subscriber changed into a red alert and a state of panic emerged. The scale of the crisis has just begun.

Meanwhile, this was just the tip of the iceberg that was approaching India. Due to the unique and disadvantageous position, psychological disorder started emerging on migrants about job loss and livelihood which was particularly vulnerable to all risk factors amid the upcoming crisis. Soon after janta curfew, New Delhi announced a complete lockdown across the country for twenty-one days, underlying the social distancing as the only way to deal with the outbreak. At this moment of time, the hapless migrant has to grease the system even for their legitimate dues.

An army of nomadic warriors. 

The multitude of Indian migrants across countries accounted for 20 million and within India 139 million [1] which grew sharply from 2011 adding  9 million migrants annually[2]. There is no doubt that the migrant workers are essential and indispensable to turn the wheels of the country’s economy. They help run factories, build roads and houses, harvest crops, pull rickshaws and collect garbage. More than seventy percent of the workers in the non-agricultural sector with a regular salary, most of them migrants, did not have a written job contract, about fifty-five percent were not eligible for paid leave and fifty percent did not have any social security benefits.[3] Any breakdown of economic activity, such as that caused by the pandemic left 40 million[4] migrants jobless. Government schemes for welfare jobs for migrants failed also miserably.  Thus, unable to fend for themselves and their families.

Migrants who managed to stay back either faced a cut in their salary or received no salary. Nearly 49 percent of migrants’ household reported that they did not have enough money to buy even a week’s worth of essential items, while 80 percent of urban migrants and 70 percent of rural migrants reported consuming less food than before. [5] Inability to pay rent and pressurized by landlords they became homeless. The destitute migrants have now depended on the government for food and shelter.

The piecemeal approach of food distribution and shelter homes were beyond the pale. From Poor sanitation, hygiene, lack of basic medical facilities, overcrowding to no power backups and rude authorities amid a pandemic, the existential angst of the migrant class was heart-rending. Homeless migrants queued up to receive food in designated shelter homes maintaining social distance. Scrambling to get their life on back on track, reports and visuals of lakhs of migrants walking on foot poured in from big cities and towns. Gripped with being unemployed, anxious about their family back home, and with no word from the government about their welfare, it appeared there was no way out but to walk home.

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The unplanned scheme of vulnerability. 

Desperate Migrants hit the highways with sacks on their head and hands with their loved ones, an unending journey of miseries began. Lathicharged on highways, a voice crying in the wilderness, such sounds are an innocent imitation of the echoing noise that surrounded the plight of migrants. An inherent legacy of the British ruler, brutality has been a tenacious characteristic of Indian police and little has been done to eradicate it. Migrants prone to social, psychological and emotional trauma were beaten with lathis when they should have been treated with dignity, respect, empathy and compassion recognizing specific and varied needs in an unusual situation of uncertainty.

Reverse migration got off the ground with no means of transportation under the scorching heat of the sun. In order to escape the lathis, they choose the railway tracks to continue their effort of reaching home with the knowledge that trains aren’t running. Tear and sweat made no difference on their face. They hid their sorrows with a mask on their mouth, deceiving the coronavirus with their hunger and hope to reach home. Foot-wears were torn due to excessive walking. They lived under the flyovers and slept under the open sky and wake up with spraying of disinfectant when they crossed state borders. Their life was coming to a halt with no or little food left with them, barely surviving on biscuits. Meanwhile, in desperation, some of them bought a used cycle; hid in milk trucks, lorries so that their families don’t bear the pain of walking hundreds of kilometer. Visuals of duo brave daughter and ill-father appeared on social media, narrating their remarkable effort amid all crises.

Tragic incident occurred which added more miseries. A migrant worker who was cycling back home to his village in Bihar from Delhi died after being hit by a speeding SUV in Lucknow.[6] Truck carrying migrants collided with a lorry causing several causalities. Dozens have been killed in road and rail accidents. Another cause of death has been a denial of treatment by hospitals and doctors due to fear of covid-19 which included old aged and pregnant women. From road[7] and rail accidents to starvation, denial of medical care, police brutality, exhaustion and suicides[8], there have been hundreds of reported non- coronavirus death. [9]

A flicker of hope to return home

Rumours, misinformation prompted thousands of desperate migrants to throng bus terminals. Thousands of stranded migrants in different parts of India protested to such brutality to press their demand to go home with dignity. After much hue and cry, state governments started bus service to carry their stranded migrants in different parts of the country. [10] Governments rolled out tech-based solutions for poor migrants when majority of them had no phones, no money for recharge. Applying to travel back home, they scrambled to procure fitness certificate and faced issues in apps based e-pass and some could not register on the concerned portals. Condition in the buses was poor, soaring fares were being charged,[11]  with social distancing being impossible due to overcrowding The reverse migration are simply long journeys undertaken by migrants to avoid hunger in the city.  

A ray of hope arrived when the operation of Shramik special trains was started on the Labour’s day to bring back stranded migrant workers, tourists, students and others. With little money left with them, they were charged heavily through unauthorized agents who on their behalf booked the tickets. Almost 60 lakhs migrants took 4,450 Shramik Specials trains to reach home.[12] Reports of less food distribution, train rescheduling, uninformed diversion, cancellation and tussle between central and state government on unauthorized fare charging[13] appeared.[14] 80 people died after boarding the special train due to starvation, but the government said, “death in Shramik trains not due to lack of food, water.”[15] [16]The apex court finally heard the cry in late June, and guidelines were issued.[17] After reaching to their village, they kneeled down and kissed the ground in their euphoria. Returning home felt good, but the future looked bleak.

Unsafe landing at home and aftermath. 

Those who reached their village after battling hunger, virus and a ride of a lifetime were quarantined[18]. The hardships of food and shelter remained the same. Some of the returning migrants were tested positive for the coronavirus as lakhs of migrants traveled with them amid the pandemic. Those who tested negative faced with monetary issues. Many died of complexities developed while on the way to reach their home.

Government rolled out a Direct benefit scheme and free rations[19], but those without smartphones and ration cards were left in the lurch. Labour laws in various states were amended overnight. With neither food nor money, migrants have been pushed to the brink of starvation, an alarming level of vulnerability and extreme indignity.[20]

There were no dedicated Vande Bharat Mission for internal migrants. The public health and social challenge posed by the novel coronavirus has led to some meaningful conversation on improving the country’s healthcare facilities and social security nets for the migrants. After the pandemic, these migrants cannot go back to the ill-lit shadows of the economy.  The long term impact of lockdown will bring more deaths, destitution and penury.


The lockdown thundered the influx of migrants labourers which caused momentarily to lose of their own balance. They are characterized by poverty following the exigency of the right to life.  The greed to return home was evaporated in the defeat of life, liberty, and dignity. The question arises here, Who disenfranchised lakhs of expatriated migrant labourers?

India lives in its village, but it has been forced to go to the cities. Half of the wealth is generated by labourers benefitting the mighty riches. Without them, there would be no cities, no production and no economy, yet they are unseen and unheard. The lockdown has finally propelled their stories of indifference and brutality, abandoned by their own rights and fortune.

Even if the lockdown is lifted it is doubtful these migrants will get back their job in the cities, since the economy, which had already tanked before the lockdown. Part of the inability to read resistance lies in the ways the figure of the migrant has been dealt with in Indian society. By and large, it has remained a hidden entity, partly romanticized and partly villainised.

Policymakers and executers have spotted another onerous social contract and their lack of needful effort gave birth to a great crisis. The nascent approach of unfortunate migrants will always display signs of future potential and will evade the socio-economic inequalities in the country. The migrant labourers will again move hurriedly with short quick steps to build the mighty workforce in India and abroad. 

[1] Census, 2011

[2] The Economic Survey, 2016-17

[3] Periodic Labour Force Survey, 2017-18 by NSSO

[4] Report “ Covid 19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens” , World Bank.

[5] Survey by Azim Prem University.

[6] The Indian Express,  11th May,’20 pg:1

[7]  Dutta, Anisha (2 June 2020). “198 migrant workers killed in road accidents during lockdown: Report”. Hindustan Times. Retrieved 13 June 2020.

[8] Elsa, Evangeline (15 April 2020). “The human cost of India’s coronavirus lockdown: Deaths by hunger, starvation, suicide and more”. Gulf News. Retrieved 13 May 2020.

[9] “Coronavirus lockdown: So far, over 130 migrants killed in accidents en route to their home states”. The IndianExpress. 18 May 2020. Retrieved 8 June 2020.

[10] The Economic times, 28th March,’20, pg: 1

[11] Anand, P. (28 May 2020). “An anguished lullaby, fights for seats, water: 24 hours on a Shramik Special”. The Indian Express. Retrieved 29 May 2020.

[12] Press statement by Ministry of Railway, 15th June, 2020.

[13]  Dhingra, Sanya (28 May 2020). “Modi govt finally clarifies it’s not paying Shramik Express fare, says states footing bill”. ThePrint. Retrieved 29 May 2020.

[14]  The Hindu. 5 May 2020. ISSN 0971-751X.

[15]  Taskin, Bismee (7 May 2020). “11 hrs in train ‘without food and water’: Migrant workers on reaching Bareilly from Ludhiana”. ThePrint.

[16] Indian Authorities Probe Deaths of Migrant Workers on Trains”. The New York Times. Associated Press. 29 May 2020. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 29 May 2020.

[17] Rajagopal, Krishnadas (26 May 2020). “Supreme Court orders Centre and States to immediately provide transport, food and shelter free of cost to stranded migrant workers”. The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 27 May 2020.

[18] Pandey, Devesh K. (29 March 2020). “Coronavirus | Migrant workers to be stopped, quarantined at borders, says Centre”. The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 2 May 2020.

[19]  Vadlamudi, Swathi (19 April 2020). “Sans Aadhaar, ration for migrants”. The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 19 May2020.

[20] Lahariya, Khabar (15 May 2020). “‘No food, no water, no money’: Back in UP’s Banda on Shramik Special, migrant labourers look back on long journey home”

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