The Migrant Problem and the Call for a National Policy

Filled with uncertainties more than ever, the world rests on asymmetrical pillars thus creating an uneven platform where the comforts of the privileged do not seem to be affected in times of crisis while the hardships of vulnerable get worse.

This is the true reflection of what is happening today when the pandemic has engulfed the entire human society – industrialists to farmers, scientists to labourers, and doctors to patients. Everyone has been hit hard but the blow to most vulnerable section has been too hard to be borne, which has given birth to this unfortunate term of ‘migrant problem’. Today, newspapers, prime time shows, magazines and social media platforms are flooded with the heart wrenching articles and pictures of migrants travelling hundreds of kilometres on foot – some of them succumbing to death on roads due to scorching heat and resultant dehydration. Some others got killed in accidents due to over loading or being run over by train when sleeping on railway tracks as they were sleeping on the tracks – they were too tired and exhausted to hear the noise of train. Some migrants deemed themselves to be ‘lucky’ to get into trucks only to be filled like cattle to be transported.

While the migrant hardships depicted above reflect the gloomy state of affairs, there are few pictures on the other side as well where migrants got on ‘Shramik Specials’ or the buses arranged by the government to come back to their native places. There were also some good Samaritans who distributed food packets, water, and shoes to migrants on foot. Celebrities also came forward and arranged buses for migrants for their journey back home. However, the proportion of pictures displaying the utter state of helplessness of migrant workers is high enough in proportion to make us dwell deeper to understand the issue of ‘migrant problem’. What has caused this problem in the first place?

The spread of novel coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2) resulting in the Covid-19 pandemic has produced a policy dilemma for leaders and decision makers across the world. To contain the spread of infection, the measures adopted by different countries include rapid testing of citizens, enforcing social distancing norms, and imposing lockdowns. While nobody questions the good intent of these measures, the downtrodden in the society bear most of the brunt while the wealthy and middle-class can somehow manage the resulting inconvenience. In a vast and a highly populated country like India, there are several sections within the downtrodden – most of them are daily wage earners who migrated from their villages to cities for better earnings. They work without any formal contracts, and in most cases live in make-shift tents. Understandably, they are the most vulnerable during the complete lockdown – the one that was announced by Prime Minister Modi on 24 March 2020.

The lockdown has caused disruptions in all spheres of life – everyone was asked to stay ‘inside’ wherever they were, and no one was allowed to move from one place to another except in case of an emergency and those providing essential services. This resulted, at the least temporarily, in shutting down of a large number of businesses, shops and factories in cities. The agricultural landowners and farmers in rural areas were also impacted due to the breaking of supply chain although they were slightly less impacted as they were a part of essential services. Consequentially, the street vendors, daily wage workers, and other labourers were impacted the most. If one tries to understand the context here, these workers are mostly the victims of disguised unemployment in agricultural sector in the rural areas and had moved to cities to earn a better living for their family. These workers not only migrated from rural to urban areas within their states but also moved from one state to another due to better work opportunities. For instance, states that are agriculturally prosperous such as Punjab and Haryana attract labour from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In addition, metropolitan areas like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad with heavy construction activity attract labour from as far as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar. West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha. As per the Census 2011 migration data, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab housed mort of the country’s migrants while states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar show high proportion of out-migration.

If one looks at them through the economic lenses, most of them either work on daily basis while others may survive on minimal monthly income. In either case, they are able to save only little from their meagre income and send it back to their families residing in villages. When the lockdown was announced most of these workers got stuck in the cities with no work and abysmal savings. While some of the workers used the savings initially for their daily subsistence other relied on government welfare measures like staying in shelter camps and availing the ration distributed by the government. But with time their uncertainty had only increased and eventually it got better of them. While to the Indian rich and bourgeois it may seem absurd as to why these migrant workers took such arduous journey of hundreds of kilometres with backpacks under scorching heat rather than waiting for the lockdown to be lifted, one needs to understand the psychological state of a migrant’s mind at that point in time: the lockdown was being extended in phases with a lot of uncertainty and their employers wouldn’t have them for more than a week or two when there is no work. It is this point most Indians (including the central and state government officials in India) have not gauged properly until it was too late. While the government (and the good Samaritans) were somehow able to provide food and essentials to migrants, there was quite a bit of effort that migrants had to put to get that. Since they were into week 2 or 3 without any savings anyway, they may have thought they might be better off in their own villages where they can easily get food and some work (albeit with low wages), and be with their families. In addition, there was no guarantee of getting back to work in cities with the officials and experts forecasting a gloomy economy for the next several quarters. All this resulted in the reverse migration of the workers from cities to villages. The fact that all this happened without any organized leadership shows how helpless the migrants were.

Even if the migrants made up their mind to reverse migrate to villages, it could have been handled in a better way by the government officials. However, the politicians and government officials of different states, with their own bent of mind and economic condition, were reeling under the double pressure of depleting revenues and increasingly infected cases of Covid-19. The states and political leaders tried to shift the burden of migrants on each other which further aggravated the ‘migrant problem’. As the days passed and the images of migrants trudging along the roads for unbelievable distances, sometimes dying in accidents made headlines, the central government started the service of Shramik Specials and buses for the movement of workers. The state governments too started appealing and persuading migrants to stay where they were and that they would be provided with all the basic necessities of food, water and shelter until their travel arrangements were made.

Despite the government arranging Shramik Specials and buses for migrants, and the easing of lockdown in a phased manner, the exodus of migrants workers from cities to villages continues. The reason being there is no definite process on how these facilities and subsidies could be availed. When the Shramik Specials started on the First of May to send the migrants workers back to their home, Railway Board was supposed to bear the 85 percent of the cost, while state government had to bear the rest 15 percent. But due to the lack of coordination between the receiving state and sending state, some states started charging the migrants adding to their woes. In addition, some politicians keep ‘long-term perspective’ in mind and would like to keep migrants in their states as their absence would mean paucity of workers; they had even stopped appealing to central government for trains, which some have called a form of indentured labour as labour is being kept in cities against their wishes. Some other politicians have a short-term perspective in mind and would like to push migrants out of the state as they did not want to bear the cost of providing them with food and shelter. This created a visibility problem – migrants got divided into visible workers who were kept in relief camps and provided with basic facilities; and invisibles who were lying on footpaths and sleeping under bridges and highways. While the migrants in both categories wanted to run away to their villages at the earliest available opportunity, the ones in the camps could get registered and avail the government facilities while others resorted to fatal options like cycling, hitch-hiking and walking back to their homes. Given their gigantic numbers of around four crore migrant workers as per the 2011 Census (which is estimated to be around 8-10 crores in 2020), the migrants also had the risk of getting infected and becoming carriers of coronavirus given the unsanitised conditions they were living in and travelling.  Furthermore, the incidents like the ones that happened at Anand Vihar in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, and at a bus station in Mumbai, were sparked by rumours about the starting of services. Crowds of migrants thronged to these places, thus increasing their chances of them getting infected.

Due to psychological and social dynamics, many migrants have even vowed to not to return to the cities they have been working for years as the cities never accepted them as their own. But as they start reaching the villages, some migrants are presented with same problems that earlier forced them to migrate i.e. lack of job opportunities.  There have been reports about several workers now getting passes made again to migrate back to cities as the lockdown is being eased. This poses a unique problem for them as also for the central and state governments. As every dark cloud has a silver lining, governments have started realising their obligations towards the migrant workers. Central government, as part of its 20 Lakh Crore Rupees stimulus package, has announced some important measures – investing 1.5 lakh crores for farm gate infrastructure; nationwide rolling out of One Nation One Card scheme by March 2021 to ensure intra-state and inter-state portability of ration cards; affordable rental housing scheme for migrant workers and urban poor under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana; extension of credit to street vendors; distribution of free food grains to 8 crore migrant workers outside the ambit of National Food security Act and without a ration card; and additional allocation to 40,000 Crore Rupees to MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) to provide employment boost in rural areas where migrants have returned. Moreover, state governments such as Uttar Pradesh too have been taking initiatives to create more job opportunities within the state for returning migrant workers by attracting foreign direct investment and making judicious use of schemes such as MNREGA, etc.

With every crisis lies an opportunity, and with every disaster there is a lesson to be leant. In the ‘migrant problem’, the disaster could have been mitigated with better planning by central and state governments. Let us hope the incidents during this scorching summer will provide unforgettable lessons to be learnt by the officials, bureaucrats, and politicians, and gives them the perspective of looking at migrants from a more humane perspective. The bottom-line is that the migrant is more downtrodden than a poor farmer, and there has to be a centralized policy to deal with them given their gigantic numbers.

-Contributed by Ishita Mittra, an intern at

Picture Credits: / Reuters

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