Indian migrant woman cries
A migrant woman cries as her and others were stopped from crossing the border, during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, May 15, 2020. Image Credit: REUTERS

Dubai: ‘India is walking home’ — a headline in a newspaper read recently. It was a telling reference to the hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers trudging back home following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown on March 23.

The announcement came late in the evening, with barely four hours to go for the travel and movement restrictions to come into effect from midnight, triggering a massive exodus of migrant labourers, primarily but not restricted to, in what is often termed as the Hindi heartland and some of the eastern, western and southern states as well.

Sheer desperation

According to one estimate, by the night of March 25, when the lockdown was barely 24 hours old, around 60,000 migrant workers were already on their way home from various cities and towns across the country. With all trains and other mass-transit services having already come to a grinding halt, the ordeal for those who had set out on foot out of sheer desperation had just begun. Couple of days later, television cameras flashed live footage of a middle-aged man lugging his belongings in a gunny bag, somewhere near the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. He was headed for his native village in Bihar, some 1,160km away. On being asked why he had risked such a long and arduous journey on foot, his reply was more heart-wrenching than his immediate physical ordeal: “If not from the virus, with no work, if I can’t get back home soon, will surely die of hunger!

Out of sheer curiosity, as I ran a search on Google for ‘Delhi to Bihar’, the ‘walk’ icon showed 205 hours. There was no need to look any further to understand the plight of these hapless people.

Partition of India

The partition of India in 1947 is believed to have triggered the largest migration of a human population in history. With the formation of two separate states, India and Pakistan, an estimated 15 million people migrated — primarily, Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India, and Muslims from India to Pakistan. To put things in perspective, according to the World Bank’s estimates, the lockdown in India has so far impacted 40 million migrant workers.

A BBC report, citing Indian television journalist Barkha Dutt’s experience of spending the lockdown days and nights literally on the road amid migrants who were returning home, spoke about a five-year-old boy who was on a 700km journey by foot from Delhi with his father, a construction worker hailing from Madhya Pradesh. “When the sun sets, we will stop and sleep,” the father told Dutt.

These migrant workers contribute around 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. And that’s according to a modest estimate Yet, the irony is that these migrant labourers are perpetually caught in a limbo, literally and figuratively: They are not counted among the local population at their places of work and are bereft of any end-user benefit of social welfare measures whatsoever, while their perpetual absence from their states of domicile renders them ‘invisible’ and hence unaccounted-for human assets in their own backyard.

Who are the migrant labourers in India?

Migrant labourers are people who travel from their states of domicile to other states in the country in search of jobs and a livelihood. In India, migration of labourers has been taking place for more than a century, but the numbers have seen an exponential rise in the last 30 years. Most of these migrants are daily wage earners and constitute the vast unorganised sector that is marked by low wages, unfriendly working hours, lack of any labour contract whatsoever and absence of any social welfare or employee welfare scheme. With little or nothing to show for any formal education and coming mostly from poverty-stricken backgrounds, these migrants are mostly employed in menial jobs.

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While many of these migrant labourers have managed to return home from their places of work over the last month or so, almost all of them are staring at a highly uncertain future in the days and months ahead.


What are the different types of migrant labourers?

Migrant labourers in India can be classified into three broad categories.

The first category includes labourers who have migrated permanently from their native states to some other state and have been living and working there for a fairly long time. These labourers have no intent to come back to their states of domicile any time soon. For instance, the vast majority of those who operate hand-pulled rickshaws in the city of Kolkata are migrants from the neighbouring state of Bihar.

The second category of migrants includes those who keep moving out of their states of domicile at fixed times during the year and keep returning to their native states periodically. These are seasonal migrations that take place primarily once the harvest season is over in the agricultural sector. For instance, once the sugarcane harvest season is over in Maharashtra, many of the migrant labourers from the sugarcane plantations migrate to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and live and work there for about six months.

The third category — and this is the most vulnerable among all migrants — includes those who are casual migrants. These labourers have no specific destination, job or time-frame in sight and keep working on a piecemeal basis as they go along and for as long as they need. For instance, many of the migrant labourers who come to Maharashtra or Gujarat from Uttar Pradesh work at construction sites in the western states because both these states have a thriving real-estate sector. Once a project is completed, the contractor may retain these casual migrants for some other project coming up shortly or they may be asked to leave. The wages and living conditions of these labourers are the worst among migrants in India.

What are the numbers of these migrants?

According to the 2011 census, between 2001 and 2011, India experienced the highest flow of migrant labourers since independence in 1947. According to the 2017 economic survey, “if the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated to be even 20 per cent, then the size of the migrant workforce can be estimated to be over 100 million”. The 2011 census also revealed that India was home to 310 million migrants, with an annual growth rate of 4.5 per cent. This means around 112 million migrants have been added to the job market in India up to 2019. Data show that the unorganised sector, to which these migrants belong, accounts for 82 per cent of India’s total workforce.

How vulnerable is this workforce?

According to an article published in the Atlantic, Jan Sahas, an Indian non-profit organisation had conducted a survey recently, titled ‘Voices of the Invisible Citizens’. The primary aim of the survey was to understand the impact of the lockdown over the coronavirus outbreak on migrant workers. The survey, conducted among 3,196 migrant workers from northern and central India, employed in the construction sector, said: “62 per cent of workers did not have any information about emergency welfare measures provided by the government and 37 per cent did not know how to access the existing schemes.”

What is the current situation, in view of the lockdown?

On March 31, the federal government informed the Supreme Court that given the measures adopted by the government and its agencies to ensure food and shelter for these labourers, there were no migrants left on the roads. This submission was made by the government after several petitions were moved in the apex court, seeking intervention by the Central government to address the plight of these labourers who were rendered jobless because of the lockdown and desperately wanted to return home.

Until May 11, Indian Railways had operated 350 ‘Shramik Special’ (Labourer Special) trains ferrying close to 350,000 passengers to different parts of the country.

While many of these migrant labourers have managed to return home from their places of work over the last month or so, almost all of them are staring at a highly uncertain future in the days and months ahead. Umesh Kumar, 32, who had come to New Delhi from his village in northern India eight years ago, used to earn Rs500 (Dh24) a day as a worker in the construction sector. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Umesh said: “We know no one will hire us now. I have had no work and no money. We are being fed by the government.”

Fatalities involving migrant workers in recent weeks
May 8: Sixteen migrant workers are mowed down by an empty freight train in Maharashtra.

May 9: Six migrant labourers killed when a truck overturned in Madhya Pradesh.
May 13 & 14: Fourteen migrant workers killed in separate road accidents in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
May 14: Eight migrant labourers killed and more than 54 suffer injuries after the truck they were travelling in is hit by a speeding bus in Madhya Pradesh.
May 15: Six migrant workers killed in three separate incidents in Uttar Pradesh.
May 16: At least 24 migrant workers are killed and dozens injured when the truck they were travelling in collides with another vehicle in Uttar Pradesh.