The coronavirus lockdown and the flight of poor migrant labourers in India

Traidcraft India’s Rakesh Supkar reflects on lessons to be learnt from the coronavirus pandemic in India.

Images of poor migrant workers from many cities in India, walking hundreds of kilometres back to their villages, accompanied by their children and carrying their meagre belongings on their heads, have been viewed the world over.

Just as the virus is hitting those with pre-existing medical conditions worst, so the lockdown has hit the poorest, in particular people from the poorer rural areas of India who have migrated to the cities to find work. These are the ‘daily wage earners’, working in the informal sector, paid by the day and living hand to mouth. 

The 2011 census suggested India had around 56 million ‘inter-state migrants’ – and this number can only have increased in the ten years since then. Over a third of the population of the major cities like Delhi and Mumbai is made up of migrants. More than 8 out of ten of these people work in the unorganized sector – on building sites, as porters, working in informal ‘factories’ or at home. They are not on payrolls, don’t have written work contracts, get no paid leave or social security measures. 

So when the lockdown was announced migrant workers were left without any work or income. Those that were owed pay for the previous few weeks didn’t get it. They had no food stocks. Many of these workers live in cramped temporary accommodation or simply sleep at their working location (often in violation of safety norms). When the lockdown was announced they were driven out as employers feared a clamp down by the authorities. 

In the absence of any public transport the only way they could make it there was by walking or cycling for those lucky enough to have a bicycle. A seemingly impossible journey to make on foot; but the sheer grit and ability to withstand adversity saw some people make it – although not everyone.

Some might say that taking to the road – putting themselves and their families at risk – was irrational. So why did so many migrant labourers take this decision?

The lockdown measures brought in by the government of India on the evening of 24 March are some of the strictest in the world – and the speed with which these measures were brought in took many by surprise. 

The suddenness of the lockdown (it was announced with just a 4-hour notice); and the suspension of public transport even before the announcement of lockdown forced the migrant workers to take to the roads.  

Even in the last few days before the announcement of the nation-wide lockdown, there was no inkling of such a major decision. A number of local authorities and state governments had started some containment efforts, but even in such situation it was emphasised that industrial production would continue with some precautionary measures. The first sign came when the innovative 14 hour

“Janata Curfew” was announced as a voluntary measure for Sunday (22 March) and was seen as a major success. But even then, it was not clear that a complete nation-wide lockdown would follow so soon. 

Another reason, I suggest, is the suspension of public transport, especially the buses and trains that poor people rely on. On the day of Janata Curfew, train services and inter-state bus services were suspended suddenly without notice. The train stations had seen unusually large crowds on 22nd morning (as some people had anticipated a tougher containment measure would follow), and the authorities announced the suspension of services by afternoon with immediate effect. 

Additionally, there appear to have been no plans made for migrant workers when lockdown was announced. There were scanty details given on what migrants were supposed to do, and no supporting measures for loss of work/wages or for relief support. 

Migrant workers – with no identity cards – were particularly vulnerable to brutality by police who had no clear idea what was allowed and what was not and were under huge pressure to enforce the lockdown. A number of cases of police beating up people who were out trying to get necessary supplies (like vegetables or groceries) were reported in the initial days.

Another challenge facing migrant workers in particular, was access to remedial schemes, especially food relief. These were being set up – despite huge challenges – but there was no system to make them accessible to migrant workers. Most migrant workers do not have ration cards registered to their work (city) address, so they couldn’t access the subsidised food grains available through the public distribution system. 

So there were plenty of reasons to ‘push’ workers out of the cities. Two further factors acted as ‘pulls’ to draw them back to their home communities.  

One of these was practical – the lockdown was announced just in advance of the harvest season for the winter ‘rabi’ crop, a key time in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are the largest source of migrant labour to most major cities in India. Every year, large numbers of workers from these two states go back to their villages during this period. Even those who only have a fraction of an acre of land take real pride in harvesting their crop, which provides food for family members. It is an important part of the family’s social identity to be able to harvest whatever meagre amount of grains they can get. During harvest season, daily wage rates in rural areas increase – so there was good reason for workers to return to their villages.

The final ‘pull’ factor is emotional: for most migrants in the informal sector, ‘home’ will always be their native village; even when they have been living in an urban location for many years. This possibly has to do with the feeling of security which is sorely missing in their lives in the cities, where they experience persistent indifference, abuse and discrimination in their day to day life. So in the crisis situation where the message from the authorities was ‘stay home stay safe’, the place they wanted to be was in their home villages. 

Of course, not all migrant workers returned to their villages. Many who decided to stay back in the cities have faced hunger, homelessness (as their landlords have asked them to vacate) and continued harassment at the hands of the police.  

Supply chains have collapsed due to the crisis; and the way the vulnerable workers have been treated has shaken their trust. They were pushed into a situation of sheer helplessness and desperation, and it has taken too long to provide any kind of assistance.  

After the crisis is over, as the economy reopens, there will again be demand for this workforce, which is such a key part of India’s economy. But it will take a lot to win back their trust.

It’s time to treat our workforce in a fair and humane manner. In a country like India with a vast number of migrant workers (estimated to be more than 100 millions), there is a need to have an national policy on migrant workers which lays down the policy framework for their rights and entitlements, and assigns responsibility to specific authorities to check violations. May this be a key learning generated from this crisis.       

Pawan Kashyap

Business Associate

Pawan works at Traidcraft India as Business Associate. He is a development professional with 4 years’ experience of working on livelihood having expertise in sustainable agriculture supply chain, social enterprise development & Women, economic empowerment.

He is an MBA in Rural Management from Xavier Institute of Social Service (Rural Marketing as specialized subject). Previously he has work with BIRSA, a social organization on Forest Rights, Livelihood & Sustainable agriculture in Jharkhand

Subodh Kumar

Sr. Business Associate

Subodh works at Traidcraft India as a Sr. Business Associate. He is a young development professional with 6 years of experience. Subodh is an Agriculture graduate from Allahabad Agriculture Institute, Allahabad, Master’s in Development Management from Tata Dhan Academy, Madurai and Post Graduate Certificate in International Organization Management from the University of Geneva. Prior to joining Traidcraft, Subodh has worked with TechnoServe India and Aga Khan Rural Support Program India. Subodh holds expertise in Institution building, capacity building, sustainable agriculture, value-chain development, and market linkages of the various agriculture crops. He has worked in various states including Gujarat, Maharashtra, MP, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha.

Priyashri Mani

Associate Consultant

Priyashri Mani is the Associate Consultant (Women’s Economic Empowerment) in Traidcraft India. She has 10 years of experience in the development sector working with marginalised communities in the areas of livelihood, women’s empowerment, and indigenous people’s rights. She has a Masters’ degree in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) University of Sussex, UK and a Bachelors’ (Hons) in Sociology from Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi University.

Jyoti Prakash

Market Engagement Expert

Jyoti Prakash works with Traidcraft as Market Engagement Expert and has more than 15 years of experience in strategy formulation, implementation and management of “Livelihoods, Enterprise development & Market Engagement” projects. His professional strengths include conceptualising and facilitating implementation of innovative strategies and methodologies in the areas of Livelihoods , Enterprise promotion, Market Engagement, Value Chain Development, Institution Building and Development Research.

Rohan Preece

Manager – Business and Human Rights

Rohan Preece is the Manager – Business and Human Rights at Traidcraft India. He has around 15 years of experience across private sector, government and third sector contexts in India, including work with youth, in India and the UK. He has worked on gender-related monitoring and evaluation and documentation assignments for a range of organisations including Save the Children India and, while at Praxis-Institute for Participatory Practices. In his work with Partners in Change, he led a number of projects on business and human rights and corporate responsibility. His work contributed to the establishment of Fair Finance India, a civil society coalition that engages constructively with the financial sector. He has experience of addressing human rights issues in factory settings and in supply chain settings in India and of working with grassroots organisations. His sectoral engagement experience in India encompasses the financial sector, textiles and apparels, footwear and electronics. He holds a MA (Hons) degree from the University of Cambridge and a University of London MA in education and international development.

Dipankar Sengupta

Supply chain expert

Dipankar Sengupta is the supply chain expert at Traidcraft and has a PGDABM (Post Graduate Diploma in Agribusiness Management) from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a PGDRD (Post Graduate Diploma in Rural Development) from Xavier Institute of Social Service. Before joining Traidcraft he worked with Rallis India where he focused on creating agri-solutions. His work experience includes assignments at Bayer CropScience Limited and Tata Chemicals.

Maveen Pereira

Director programme

Maveen Pereira has over 35 years of development experience working at different levels from grassroots to senior management.  As the Director programme, Traidcraft Exchange, she leads strategic planning, program development and management across South Asia and East Africa. Having worked directly with workers, small producers, she has a sound knowledge of the challenges faced by them in their bid to access markets sustainably.  She helped launch the first Fair Trade label in India – Shop for Change – using a multi-stakeholder approach. Prior to joining Traidcraft, she was faculty in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is a graduate from TISS and holds a PhD in Sociology from University of Mumbai.