According to the 2011 Census of India, there are about 13.9 crore internal inter- and intra-state migrants in the country. Most of them are involved in the unorganised sector, with a very low standard of living at the place they have migrated to (Sharma, 2020). As a result, when the government announced a total lockdown, it meant that economic activities could not be carried out. Thus, crores of migrant workers were stuck in places hundreds of kilometres away from their homes mainly in rural areas.
Of the two choices that the migrant workers had when the first phase of the lockdown was announced on 24th March 2020 (to go back home or stay put), many chose the option of going back to their homes on foot or by any means of transport available. This meant defying the strict orders of staying indoors and restricting movement and making a journey several hundreds of kilometres away, at a time when the coronavirus was beginning to spread across the country. Since most of these migrant workers come from rural areas to the semi-urban and urban areas of the country in search of jobs. So what this reverse migration in times of the pandemic meant was a lot of movement from the semi-urban and urban areas to the rural areas. Among the many reasons that the migrant workers gave for going back, some of them were lack of jobs due to complete lockdown as a result of which, lack of wages for rent and daily survival, and a sense of being ostracized by the residents of the areas where they work (Bhowmick, 2020).
The government started running the Shramik Special Trains on 1st May 2020, more than a month after the lockdown began (and kept getting extended). As a result, the only possible ways to get back home without government or private aid till then was to make the journey back on foot, or on bicycles that some migrant workers owned. The media covered this reverse migration in the country with various chilling flashes of thousands of migrant workers walking on the sides of highways, with their children on their shoulders, and everything that they had in the city, packed into a bag or two at most. A common question that arose in the minds of the middle- and upper-classes (sitting in the comforts of their homes) was why would they be willing to make an arduous journey in the first place and risk spreading the virus? The answer to this was given by the very migrant workers on foot when they said things like “We would rather die of hunger once we reach home than die of the virus in the city,” in interviews conducted by the media.
According to a video that went viral on social media, upon arriving at their hometowns, some migrant workers in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh were sprayed with chemical disinfectants, including on children who complained of experiencing a burning sensation and red eyes. This act was taken note of by the district magistrate and the practice was discontinued following anger over the incident (Pandey, 2020). Moreover, the residents in the rural areas to which these migrant workers were returning to, feared the idea of them returning from the ‘hotspot’ urban areas with more cases than the rural areas. As a result, the migrant workers were now seen as carriers of the virus by their fellow villagers (Rashid, 2020). And finally, there is no source – official or otherwise, which can accurately estimate the number of migrant workers who actually undertook the journey back home on foot.
When the Shramik Special Trains were finally announced to transport migrant workers back to their homes, the government announced that they would not have to pay for their tickets and would be given free food and water onboard (Dutta, 2020). However, the reality on the ground seemed to be quite different as migrant workers were asked to pay on an average Rs 600 to obtain a seat aboard the Shramik Special Trains at various stations across the country (PR, 2020). The Indian Railways claims to have transported close to 58 lakh migrant workers via the Shramik Special Trains between 1st May and 6th June 2020, with passengers being supplied with food, water, and other essentials free of cost onboard (Saxena, 2020).
For the migrant workers to board one of these trains, they first had to register on websites provided for different states. Several sources have compiled a list of links for state-wise registration. However, there were complaints of migrant workers not being able to register due to confusion on the websites and lack of standardisation (Mitra, 2020).
When the Supreme Court finally took a Suo Motu cognisance of this situation on 26th May 2020, it ordered the Centre as well as the states to provide transport, food and shelter to the migrant workers – all without charging them anything (Tripathi, 2020). Although public opinion says that this order came too late since a lot of the migrant workers already reached home in the two months, the Supreme Court ordered the Centre and states to make arrangements for all those migrant workers who still wanted to go back home (Singh, 2020).
There is a lot that the government could have done to avoid such confusion, delay and uncertainty regarding the fate of the migrant workers amidst the lockdown triggered by the global pandemic. In the immediate reaction to the panic amongst the migrant workers when the lockdown was initially announced, the government could have made swift plans to arrange for their transport back to their home states, when cases in India were relatively low, instead of arranging for them 50 days later when the number of total cases had already passed 35,000.
The government could also have adopted certain measures from the Kerala model of the handling of these migrant workers. Amongst other things, the one sensitive thing that Kerala did was not call them “migrant” workers. Instead, they were referred to as guest workers in the state and given adequate amenities during the lockdown, as a result of which only 1.6% of the approximately 25-30 lakh migrant workers in the state chose to go back to their respective states (M.K., 2020).
In the long-term, the government should ensure that the migrant workers in the unorganised sector are recognised to be eligible to avail benefits under certain schemes. For example, the registration of those workers who do not carry valid identity proofs while looking for jobs in the unorganised sector far away from their homes via self-declaration. The government has already announced the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme wherein registered persons can avail the benefits under the Public Distribution System at any Fair Price Shop across the country. The government estimates that about 81 crore people will be covered in this scheme (Sharma, 2020).
Schemes like these are what the country’s migrant workers are in dire need of, or rather were, now that the country is in the stage of unlocking. However, what these suggestions at the end uncover is also the fault in the system showing just how vulnerable migrant workers are even under normal conditions. Therefore, not only should there be a concrete policy to ensure that the migrant workers come out of this pandemic without being pushed into poverty, but also to ensure their welfare under normal conditions. This could include schemes introduced specially for migrant workers like the Anna Brahma Yojana in Gujarat. Under this scheme, migrant workers from other states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, among others, can avail food items for free from nearby ration shops. According to the state government’s website, all it takes for the migrant workers to avail benefits under this scheme are official documents like Aadhar card, identification cards and certificate of migrant worker. The state government estimates that about 3.25 crore migrant workers will be able to benefit from this.
Bhowmick, N., 2020. ‘They Treat Us Like Stray Dogs’: Migrant Workers Flee India’s Cities. National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/05/they-treat-us-like-stray-dogs-migrant-workers-flee-india-cities/
Dutta, A., 2020. MHA Okays ‘Shramik Special Trains’ For Migrants, Railways Sets Terms For Travel. Hindustan Times. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/mha-okays-special-trains-for-migrants-detailed-guidelines-soon/story-AkZgoQrInf5TrkHjG20rUK.html
Kumar, S., 2020. What Government Agencies Can Do To Ensure Safety And Security Of Migrant Workers. Times of India. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/what-government-agencies-can-do-to-ensure-safety-and-security-of-migrant-workers/
M.K., N., 2020. Lockdown: At Only 1.6% Return Migration, Kerala Holds Clues To Solve The Problem. Livemint. Available at: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/lockdown-at-only-1-6-return-migration-kerala-holds-clues-to-solve-the-problem-11589973133404.html
Mitra, R., 2020. Lockdown 4.0: Migrant Workers Face Woes In Online Registration Of ‘Shramik Special’ Trains. The New Indian Express. Available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/may/20/lockdown-40-migrant-workers-face-woes-in-online-registration-of-shramik-special-trains-2145713.html
PR, Y., 2020. Fact Check: Who Is Paying For Migrants’ Train Tickets To Return To Their Homes?. The Logical Indian. Available at: https://thelogicalindian.com/fact-check/migrant-workers-tickets-travel-train-central-government-state-government-21015
Pandey, S., 2020. Migrant Workers Sprayed With ‘Disinfectant’ In Uttar Pradesh; Many Suffer Burning Sensation. Deccan Herald. Available at: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/north-and-central/migrant-workers-sprayed-with-disinfectant-in-uttar-pradesh-many-suffer-burning-sensation-819298.html
Rashid, A., 2020. Migrant Workers Return Home Against All Odds — Only To Be Seen As Carriers Of The Virus. The Indian Express. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/lockdown-migrant-workers-coronavirus-pune-uttar-pradesh-bihar-6419506/
Saxena, S., 2020. ‘58 Lakh Migrant Workers Ferried To Native Places Till Date, Over 4,000 Shramik Special Trains Operated’: Indian Railways. Hindustan Times. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/58-lakh-migrant-workers-ferried-to-native-places-till-date-over-4-000-shramik-special-trains-operated-indian-railways/story-CfAp4jVulSSQPYY88qUiVL.html
Sharma, H., 2020. Explained: What Is The ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ System?. The Indian Express. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/one-nation-one-ration-card-system-explained-6410179/
Sharma, K., 2020. India Has 139 Million Internal Migrants. They Must Not Be Forgotten. World Economic Forum. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/india-has-139-million-internal-migrants-we-must-not-forget-them/
Singh, S., 2020. SC Order On Migrant Workers A Welcome Move, But With Most Labourers Already Ferried Home, It Has Come A Bit Too Late – India News. Firstpost. Available at: https://www.firstpost.com/india/sc-order-on-migrant-workers-a-welcome-move-but-with-most-labourers-already-ferried-home-it-has-come-a-bit-too-late-8427261.html
Tripathi, A., 2020. Supreme Court Takes Suo Motu Cognisance Of Migrant Workers’ Miseries. Deccan Herald. Available at: https://www.deccanherald.com/national/supreme-court-takes-suo-motu-cognisance-of-migrant-workers-miseries-842095.html
About the Author
Dhairya Bhatt is a student at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He is currently pursuing a Bachelors’ degree in Economics.