Tackling the Indian Migrant Workers’ Crisis

With over 70,756 cases of COVID-19 in India, with 2,293 deaths so far, this outbreak brought another problem along with it. The dismal plight of the migrant workers. What is even more saddening is the unfortunate spread of false news among these people that has instilled fear and anxiety among these people. Several people migrate from rural to urban areas in search of employment in labour markets and industries, due to the prevalent unresolved and social conflicts in their hometowns. Because of these factors, it often leads to low literacy rates, lack of advance healthcare facilities and more importantly a lack of sufficient employment. The question that arises is whether the hometowns of these migrant workers which are often of impoverished and deplorable standards can handle this pandemic with their limited resources in healthcare.

On the 24th of March when the nationwide lockdown was directed, over thousands of migrant labourers from various states were in a severe state of panic as there was a freeze in their employment and people were ordered not to come out of their homes. Unfortunately, a majority of these workers were unaware of what do to and how to deal with this situation. With various modes of transportation being halted, and as rumours spread through the grapevine, they considered their best option to be reaching their destinations on foot. This was a very hapless situation that these workers were in and to top this off, the media did little to nothing to increase awareness among these people, of the options available to them.

In the days that followed the governments of many states had made travel arrangements for these migrant workers. The central government was to pay 85% of the train fare and 15% was to be borne by the respective state governments[1]. However, this was failed to be reported by the media, and what was worse was the media reported false news by stating that to get to their homes, these migrant workers had to pay a sum of Rs.800 to board the trains[2]. This is quite a high amount when compared to a labourer’s wages. This created another apprehension among these helpless workers, thereby leading them to travel on foot.

This lack of awareness among these workers is very disheartening and what is even worse was that due to this lack of awareness it led to the death of 16 migrant workers[3]. This incident occurred when these migrant workers were walking towards Aurangabad from Jalna in Maharashtra. After walking for about 36 km, they sat on the railway track to rest and eventually fell asleep. The labourers worked in an iron company in Jalna and wanted to catch a special train for Madhya Pradesh. This is a tragic incident that has occurred, especially because this could have been avoided. These workers were not aware that goods train services were still running. Another despicable incident that occurred was when in Wayanad and Bareilly was when these defenceless workers were sprayed with disinfectant by local authorities[4]. Though the authorities of both states have condemned this incident, it does not change the fact that these people were subjected to such a violation of their human right of being treated with dignity.

With what has been previously stated, transportation can only be facilitated when both the concerned state governments make arrangements in concurrence. It is only when both the states, the state from which the workers are travelling from and to, cooperate with the railways department for trains be facilitated. State authorities must make arrangements to test these workers before and after reaching their destinations. They should be properly screened by appropriate authorities and in a dignified manner. So far over 542 trains under the scheme of Shramik special trains have transported about six and a half lakhs of passengers[5]. Another scheme to be noted is the “Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan” package which has provided a sum of Rs. 3497 crores[6] for these workers along with various state governments pitching in. The PIL filed before the SC has highlighted the two schemes stated above in giving its decision.

A writ petition filed before the supreme court[7], where the sitting judges were Sharad Arvind Bobde, C.J and L. Nageswara Rao, J. the writ petition was filed to redress the grievances of these migrant workers. The concern of the petitioners pertained to the welfare of the migrant workers. The writ was filed to request the court to direct the authorities to provide shelter and basic amenities like food, clean drinking water, medicines etc. The respondent, the Union of India has stated the various measures that have been taken in response to this outbreak. On behalf of the respondent the Solicitor General, submitted reports which showed that adequate steps were being taken by the government concerning shelters food and medicine. He even highlighted the scheme of “Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan” and the Shramik special trains. He also brought out how false news is being spread and brought out Sec. 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005[8] which states that promulgation of false alarms in accordance with the disaster, in this case, the pandemic, leading to panic can lead the propagator of such false news to imprisonment extending to 1 year or with fine. Another highlight of his argument would be the safety of the workers would be ensured in these shelter homes rather than them travelling to their home states. Moreover, he stated that within 24 hours, the central authority will ensure that trained counsellors will be visiting camps and shelter homes to deal with any issues the migrant workers are facing in these places. Convinced by the arguments made by the respondent, the court accepted that authorities are working in favour of these migrant workers. Another point to note is that the court did state that the migrants must be dealt with humanely.

Empathetically speaking, it is very despairing to see lakhs of these migrants out on streets walking towards their homes. It is a very miserable situation that they are going through a battle apart from the main battle against Coronavirus. Their need to get home to their families is completely understandable. Objectively speaking, however, it is necessary to acknowledge that most of the homes of these workers do not have adequate healthcare to tackle a virus such as COVID-19. Most importantly it should be recognized that these workers could be carriers of the aforementioned virus. This virus spreads rapidly and once contracted a person only shows symptoms after 14 days. Without appropriate measures as present in urban areas, it becomes extremely difficult to contain this pandemic.

An example to understand this clearer would be the existing state of affairs in Bihar. A large majority of migrant workers hail from Bihar. Bihar however currently faces structural, financial, and economic issues[9].  During the lockdown, there has been virtually no economic activity in Bihar, and the state government has not been able to generate enough revenue from taxes. Apart from this, the current financial capacity of the state government is too limited to allocate adequate funds to strengthen infrastructure. Once these migrant workers return to their homes and once lockdown is over, employing these migrant workers, either at home or their earlier places of migration, will be a serious challenge for the state government. The state government will be under the pressure to revive its economy. Though there has been a steady growth in the recent past, it is still inadequate. This is largely due to the absence of the industrial and corporate sector and high dependency on the agricultural sectors. To make matters worse it has recently come to light that 44 out 49 confirmed cases, on the 9th of may were migrant workers[10].

In light to what has been stated earlier, the best viable option right now would be to encourage workers to stay in the urban areas and ensure that they are provided decent camps or shelter homes, hygienic food, clean drinking water and other necessities. It is of utmost importance that the migrant workers be made aware of the prevalent situation and efforts should be made to curb their apprehension and anxiety. They should be made aware of what social distancing is and which are their safest options. The media should help, in this awareness, especially in dire times such as this. Rather than politicising this issue, they need to help these workers to be informed of the options available for their safety from this Pandemic. However, it should be noted that if a worker or a group of workers insist on going to their hometowns, arrangements need to be made by their state government to keep them in observation for 14 days once they arrive at their destination, to prevent any outbreaks in the region.

Coming to the position of the government, the question arises on what the government must do to prevent such labour situation again. State governments of Maharashtra and Delhi were oblivious to the number of migrant workers living in their state. The current lockdown showed how these states failed to even provide basic amenities such as food and shelter. Initially when Bihar refused to take these migrants back, only then was the magnitude of this issue seen, when these migrants took to the streets. Though state governments of Kerala and Uttar Pradesh are distributing free ration to them, there is more that needs to be done[11].

To begin with, they need to be acknowledged and registered. These workers are often unrecognised and are put in the category of the informal sector. The local authorities of the state in which these workers are working in must register them. It would be beneficial if some sort of process can be formulated where these workers can be identified, and record of these workers can be kept in a computerised form.

Lastly, another method that could prevent such a situation from arising would be to issue a common ration card. The government could bring in the policy of “One Nation One Card”. This would help because these workers often lose access to their public distribution system (PDS) once they migrate out of their home state. To conclude it can be said that, the situation of the migrant workers during this global health crisis is certainly appalling, and there are better methods to protect these migrant workers in addition to just providing transport to their hometowns. Taking a stronger initiative becomes of the utmost importance, especially when there exist ways to prevent a labour crisis such as this. 

[1] Never talked about charging migrant workers; 85% fare borne by railways, 15% by state governments: Centre: India News – Times of India, The Times of India (2020), https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/never-talked-about-charging-migrant-workers-85-fare-borne-by-railways-15-by-state-governments-centre/articleshow/75535124.cms.

[2] Charged Rs 800 for a Rs 630 Ticket, Say Migrant Workers Who Took Special Trains From Surat to UP, News18 (2020), https://www.news18.com/news/india/charged-rs-800-for-a-rs-630-ticket-arriving-in-up-from-surat-migrants-on-shramik-train-narrate-ordeal-2612693.html.

[3] Shreya Nandi, Sixteen migrant workers dead after being run over by train in Maharashtra Livemint (2020), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/fifteen-migrant-workers-dead-after-being-run-over-by-train-in-maharashtra-11588915900497.html

[4] NewIndianXpress, Chemical bath for migrants in UP; Soap spray in Kerala The New Indian Express (2020), https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/mar/31/chemical-bath-for-migrants-in-up-soap-spray-in-kerala-2123727.html.

[5]Over 540 Shramik Special trains operationalized till today to facilitate movement of migrant workers, pilgrims, tourists and students, News On AIR – News Services Division, All India Radio News (2020), http://newsonair.com/Main-News-Details.aspx?id=388395 (last visited May 13, 2020).

[6] Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package, Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package :Progress so far (2020), https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=202495 (last visited May 13, 2020).

[7] Writ Petition(s) (Civil) No(s). 468/2020 and With Writ Petition(s)(Civil) No(s). 469/2020. Alakh Alok Srivastava … Petitioner(s);  Versus  Union of India … Respondent(s). 31 Mar. 2020.

[8] Disaster Management Act, 2005 (No. 53 of 2005 dated 23rd December 2005)

[9] Gupta, Shibal. “Why Covid-19 Poses a Sharp Challenge for Bihar: Analysis.” Hindustan Times, Hindustan Times, 12 May 2020, http://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/why-covid-19-poses-a-sharp-challenge-for-bihar-analysis/story-C7Lr22Ez5skaPtWfEhSIwN.html.

[10] 44 out of 49 who tested positive for COVID-19 are returnee migrants: Bihar govt, Livemint (2020), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/44-out-of-49-who-tested-positive-for-covid-19-are-returnee-migrants-bihar-govt-11589100041370.html

[11] Nirupam, Sanjay, et al. “5 ‘R’s That Can Prevent Another Migrant Workers’ Crisis like Covid-19.” ThePrint, The Print, 23 Apr. 2020, theprint.in/opinion/5-rs-that-can-prevent-another-migrant-workers-crisis-like-covid-19/406893/.

Aditi Nemakal from Tamil Nadu National Law University


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