Subscribe and track India like never before..

Get full online access to
Civil Society magazine.

Already a subscriber? Login


Comment here

Migrants in the mirror: Where do we go from here?

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: May. 28, 2020
Updated: Jul. 29, 2022

When migrant workers in millions swamped TV screens, becoming a story as big as the pandemic itself, there were many images to unsettle the conscience of fellow Indians. You could have your pick from desperate crowds at bus terminals; famished children with plastic bottles for shoes trudging along highways; people stuffed into trucks like slave labour; pregnant women walking hundreds of kilometres; people dying in road accidents and on railway tracks.

Post-reforms India, all caught up in preening itself, didn’t seem so sophisticated and globalized any longer. Suddenly, also visible in the mirror now were very poor people who had no rights, no homes, no healthcare, no food and the bare minimum of clothing.

It has been a distressing sight. Where have they come from all at once? How is it that they have remained invisible in cities for so long?

“This is the reality. This is how people live. People working in cities have very little,” says Somvati unemotionally. She works as a housemaid, but she used to be employed on construction sites. Her husband, who had a job in a garment factory in Gurugram, was run over by a speeding SUV some years ago.

One of her sons has learnt to cut hair and the other is a plumber. They have wives and children too. A third son lives in the village in Uttar Pradesh on the acre or so of tillable land that they own. The family seriously considered walking the 300 km to their village, but didn’t because state borders were sealed. 

Similarly, millions of workers have been desperately seeking the familiarity and relative security of their villages — their lives as migrants in cities and better-off rural areas having collapsed. They have been trying to get onto trains and buses, hitch rides or just walk hundreds of kilometres.

Migrant workers account for the majority of the Indian workforce. They are crucial to keeping the wheels of the economy moving, being employed in factories, construction sites, shops, offices, hotels, salons — and as agricultural labour as well in states where rural labour is hard to find.

But despite their importance, little is known about them or where they come from. There has been no serious effort to understand their hopes and aspirations and make them a formal part of a modern economy.

Inadequate laws govern their employment and these, too, are sketchily implemented, if at all. They remain, therefore, at the mercy of people who pay them and are compelled to accept wages and work conditions not dissimilar to being in bondage.

Incidents in the past two months have underlined their unequal status. They have been stopped from going home, bundled into camps, denied their wages and allowed to starve. Those caught walking back have been brutally beaten by security forces. Some have been sprayed with chemicals in an effort to ‘sanitize’ them. By contrast Indians living abroad have been brought to India on special flights in a national effort sponsored by the Union government and widely advertised.

Such inequities have jolted India like never before. The exodus has resulted in surplus labour in rural areas to which the migrants have returned and a deficit in the cities. It is an unhappy imbalance because the main reason for migration is the lack of opportunities in villages.

Some workers have stayed back because employers have taken care of them. Others have wanted to collect pending wages and hold on to jobs. But the number of people leaving has been significant. A survey done in Gujarat showed that more than two million wanted to return — twice the number of migrant workers earlier estimated to be in the state.

Bringing them back to cities and industrial centres will now be the task of governments and employers. The sooner they return the better because manufacturing activities as also services will continue to languish in their absence.

On a bigger canvas, going beyond enticements to return, far-reaching reforms are required. The pandemic’s disruptions should be the occasion for working out the modalities of social security and formalizing the role of migrant workers so that their rights are better protected.

There has to be a clearer understanding of the complexities of migration and the needs of people leaving rural areas. They deserve to be integrated into the processes of urbanization instead of merely being used for their labour.



Migrant workers go back to their villages for the sowing season each year in June. But this year the circumstances are different. They have left a month earlier and those who return will most likely delay the journey back.

“The different thing this time is the way the lockdown was done and the indignity heaped on migrant workers. I don’t think any migrant worker ever thought that the Indian train would stop. This has been a huge shock. I mean, trains have never stopped in 150 years,” says Professor Chinmay Tumbe of  the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.

“In the past, there have been industry-specific slowdowns and recession, but transport was available so migrant workers would go back and return when things got better,” explains Tumbe. “This time, what you see is a psychological shock. They would be scarred and a few must have made up their minds never to return. But the bulk of them will return. They could perhaps postpone their return. They would like to see whether it’s safe to come back.”

Despite the increase in funds for the rural employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGS) there isn’t employment in rural areas to sustain the population that is going back to villages. The scheme envisages manual labour in digging ponds and making roads. A cook or a shop attendant or a factory hand is unsuited to such work. Payments under the scheme have always been a problem. On the other hand, labour scarcity in urban areas will push up wages. These two factors would combine to draw migrant workers back to urban areas.

Migration to newer areas is also a possibility, especially those where they feel they might be safer and better treated. States like Kerala and Telangana have already set better standards of their own, realizing that they cannot do without migrant workers. In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party government was good to them, but the same can’t be said of employers.

Says Tumbe: “What may change is that newer migration corridors could open up. Workers may say, Delhi has been cruel to me, let me try some other place. Typically, during shocks, migration corridors do change and new corridors often come up. Most workers will return, many of them might choose different destinations and maybe new migration networks will come up.”



The need for social security was never more greatly felt than during recent months. With the lockdown coming on top of a weak economy, workers suddenly found themselves out of jobs with nothing to fall back on. It is almost certain now that the issue of social security will have to be addressed. It will have to be made accessible to people who are on the move.

It has already been decided to implement ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ but it is necessary to go beyond food to make healthcare, housing and education accessible anywhere in the country.

“I think one of the things we will see this year is a huge public movement for social security. Ideas like universal basic income are going to get traction. I think everyone is on board on basic income. It is important that there is portability of social security because then you can access welfare services anywhere in India,” says Tumbe.  

Rajiv Khandelwal, co-founder and executive director of Aajeevika Bureau, an NGO, which has been a frontrunner in taking up the rights of migrant workers, says there can be no substitute for universalization of social benefits. Cities and industries should also be made responsible for ensuring these benefits are delivered.

“There should be universalization. That means that workers in cities, regardless of status, should have access to essential services, which include ration shops, healthcare, subsidized housing, water, education. All social protection must be universalized and not have domicile-based entry barriers, which is what is happening,” says Khandelwal.

“Now a person with a ration card from Odisha will not get rations in Gurugram and will probably pay Rs. 32 per kg for wheat. Given the conditions in which workers live in cities, the appallingly low wages, it is essential that people are offered public provisioning and it should be universal in nature,” he stresses.

“Public provisioning should not be seen as just a responsibility, which is optional. There should be liability for cities and industries to provide services. Pay them poorly if you will but subsidize their healthcare and food and ensure they live well. That’s what I would like to emphasize,” says Khandelwal.

Khandelwal believes it is important to secure wages. As has happened in the current lockdown, workers who aren’t paid have nothing to fall back on and are completely helpless because employers have not kept commitments or the economy at large has failed.

Explains Khandelwal: “Loss of wages for people who are informally employed, who are daily-wagers, means loss of food for survival. So to secure wages is really critical and there are two ways of doing it. One, make sure that when wages get lost on account of cheating and fraud by contractors and businesses, people have access to justice so that they can claim their wages. Second, when people become unemployed, as in the case of this lockdown, then they have a basic income security that helps them stay afloat.”



A national effort is needed to improve cities. They should have better infrastructure and services with access that is more equal. Urbanization has fallen short if workers contributing to the economies of cities haven’t been given their rights as citizens and absorbed with dignity.

“I would start by upgrading our cities to be inclusive. It is more easily done because cities have money and industries have money. It is the failure of urban governance that is leading to this mass expulsion of people. They don’t get counted in cities,” says Khandelwal.

“Ahmedabad has five million workers. But there are another one million migrant workers (a recent estimate is two million) who have come from Rajasthan, MP, Bihar, UP and so on but they are not part of the five million. They are an uncounted people that urban governance does not provide for. It doesn’t give them shelter, water, transportation, it just kind of omits them in planning and allocation.”



Before workers can be given their rights they have to be enumerated. Registering them is essential but a challenge for several reasons. Employers want cheap labour and give employment on terms that suit them. Workers obviously want a better deal, but also like flexibility because it allows them to keep the village as home and the city as the place they come to earn money and leave when they choose.

But, as the current crisis has shown, registration is important. The question which remains is how it should be done. Labour contractors and employers could be made responsible for registering workers. Perhaps self-registration by workers could be more effective and less daunting. Then again it may be better for home states to do the registration at the source itself.

At any rate it is important for states to identify their migrant workers and know where they are going to find employment. Some efforts in this direction have already been made in bilateral understandings between states such as Tamil Nadu and Odisha. But a national approach is required.

Khandelwal says: “It should not be forced registration. It should be self-registration. It means people should be asked to come forth and register themselves. It should be a more inclusive environment and not a statutory surveillance situation. Registration must be combined with a social security offering.”

He prefers registration at the source so “there is some sense of how many people are migrating, where to, with whom, under what terms of remuneration and so on”. A record at the destination state is also important, but since employers are unlikely to do it wholeheartedly, self-registration would work better.

Tumbe says registration would be “a great thing to have”. But he cautions against trying to register each and every worker, saying putting together such a record would perhaps not be practical and there would be challenges in keeping it up to date. Giving workers benefits would be a better way."

“If you provide welfare services you will in any case get the data. You will automatically get to know how many people interstate are using those welfare services. It will give you the flow and distribution of the number of migrant workers and you will get to know from where the workers are,” says Tumbe.

“To register each and every one may not be the smartest thing. There is a compliance cost. In the construction sector they registered workers and after a few years they realized the registration was not up to date. It can also easily descend into a rent-seeking racket when you have to register to get access to certain services,” says Tumbe.

Registration at the point of destination, says Tumbe, could result in “one more layer of bureaucracy” and could lead to the exploitation of workers, especially those who might be new to a city.

“A better way is to create knowledge and awareness that you can access health benefits, rations and insurance anywhere in India by maybe just using an Aadhaar card,” he says.



There is little doubt that states need to coordinate and get better at sharing information. But for them to do so a viable mechanism has to be found. An interstate council on migration of workers could be the answer but there are question marks over how it could function successfully.

“I think more clarity will come over this with One Nation One Ration Card. It will be the primary task of this hypothetical interstate council. The council would have to work out the compensation to states. If receiving states are going to provide welfare services what should be the formula?” says Tumbe.

“If Biharis are going to move to Maharashtra then how much should Maharashtra pay and how much should Bihar pay for the welfare of Bihari workers in Maharashtra? You need a council for fiscal coordination. Once there is clarity on it ‘one ration card’ will be much more of a reality,” he says.

Khandelwal believes for an interstate council to work it has to be mandated through federal legislation. That way it would be binding on the states to cooperate on sending and receiving workers.

“Because of political differences our states operate like countries. Look at how UP pushed back its own people. I think there is need for a broader legislative sanction for interstate cooperation. It cannot be discretionary. The Interstate Migrant Workers Act’s scope can be hugely widened to include the responsibilities of sending and receiving states,” he says.



In the current situation, where migrant workers are losing employment and are being denied wages, there do not seem to be any laws to protect their rights. The reality is that they are covered under the Interstate Migrant Workmen’s Act of 1979.

This law exists in conjunction with other laws such as the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, 1976, the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and the Minimum Wages Act. There is also the Employees Compensation Act in the event of accidents and injuries.

Professor K.R. Shyam Sundar, who is an expert on labour and teaches at XLRI, the management school in Jamshedpur, says laws are not being implemented because migrant workers have no voice and they have no presence in the organized trade unions.

Shyam Sundar says: “Migrant workers are footloose and mobile in nature and, being in small batches, come under the control of the labour contractor. We have no data but it is safe to say that not even 10 percent of interstate migrant workers have been unionized. They may be unionized in the construction industry or the utilities sector or in manufacturing. But if you take interstate migrant workers as a category, union coverage is very small. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s just five percent.”

Construction workers as a category are better represented. Labour forums and luminaries like Justice Krishna Iyer have taken up their cause. The Building and Other Construction Workers Act seeks to protect their interests. But they too haven’t been given their due. A cess collected for their benefit under the Act and running into perhaps `40,000 crore or more nationally hasn’t been utilized.

“The Supreme Court has been hearing petitions since 2009 and has been asking states to constitute boards under the Building and Other Construction Workers Act and use the cess that’s collected under this Act. But till 2019 it hasn’t happened. Exasperated, the Supreme Court has given final orders to the Ministry of Labour asking for a status report,” says Shyam Sundar.

“These workers would also have been covered under the Unorganised Social Security Act. It also provides for registration, issuance of smart cards, etc. Nothing has been done,” he says.

 The Interstate Migrant Workmen’s Act has several flaws, but it also has several interesting protective provisions which haven’t been implemented. For instance, it provides for equal pay for migrants and the employees of the principal employer. Such employees would be locals and it puts migrants on a par with them.

It provides for a displacement allowance of around 50 percent of the wages, which has to be paid by the contractor at the time of employment. The displacement allowance is non-refundable. It is also the responsibility of the contractor to ensure that wages are paid on time.

Says Shyam Sundar: “It also provides for suitable stay of the workers during the period of employment because most workers go to construction sites for maybe six to eight months. So those who work in public spaces are to be provided suitable and decent shelter. It enjoins upon the contractor to provide medical facilities, safety, equipment and so on.”

Shyam Sundar explains with the importance of organized trade unions waning and labour departments lacking in authority, outsourcing of labour has grown. This has resulted in rights of migrant workers not being protected.

“Employers and governments have been creating informal employment in supply chains, by outsourcing, labour contracting and so on. Almost 40 percent of interstate migrant workers are actually working in government projects. So, on the one hand they advocate the welfare of unorganized workers and on the other hand they breed informality in the unorganized sector,” says Shyam Sundar.

Khandelwal sees a design in such arrangements. Migration happens because of distress and rural areas have been allowed to sink so as to generate cheap labour which doesn’t have the capacity to stand up for its rights.

“I think our industrialization, our urban story, needed cheap labour from rural areas. I say it with conviction that a model of growth that is from cheap labour will encourage migration,” says Khandelwal.

“It will create conditions in rural areas so that people are unable to stay there and the agrarian economy collapses. People have been pushed out and pulled in to provide cheap labour.”

The coronavirus pandemic has put the plight of migrant workers in India in perspective like never before. Their departure from cities has dented the economy. Equally, the images of impoverished and abandoned workers and their families fleeing to their villages has hurt India’s image in the global community. The time for much needed reform has arrived.  










  • Vasant Machwe

    Vasant Machwe - May 29, 2020, 6:17 p.m.

    They will positively return to those urbanites who would promise them “Roti, Kapada . Makan’ I mean the most essentials on legal documents so that the situation may not return.I mean legal documents will bring certainty in their lives. Vasant