Hidden Hands of the City: How the Pandemic Unveiled the Systematic Neglect of Indian Migrant Workers

By Nitya Rao, Ayesha Pattnaik, Arundhita Bhanjdeo and Nivedita Narain

India’s national lockdown announced on March 24th, 2020 came into force 12 hours later. Within a few days, the big story emerging from across Indian cities was of inter-state migrant workers, stranded in cities without work, money or food. With no public transport, many started walking hundreds of kilometres to their homes. Those who stayed, exhausted their savings and were further sucked into debt. The lockdown drew attention to the invisibility of migrant workers in the policy space, and the systematic neglect of their basic rights: at origin, in transit and at destination. Our research, mapping the experiences of workers migrating from the eastern Indian state of Bihar to four more ‘developed’ states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala), before, during and after the lockdown, emphasizes the need for transformative social protection that goes beyond handouts to recognize migrant workers as rights-bearing citizens.

Pre-Lockdown: Migration as Social Protection

Inter-state migration is a long-established livelihood strategy, especially from the poorer states of India. Interviews with migrant workers from Jamui district of Bihar, revealed the lack of local work opportunities and rural distress caused by low agricultural production drove them to cities in search of work. While providing cheap labour to the destination economies, migrant workers also bolster consumption in their homes through remittances. All migrant workers from the region are men, compelled by their socially constructed roles as ‘providers’ to contribute to household income and address problems of food insecurity. Migration patterns were seasonal, so men did not move with their families and returned to the villages during agricultural seasons.

While not necessarily expecting social protection at their destinations, the workers were nevertheless articulate about the differences in their working conditions across Indian states. In states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, there was neither social protection for migrant workers nor support provided by employers. These workers were usually engaged in low-paid daily wage work. In contrast, workers who migrated to Kerala and Maharashtra received better wages and support, particularly in Kerala where the needs of migrant workers are recognised in state government policies. While employers in Maharashtra offered high wages due to the higher costs of living in the state, in Kerala workers noted support from employers not just with immediate needs of accommodation and food, but even government health insurance. These differences played a critical role in shaping the experiences and vulnerabilities of the workers when lockdown was announced.

 Lockdown: The Visibility of Migrant Workers as Legitimate Public

Our interviews with 272 stranded workers brought to light their vastly different experiences based on the destination state. While each state had government helplines in place, only in Kerala were helplines responsive in connecting workers with local government and police officials who supported them despite language barriers. So did employers. In Maharashtra, while there was little support from the state, employers were more forthcoming, as were workers unions. While there was no support in Uttar Pradesh, workers stranded in Gujarat faced dire circumstances, as not just was support absent, they even faced police hostility when stepping out of their crowded rooms to obtain food. With growing media attention and civil society advocacy, as well as localised protests from migrant workers themselves, for the first time the needs of migrant workers as a constituency and their plight was publicly acknowledged in the policy domain. Their exclusion from all forms of social protection was evident.

Post-Lockdown: Overcoming Migration-blind Policy

Given this widespread attention, close to six weeks into the lockdown, the state sought to ensure travel for migrant workers to their homes. Yet, this was inaccessible to many, who either paid exorbitant amounts to secure tickets or were unable to return at all. The government relief package announced on May 13th recognised the basic needs of migrant workers to food and shelter. The portability of food rations under the ‘Right to Food’ legislation, alongside the provision of safe and good quality housing in the cities is on the anvil, though plans for implementation are not yet clear.

Most workers who reached home said they had no choice but to return to the cities due to the lack of livelihood opportunities in the villages. In fact, with the gradual lifting of lockdown, the focus on restoring economic activity has led to a dilution of labour laws across states. While clearly some immediate relief has been provided to the migrant workers, there has been little effort to strengthen institutions, infrastructure and services, both in the rural hinterland to which they belong, and the urban destinations to which they move for work.

Times of crises reveal the fault-lines of institutions. The near-total absence of instruments to address the migrant crisis exposed the challenges underlying the social protection framework. The sudden visibility of migrant workers gradually ebbed with the lifting of the lockdown, as political representatives attested to having no data on migrant worker deaths during lockdown. Moving forward, it is vital that state institutions acknowledge and address the neglect of migrant workers in policy by ensuring security of livelihoods based on ‘decent work’ conditons, alongside dignity as workers and citizens.

Nitya Rao is Professor of Gender & Development at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, UK. Her research focus is on gender equality and women’s empowerment, within broader issues of resource rights, social equity and rural development.

Ayesha Pattnaik is a research associate at PRADAN and holds a MSc. in Sociology from the London School of Economics. Her research interests span human rights, political sociology and socio-legal studies.

Arundhita Bhanjdeo is a researcher at PRADAN and recently completed her PhD from Charles Sturt University, Australia. Her PhD focused on understanding the context of evaluation of complex projects from diverse perspectives and build new knowledge on integrative evaluation.

Nivedita Narain currently leads the research portfolio of PRADAN, and is also Adjunct Faculty at the Charles Sturt University, Australia. Her expertise and research interests span across rural development and social change, particularly livelihoods, gender and organisation management.  

Image: World Bank Photo Collection under a creative commons license on flickr