The long way home for India’s migrant workers

Shriya Mohan | Updated on: May 22, 2020

A stalled journey: By early May, 42 migrant workers had died in road accidents since the lockdown. Then there are those who died of hunger and sheer exhaustion.

Lakhs of migrant workers are fleeing job losses, starvation and government apathy in locked-down cities. At risk to life and limb, they are making the arduous journey, often on foot, back to their villages, where the next crisis lurks — a spike in new Covid-19 infections

* The livelihoods of about 1.8 crore people have been directly impacted by the Covid-19-induced lockdown

* Their journey back home is fraught with challenges including the unavailability of seats on Shramik Special trains, inadequate medical testing in their villages, poor quarantine facilities and the risks of carrying back Covid-19 infections

Mohammad Ansari could have been a philosopher. But born into an impoverished household with many mouths to feed in Bihar’s Purnea, he moved to the Capital some two decades ago and became a construction labourer. It gave him an income, and helped him build a future for his children. And it gave him an insight into what it meant to be a worker.

On this muggy May morning, he’s lugging a heavy backpack bursting at the seams and a plastic bag filled with his belongings, as he walks in file with nine other labourers along the Noida Expressway. Like most of them, he hasn’t been paid for two months. But the emptiness in his stomach has not dulled the clarity of his thought.

“The worker never emerges victorious,” he says in Hindi. “No one knows where he will die. When we started, we told ourselves that death could happen to us anywhere — on a highway or at home. We gathered courage and started,” Ansari says.

Ansari and the other labourers, all working on construction projects of the Jaypee Group, began walking from their jhuggis in Noida at 2.30 am one day earlier this week, to their village in Bihar, more than 1,300 km away. They hope to take a Shramik special train to Bihar earmarked for labourers. If there is no space for them in the train, they plan to walk on — until they find some mode of conveyance.

“The destination is clear in our head — home. We will do all it takes to get there. How long can we wait?” Ansari asks, echoing the question that is possibly on the minds of an estimated 10 crore people who are classified as the migrant workforce by the 2016 economic survey. Most of these workers have been rendered jobless by a two-month-long nationwide lockdown, which came into effect on March 25 to contain the deadly Covid-19 pandemic.

Ansari and his group of men are among the masses of mostly inter-state migrants, crossing borders to go back home, which they see as a sanctuary in times of acute distress. They held vulnerable jobs and haven’t been paid since March, says economist Amitabh Kundu, who is with Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a New Delhi-based policy research institute. “The livelihoods of about 1.8 crore people have been directly impacted by the Covid-19-induced lockdown,” the former JNU professor tells BL ink .

What does their distressed homecoming mean for rural India, for labour markets, for India’s curve of the Covid-19 infection, which has already crossed the 1,00,000-mark, and, importantly, for human strife?


A few feet away, a police van drives on the other side of the road, along the empty lanes of the Noida Expressway. On seeing the motley bunch it pulls over. Ansari and his team are stopped. They are asked to go back, register themselves on the recently centralised National Migrant Information System (NMIS) portal, specifying travel destinations. They will be booked on one of the Shramik special trains that depart daily, and notified upon the availability of a seat.


Desperation: For a migrant worker, the process of getting a seat on a Shramik Special train is fraught with various challenges


Indrajit Kumar, another labourer, speaks up. They registered their names a month ago, he says, but are still waiting to get back home. The police stop another group of workers, which includes a mother with a toddler, who is fast asleep, exhausted by the six-hour walk.

It’s barely 8 in the morning, and it is going to get much hotter soon. The group waits. Their faces are expressionless, and they are too tired to even plead their case.

The SHO steps out of the police vehicle. The constables tell the workers, who are seated on their haunches, that it is unsafe to be out on the roads. “After the Auraiya incident, we are not taking any chances,” says the SHO, referring to an accident last week at Auraiya, Uttar Pradesh, in which a trailer truck carrying workers collided with a van, killing 24 labourers on the spot and injuring 36 others. “They will have to wait until they get a slot on the Shramik trains,” says the SHO, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

What made the Auraiya incident even more horrific was the callousness with which the bodies of the dead workers were piled on to a truck alongside those who were injured, as they were being ferried to West Bengal and Jharkhand. It was only midway, when the survivors could no longer bear the stench of the decaying bodies, that separate vehicles were arranged for. A sub-inspector and seven constables were suspended following a nationwide outcry against this episode.

For the migrants, the journey back home is perilous. On May 8, a goods train ran over 16 migrants who had stopped to rest on the railway tracks at Aurangabad. Migrant workers have died almost every day between then and now. Several collapsed just hours away from their destination.


The great migration: For 1.8 crore inter-state migrant labourers who have lost their jobs, the destination is clear – home – and they will do all it takes to get there


A report released on May 7 by the SaveLIFE Foundation, a non-profit committed to improving road safety, says that 42 migrant workers had died in road accidents alone during the first six weeks of the lockdown. Then there are those who died of hunger and sheer exhaustion.

“Workers have been treated with utter disregard, contempt and indignity,” says Rajendran Narayanan, assistant professor at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and one of the core volunteers of Stranded Workers Association Network (SWAN), a non-profit nationwide collective working on migrant distress.

The SHO — like the government — does not agree. “This migration is a panic reaction. What’s the rush to leave when construction is opening up? Many construction sites have started reopening. They are leaving because others are,” he insists.


A SWAN report, based on conversations with 11,000-odd workers, earlier last month found that 90 per cent of stranded labourers hadn’t received rations or cooked food from the government and 64 per cent of them had less than ₹100 left.

The SWAN helpline used to ring earlier with urgent pleas from workers across the country who reported lack of food or money. “Somewhere, in the earlier part of the lockdown, they knew they were going to be here for a while. Now people are desperate to get home,” he says, explaining how the bulk of calls are from migrants who haven’t been paid salaries, are left with no money and cannot board the special trains to make the journey home.

“All odds are stacked against a migrant labourer trying to reach his home,” says Narayanan.

Take, for instance, the Centre-state dissonance over the issue. Orders issued by the ministry of home affairs are conflicting, confusing and constantly shifting, says Narayanan. The decision on how to bring back migrant workers has been left to the states. The Karnataka government recently cancelled trains that were taking workers back home. The labourers had to simply stay back for construction work, it decreed.

The migrants have also been severely affected by the inadequate rail service, which had been suspended following the lockdown. In the first 18 days of May, the Indian Railways operated 1,414 Shramik Special trains and reportedly ferried home around 18.5 lakh migrants. That would be a tenth of Kundu’s estimate of 1.8 crore people who wanted to return to their villages and home-towns. This is the reason why the departure of Shramik trains triggers a stampede-like situation at the railway stations.

Voluntary groups working for migrant labourers also complain about the registration process. Until recently, workers had to register in two state portals to clarify their departure and arrival destinations. This has now been turned into a centralised portal. But the portal is behind administrative logins and not open for public use, points Narayanan.

Also most workers, with no money left, do not have enough balance left in their mobile phones for the registration that involves uploading photos in a particular format. The phone numbers of nodal officers do not ring. In the absence of any helpline, the local police station is supposed to help with registration. Narayanan points out that panicked workers have been hurrying to local thanas.

Group registrations aren’t allowed, so every person has to physically be present to register. Social distancing norms are violated, he adds. And, after all this, people have to wait for weeks before they get a seat in a train.

“Just creating a portal isn’t the solution. This is a logistics and humanitarian problem,” Narayanan stresses. SWAN has been urging the authorities to take registration desks to where the people are — to their localities, malls, outside ration shops, inside special economic zones and so on.

Shelter without a roof

Much of the issues Narayanan points to can be witnessed at Noida’s Pari Chowk. Outside a plush NRI apartment complex, an adjacent area by a temple has been converted into a “shelter” for migrant workers. Hundreds of people who had been stopped on their long walk home, have been redirected to the camp.

A truck loaded with migrant workers arrives. Dozens of them spill out from the back. They had started the previous day from Noida’s sector 133 for Malda, West Bengal, but had been stopped in Agra and sent to the Noida camp. People are waiting with their families; some have been living in the shelter for five days, sleeping under an open sky, infested with mosquitoes. While cooked food, such as packets of puri sabji, is distributed for breakfast, the borewell water isn’t fit for drinking. There are only two toilets in the complex and these haven’t been cleaned in days. Most are defecating in the open. Covid-19 apart, the place is teeming with risks of all other manner of infections .


All over again: Workers on their way from Noida to Malda were stopped at Agra and sent back


Maina, a mother of two, has been waiting here for five days along with her husband, Sharda Deen Chaudhary, a construction labourer. They want to return to Panna, Madhya Pradesh. “I have never been verbally abused and beaten by the police like this before. We are treated like criminals,” she says, her eyes welling up with angry tears. The shelter, she says, is like a prison where people are beaten up for trying to escape.

Her husband, who used to earn ₹12,000 a month, has only received half his salary in the past two months. In Panna, Chaudhary has to support a family of four siblings, parents and an old grandmother, who all live in a mud house. They have no land. He took a loan of ₹5,000 from his employer to be able to make the journey to Panna. After starting from his jhuggi in Noida and walking with his family for 40 km they were redirected to the shelter. “I’ll never return to Delhi again,” he says.

He and other workers from various districts in MP such as Panna, Tikamgarh and Chhattarpur, don’t know when they will be able to leave again.

“There are no orders from the state governments of MP and West Bengal. They don’t want to take their workers back,” says a police officer guarding the vicinity.

Looming rural crisis

For those who managed to reach home, life has not been any easier.

When Shareefuddin, a migrant labourer in Mumbai, lost his job after the lockdown, he undertook an arduous five-day journey — walking, or occasionally hitching a ride — and managed to reach his village in UP’s Banda district. He went to the Banda district medical college for a virus test, and was found to be Covid-19 positive.

Shareefuddin’s lane was sealed and declared a red spot, and he was admitted to the Banda District Medical College. His 14-member joint family was quarantined in one of the dozen quarantine centres in the district.

“The quarantine centres in Banda are primary schools, where 20-25 people are crammed in. Two people have to share a bed,” says Raja Bhaiya, who runs the non-profit Vidya Dham Samiti in the district’s Atarra block. The centres are potential dens of infection, given the unhygienic conditions of the room, a single shared toilet, the poor quality of food and the lack of social distancing among the quarantined members, all of whom have come in contact with a Covid-19 patient.

There are 24 other Covid-19 cases in Banda, almost all migrant workers who had returned home. The testing is becoming increasingly random. A month ago, returning workers were all quarantined and the ones who showed symptoms were tested. Now, with hordes of people coming in, the tests are sporadic, Raja Bhaiya says.

The incoming migrants are now asked to go straight to their homes and quarantine themselves, which puts their family at risk, too. The virus is also spreading wider. Neighbouring Mahoba district registered seven new Covid-19 cases in a single day earlier this week.

In the neighbouring state of Bihar, reports say that one in four Delhi returnees tested Covid-19 positive. Many believe that the migrant-dominated populations of rural India are at grave risk from the Covid-19 wave. “This chaos could have easily been prevented if the government had let migrant workers leave in a phased manner ahead of the first lockdown in March,” Narayanan emphasises.

NGOs fear that the influx of migrants back home is triggering a climate of hatred against them, as villagers believe they are carriers of disease. “And in caste-ridden Bundelkhand, the hatred has only been reinforced along caste lines,” Bhaiya rues. Stories of returning migrant families being denied food and ration, since shopkeepers don’t want to risk coming in contact with them, are common.

Home, clearly, is not a sanctuary either. “We are the migrant poor ( garib mazdoor ),” sums up Maina. “There is no peace in life for us, nor in death.”

Maina could have been a philosopher, too.

Development economist Prof. Amitabh Kundu on the migrant crisis


Amitabh Kundu


This is an emergency kind of situation. A rough calculation based on government data reveals that while 14 million inter-state migrants hold protected jobs, 18 million have lost their jobs since February.

This — the strictest lockdown ever — did not give migrant labourers time to head back home. While it did stop the spread of the virus, we actually increased social proximity by imposing social distancing among the poor. Social distancing cannot be a one-size-fits-all scheme. The risk of keeping people congested in big cities is much higher than sending them back home in a phased manner.

According to the 2011 census data, 40 per cent of urban households live in one-room units. In places such as Mumbai, the figure is higher. So the moment you announce a lockdown, slum people can’t go out. Migrants fear that they may not survive in the cities, which is why they are all going back home.

Employment generation in the post-Covid-19 world is a big issue. We now need to strengthen employment generation programmes such as MGNREGA, construction activities and promote rural industries.

The big industries will pick up in a big way in the next couple of months because there’s a pent-up demand (for products) among the middle and upper classes. The growth rate will pick up, too. The International Monetary Fund has predicted a growth rate of 1.9 per cent in India for the year. And while this may be on the higher side, there will be at least a 1.5 per cent growth rate.

The labour shortage will force industries to make better arrangements. It will spark some recognition of the plight of workers and, therefore, lead to some re-evaluation. It will improve migrant labour conditions. But the small- and medium-scale industries, which never had the financial bandwidth to absorb such a shock, will be hit.

It remains to be seen how much of the ₹20-lakh-crore Atmanirbhar package announced by the government will trickle down to the migrant workers. There is anyway very little awareness about government-funded programmes. For example, there is low awareness about pension scheme for widows, or schemes for auto-rickshaw drivers in urban areas. Because of this lack of awareness, many have not registered for these schemes.

It is not true that there will be a long-term labour shortage. We will see workers back in three or four months.

(As told to Shriya Mohan)


Published on May 22, 2020
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