Mahanirban Calcutta Research group



Migrant workers are the most at risk in India due to the COVID 19. Apart from obvious health risk, a nationwide shutdown means economic precarity for these workers who are mostly daily wage labourers. A collection of news articles by various sources are collected by the Calcutta Research Group which highlight the distress of the migrant workers in the time of the global pandemic.

India has about 120 million migrant labourers, according to the labour rights group Aajiveeka. From losing income to leaving for home in a rush to facing police brutality, these workers are facing various perils.

In the attached articles we can see stories of various workers from urban centres like Delhi or Mumbai either lamenting the loss of livelihood or facing problems while going home. For example, a story on Reuters from March 21, shows how thousands of poor workers were heading back to their villages from Mumbai in packed trains causing fear that their exodus could carry the virus back to their villages. Social distancing for these poor workers fleeing hunger and joblessness is not an option.

Pappu Yadav, a native from the eastern state of Bihar who drives an autorickshaw in Delhi said he shares a small room with three other migrant workers in the outskirts of the city. He witnessed a dip in his income resulting in his family borrowing money from neighbours to survive.

While some workers went back to their respective villages where they do not have to pay rent and the cost of living is low, many workers did not yet leave their workspace in fear of a complete collapse in income.

"I earn 600 rupees every day and I have five people to feed. We will run out of food in a few days. I know the risk of coronavirus, but I can't see my children hungry," Ramesh Kumar, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh told BBC in Delhi. He stayed back in the hope of some income.

A complete 21 days nationwide lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24. Many workers from Rajasthan working in Gujarat had to leave for their home when they heard the news. However, the lack of transport compelled them to walk for days to reach home. Pictures of the workers walking with their kids and families without food or water have been reported by various sources along with the police brutality they faced. Videos have surfaced on social media and news sites that show police have been beating up or making the workers go through some form of physical punishment for not following the lockdown without regard for the fact that these workers are not on the streets out of choice but out of compulsion. A complete nationwide shutdown which has been increased till May 3, has brought panic and fear for the future which overshadows the fear of COVID 19. Sanjay Sharma, a taxi driver in Mumbai, originally from Himachal Pradesh while talking to Reuters, said, “Some people will die of the virus. The rest of us will die of hunger.”

List of Articles

  1. Much maligned migrant returnees see societal scorn as a repeat of the past - plague, HIV, now Covid, The Statesman, 18 TH JULY 2020

  2. “The unprecedented public health crisis due to COVID-19 has thrown the vulnerability of migrant construction workers into sharp relief. Most of them are not enrolled in any social protection scheme, and those who are, have been only provided with contingencies. These measures are inadequate to address the multidimensional deprivations and fundamental causes of vulnerability arising due to globalisation and a changing labour market, which has been exacerbated by the current crisis.” 22-24.pdf

  3. “The Centre admitted that it did not have any data on migrants, but announced that 80 million workers who do not possess ration cards would receive free good grains and pulses.”

  4. “Income of migrant labourers improve the economy of the village, yet the same village shuns these labourers in West Bengal's Mousuni islands.

  5. “A 27-year-old Dalit in Odisha’s Kalahandi district has found fame with rap songs on migrant workers turning the focus on their plight after the lockdown enforced on March 25 to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).”

  6. “Over 100 days since India first went into lockdown on March 25, these 90 migrants were still waiting for news of a “gaadi” or a “vandi” – a Shramik train – that would take them home. So far, 100 trains have left Chennai carrying 1.35 lakh migrants, a senior official of Chennai Corporation said.”

  7. Delhi… “scaled up testing for Covid-19 across Delhi and set up rapid antigen testing centres at major markets, public spaces and localities largely inhabited by migrant workers.”

  8. “The Ministry of Tribal Affairs is developing a database for tribal migrant workers returning to their home states in order to give a push to livelihood generation amid the COVID-19 outbreak and large-scale loss of livelihood of the workers. “

  9. For India to industrialize, rethinking the housing situation will be as important as freeing the urban poor from large medical bills and helping them build retirement savings. If the country of 1.3 billion people wants to be a factory to the world — the next China — it must start by giving workers low-cost living quarters.

  10. “India has approved a plan to develop affordable rental housing for migrant workers after millions of labourers fled the nation's cities for villages amidst coronavirus lockdowns that left many of them without jobs and homes. The scheme, part of a federal housing project aimed at providing housing for all by 2022, aims to convert existing vacant government housing into affordable rental housing complexes (ARHC). Private developers can also participate.”

  11. “The parliamentary standing committee vetting the labour code on social security may make a strong pitch for the government’s effective intervention to ensure coverage of Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) and Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) to an estimated 30 lakh migrant workers.”

  12. “Hidden away in the COVID-19 pandemic are Malaysia's migrant workers. For years, they have done the country's most dangerous, dirtiest jobs. Now, undocumented foreign workers are scared for their future. Out of work and forced to live in cramped conditions, some are starving and dependent on charities to survive. The government has successfully contained the initial spread of the virus. It has also put some of the poorest areas of Kuala Lumpur behind barbed wire - testing and fingerprinting migrants, and arresting anyone without valid documents. 101 East investigates why Malaysia's migrant workers are at risk in the time of COVID-19.”

  13. "Once the employment reality kicks in, there will be pressure to give more jobs to locals. The one-nation-one-ration-card policy incentivises inter-state migration, but most state governments incentivise locals. How will this play out at a time of low employment?” A constitution of an inter-state migrant council on the lines of the GST council has been suggested. Some states such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have already set up migrant commissions."

  14. "Be it in Medchal or at the Secunderabad railway station, we noticed reluctance on the part of the government to operate a fulltime shelter to assist the stranded workers. It is indeed puzzling why there is this reluctance... Is it because they are not their voters? And do workers cease to count, if they are not voters?"

  15. "It's hunger and hopelessness again that is pushing them back to the cities in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana, and the sprawling farms of Punjab, disregarding the threat of the coronavirus disease that had brought them to their knees."

  16. “The combination of the intrinsic vulnerability of forced migration, as in the case of Venezuelans, with the context of social and economic challenges of Roraima sets a testing scenario in regular times; in light of the COVID-19 pandemic the situation has the potential of a humanitarian catastrophe.”

  17. “Migrant and refugee populations in Latin America have been one of the most affected by the pandemic. As part of an ongoing regional and interdisciplinary project aimed at exploring the impacts of COVID-19 and the associated governmental responses on migrants’ and refugees’ lives, we argue that the measures taken, particularly border closures and lockdown, have exacerbated the conditions of precarity and vulnerability experienced by many migrants in the region.”

  18. “Refugees, as creations of the nation-state international architecture and as one of the most vulnerable groups of people within it, are among the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic (alongside other forced migrants). It doesn’t matter where they are in their journey; migration can be seen as a lifespan process. Amid the pandemic there are new challenges deriving from the “geographies of migration”, based on the places to and from which people move, as well as challenges relating to the “subjects of migration”, namely, refugees and the people involved in refugee protection.”

  19. “As lockdowns ease, many of the world’s estimated 164m migrant workers may be forced to return home, to economies that were fragile before the pandemic and are now suffering from rising unemployment and a drop in overseas remittances.”

  20. “What Rotis on a Railway Track Will Tell a Future Historian”

  21. “The lockdown had forced many to try and return to their villages in West Bengal. But the devastation caused by the cyclone is now making them think again.”

  22. "On Monday, when I reached home, I thought my sufferings were over. But I was wrong. The lockdown took away my job and the cyclone took away everything I was left with. I do not know what would I do next, where would I stay and how would I feed my family," Jamal Mondal (45), a migrant labourer, said.

  23. “The unfolding miseries of millions of poor people in the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown is the greatest manmade tragedy in India since Partition, says historian and economist Ramchandra Guha.”

  24. “Many migrant workers who had undertaken an arduous journey back home to Uttar Pradesh after losing their livelihood due to the lockdown say they would rather live on “sookhi roti” (dry bread) and forego better education for their children than leave their native places again.”

  25. A short report by Rajat Kanti Sur on a Webinar on Public Policy Lessons from Kerala’s COVID-19 Response by Balakrishnan MadhavanKutty, Rural Development Expert, World Bank and special envoy to Kerala, organised by USIEF on 8th May, 2020.

  26. The Supreme Court on the issue of 16 migrant workers getting killed after being run over by a train in Aurangabad last week, said: “How can anyone stop this when they sleep on railway tracks ?”

  27. According to researchers Thejesh G.N., Kanika Sharma and Aman, till Saturday, 378 people had died since the lockdown was imposed due to reasons other than the disease. Of them, 69 people died in rail or road accidents while walking to their homes – the only mode of travel available as public transport had been suspended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which gave notice of only four hours before the first lockdown came into effect.

  28. A rapid survey done by four independent organisations on the condition of migrant workers in Gujarat and Maharashtra has suggested several measures that could be taken to ease the situation.

  29. P Sainath, founder of People's Archive of Rural India (PARI) and Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient, in an interview said: "Till 26 March, we never knew about the migrant labourer. Suddenly, we see millions of them in the streets. And we feel the pinch because we have lost our services. We didn’t give a damn until March 26. We didn't think of them as human beings with equal rights. There is an old saying: When the poor become literate, the rich lose their palanquin bearers. Suddenly, we lost our palanquin bearers."

  30. That the Centre was charging the migrant workers, even as it had brought back many stranded tourists from abroad for free, generated much flak. The opposition parties labelled the union government for being “insensitive and inhuman” for making the workers pay despite having known that a majority of them had absolutely no money left after somehow sustaining through the lockdown.

  31. "The Narendra Modi government has tried to quell criticism over the controversial pricing of tickets for migrant workers who are being ferried on special trains to their homes after a prolonged lockdown by suggesting that the Indian Railways are subsidising 85 per cent of the cost of running these trains — and that state governments are only being asked to pick up 15 per cent of the total tab. The clarification was issued after the Congress slammed the government for forcing the migrants to pay for a part of the ticket prices, and the party stepped in to bear this cost. However, the government’s statement is shrouded in confusion since no one really knows how the government works out the cost of running these special trains..."

  32. "Why has the outcry against this suffering inflicted on men and women who are more than 90% of India’s workforce been so muted? It is, I believe, in part at least, because those in a position to raise their voices have not identified themselves with those who are suffering. This idea came to me from re-reading DH Lawrence’s once-controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover during the lockdown... One of the themes is the lack of engagement and empathy between the upper-class and the working class as they were known in those days."

  33. Indian officials have ordered an investigation after 16 people were run over by a freight train in the state of Maharashtra. The dead were migrant workers who had fallen asleep on the tracks, while attempting to walk to a station, from where they were hoping to get a train home... After walking for 22 miles (36km), they were exhausted and decided to rest. According to local reports, the workers assumed that trains would not be running because of the lockdown, and therefore slept on the tracks. Images on social media show pieces of roti (Indian bread) strewn near the tracks.

  34. A pandemic is serious and in a public health emergency, drastic containment measures are unavoidable. Even by this token, however, a total lockdown has been widely seen as ‘the harshest coronavirus containment measure in the world.’ There are dimensions of justice, human rights and constitutionalism that need to guide governments when there is a public health emergency as with Covid-19. The focus has to be on the right to health, empathy for the working poor and ethical state practice.

  35. Aajeevika Bureau has been working closely with migrant communities, both at the source and destination, primarily in two Indian states – Gujarat and Rajasthan. The research has come up with important policy recommendations to improve the working and living condition of migrants. The outcomes of this research may prove to be useful in ongoing and future policy discourses to make conditions for migrants – Formal, Adequate and Consistent.

  36. Migrant flows will change, they will take time to come back to the city, says scientist S Irudaya Rajan

  37. A measure of mass quarantine such as this does not target the suspected, likely carriers of the disease. It represents a convenient diversion of attention from the Government’s own lax actions against foreign-returned elites. In the process, it has reduced each citizen into a potential suspected carrier of Covid-19. The real question of course is what the mass quarantine has meant for the various sections of Indian society?

  38. The workers’ struggles have often erupted on the nearing of the dates when the Central Government was set to review the lockdown situation and ‘need’ for its extension. These public actions of labour reflect an engrained, latent class discontent, which has undoubtedly been brewing among stranded workers since the imposition of the lockdown.

  39. The coupling of epidemic and lock-down has created confusion for some people in terms of which of the two is deadlier. For many this is an unprecedented, exceptional time. But for others this moment is not new but rather a repetition of the similar course of life, with the addition of just another fear.

  40. The trajectory of recent events in India does hint at the possibility that the paranoia gripping the country is far from devoid of a class bias. For a country like India with entrenched inequalities and rampant poverty, is Covid-19 the enemy?

  41. “In these four weeks since the national lockdown was announced, distressing stories of hunger and despair have been emerging from across the country. The Government of India’s relief package, the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), came late and is inadequate. On top of this, much of it has still not reached the people. Several economists, as well as rights-based campaigns, have been arguing for universalising the public distribution system (PDS) in the present context, especially given the fact of the extraordinarily high level of foodgrain stocks of over 75 million tonnes (MTs) in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI).”

  42. “There are 36,000 rozgar sevaks in Uttar Pradesh working under various schemes who have not received an honorarium for the past 18 months. The UP government has racked up arrears of Rs 170 crore. Without clearing these dues, more rural workers have been recruited for identifying migrant labourers across villages and preparing reports on them to deal with the pandemic. Despite the task involving a major risk of infection, they have neither been provided personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks or gloves, nor have they been given medical insurance.”

  43. “India sees thousands of workers migrate overseas in search of job opportunities. In particular, there are an estimated 9 million Indian workers in GCC countries, most of whom are working in low-skilled jobs at low wages (which is still higher than the national minimum wage standard). There have been several reports of poor working conditions prevailing in these regions, with Qatar being the stark example where hundreds have died while engaging in construction activities. International migrant workers are particularly vulnerable during crisis situations like the one being faced by the world currently. Loss of jobs, absence of any social support, language barriers, discrimination for being foreign and poor living conditions collectively further accentuate inability to access public health facilities.”
    For more on the same, please read:

  44. “High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that she was distressed by the plight of the informal migrant workers affected, many of whom were, in effect, forced to leave the cities where they worked at just a few hours’ notice, unable to pay for rent or food.”

  45. “The total number of active relief camps and shelters for migrant workers run by various State governments and NGOs are 22567 and 3909, respectively. The MHA report also shows that 15 lakh stranded migrant workers were given shelter and food by their own employers/industry following the COVID-19 lockdown.”

  46. “Setting a unique example of self-awareness, seven tribal migrant labourers, who returned to Purulia district from Chennai, quarantined themselves one banyan and two mango trees. Since their families live in a single-room mud-hut, they realised their presence at home might invite danger to their family members. None of them entered their village.”

  47. “The coronavirus crisis is forcing hundreds of Venezuelan refugees and migrants to return home, as lockdown measures prevent them from earning a living. More could follow if the international community does not increase its funding to support the Colombian government’s pandemic response.” For more on the same, read:

  48. “On the Greek island of Lesbos, tens of thousands of refugees are crammed together. One toilet is shared between over a hundred people, one shower between more than a thousand. Social distancing and washing your hands are simply not possible. A corona outbreak would be disastrous and is just a matter of time.”

  49. “There are a number of reasons why Italy has been so hard-hit, but a major one can be placed at the feet of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the xenophobic, rightwing League Party and his allies on the Italian right, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.”

  50. “While the Labour and Employment Ministry asked all Chief Ministers and Lieutenant-Governors to release funds directly into the accounts of construction workers using the cess collected by the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Boards, the Jan Sahas survey, conducted between March 27 and 29, found that 94 per cent of labourers did not have BOCW cards, making them ineligible for any transfer. Further, 14 per cent did not have ration cards and 17 per cent did not have bank accounts.”

  51. “A bench of the Supreme Court… while hearing a PIL by Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj seeking immediate payment of wages to migrant workers amid COVID-19 lockdown said that Court cannot interfere with the policy decisions of the government and that no payment of money to migrant workers were required since they were receiving food at the shelter homes.”

  52. ““Migrant labourers coming back here are facing social boycott. Nobody wants to go near them and there is no scope for any testing here. A villager coming from Delhi during Holi died after suffering from cough and cold, and was buried. It created a stir in the village and I had to inform the district authorities to check if he had died of coronavirus,” said Rakesh Jha, a Zilla Parishad member of Bhargawa village in Araria district.”

  53. “Thousands of migrant workers in India have been sprayed with a bleach disinfectant after they returned home during the country’s coronavirus lockdown.”
    For some of the same, please read:

  54. “Monazir shares the accommodation with 16 others. All of them hail from neighbouring areas at Gosain Tola in Tulsibari of Madhepura. All of them have been confined to their rooms for fear of being assaulted by locals. They have not been able to go to the centres from where the Delhi government has been distributing food among the poor and needy.”

  55. “On March 22, almost the entire country stayed at home under the ‘Janata Curfew’ – except, of course, for the 5 p.m. crowds that congregated to express ‘gratitude’ to all health sector-related personnel. Sanitation workers, supposedly among those being showered with that gratitude, worked throughout the day, sweeping and cleaning the metro. “Our services are needed more than before,” says Deepika. “We have to wipe the virus off these streets."”

  56. “Roshan Lal, a 22-year-old migrant worker, committed suicide on Wednesday after he was allegedly humiliated and beaten up by the UP police for breaking quarantine rules.” For more on the same, please read:

  57. “At least 17 migrant labourers and their family members – including five children – have lost their lives so far in the course of their desperate efforts to return home since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on March 24 that a 21-day lockdown would kick off within four hours. The total number of lockdown-related deaths stands at 22.” For more on the same, please read:

  58. “On 26 March, the union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced packages under the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana for those whose lives have been severely impacted by the lockdown. The total outlay for the scheme is Rs 1.7 lakh crore which aims to extend help to migrant workers, sanitation workers, Accredited Social Health Activists as well as urban and rural poor via direct benefit transfers to their accounts and through food rations availed via administrative routes.”

  59. “Over 2000 daily wage workers and migrant labourers in Gujarat, mainly Ahmedabad, travelled all through Tuesday night on foot and by other means of transport to reach Rajasthan’s Bicchiwara tehsil on Wednesday afternoon, immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown as a precautionary measure against the spread of coronavirus.” For more on the same, read:

  60. “Most do not have access to pensions, sick leave, paid leave or any kind of insurance. Many do not have bank accounts, relying on cash to meet their daily needs. Lots are migrant workers, which means that they are technically residents of a different state to the one where they work. Then there is the problem of the floating population: people who do not live in any state for a long period as they move around to find work.”

  61. “India’s estimated 450 million other informal workers are facing a quandary that underlines how social inequality threatens to undermine virus containment efforts around the world. The informal sector makes up some 90 per cent of India’s total workforce and contributes about half of its GDP, but has no income security or health insurance and only limited access to health care.”

  62. “Poor workers have been arrested and beaten by police for trying to put food on the table during coronavirus lockdowns, prompting warnings on Tuesday of social upheaval if aid is not delivered.”

  63. “Street hawkers — the mainstay of any Indian bazaar, functioning from makeshift carts to offer street food and other goods — have been hit particularly hard, as have rickshaw pullers. While a large number of such workers, many of them migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, have left for home since late last week, some stayed back in the hope that things will get better.”

  64. “To enforce social distancing, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced sealing of state borders, among other restrictions, and shutting down of commercial establishments till 31 March… However, hundreds of thousands of labourers have been leaving Mumbai and Pune for their villages because gradual shutdown of operations beginning second week of March has meant they no longer have work now, and will have to struggle to make their ends meet.” For more on the same, read:

  65. “ restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, which has infected more than 245,000 people globally and killed more than 10,000, threaten to leave millions of South Asian migrant labourers without work.”

  66. Poorly paid and often looked upon with hostility, at the best of times, their [migrant workers’] lives are precarious. At this moment of crisis, their alienation from cities, where many of their families have lived for generations, could be a significant factor in the further spread of the disease to India's desperately poor hinterlands.

  67. “From Jharkhand to Bihar and West Bengal, governments scrambled Monday to cope with the return of thousands of migrant workers from cities and states as far away as Kerala amid an unprecedented 10-day shutdown of rail and inter-state bus services to contain the coronavirus outbreak.”

  68. “Unskilled and semi-skilled migrant labourers are some of the worst hit by the shutdowns enforced by pandemic controlling protocols. It has tightened the squeeze from a scarce-jobs economy to a no-work economy. Scores of them are heading home. Many who had gone to their native villages for Holi have not returned and are unlikely to return soon as transport services have been disrupted and several states are enforcing shutdowns.”

  69. “Migrant workers leaving New Delhi after the lockdown’s announcement raise decades-old unaddressed questions. Who are these migrants? Why are they leaving their places of work and returning to their villages? And what rights do they have?”

  70. COVID-19 Lockdown, Migrant Workers, and the Inadequacy of Welfare Measures in India by Stranded Workers Action Network

  71. An interview with Prof. Manish Jha, a professor at the Tata Institue of Social Sciences, School of Social Work, who spoke about migrant workers abandoned by the very city which they call their “thikana”, a home away from home.

  72. “Access to adequate health care, including protective equipment and sufficient testing, will do more good than another hackathon”.

  73. The momentary attention to the migrant exodus was overshadowed by other spectacles that were easily perceived as communal, suited to deflect attention and which positioned the state as proactive.

  74. “National and state governments can take a few urgent measures to reduce the suffering of Indians who are ‘the last, the least and the lost’ at this juncture, during this period of lockdown.”

Links/Reviews/Discussions on COVID-19 book

  1. Covid 19 and Migrant Workers: Review of Borders of an Epidemic

  2. Blog on SOAS: Borders of an epidemic: The Covid-19 War and Migrant Workers in India

  3. “In an interview, Ranabir Samaddar, the director of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, speaks to The Wire about the factors behind the migrants’ desperation to reach home, the dynamics of the visibility and invisibility of migrant labour and the boundary making exercises in economy and governance that produce migrants.”

  4. “Very recently, Calcutta Research Group (CRG), under the editorship of RanabirSamaddar, has brought out a collection of essays around the lives and politics of migrant workers in India, focusing on COVID-19 (Borders of an Epidemic: COVID-19and Migrant Workers). In a sense, the collection represents “The Present as History”.”

  5. Borders of an epidemic: The Covid-19 War and Migrant Workers in India

Facebook Videos

  1. Police assaulting migrant workers returning to their villages amidst lockdown.

  2. Thousands of migrant workers are stranded at the interstate bus terminus at Anand Vihar in Delhi after lockdown was announced and all inter-states borders were closed.

  3. Migrant workers returning to UP are being sprayed at by the UP police in an attempt to “disinfect” them.

  4. Mumbai Police beat up migrant workers in Bandra who gathered at the station demanding to go home.