Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Legal Ocean or its editors, or any other representatives associated with Legal Ocean.
About a few weeks ago, the prime minister announced the future shape of India’s lockdown. Watching anxiously were millions of India’s migrant workers, some of who managed to make it home with great difficulty but lakhs of others are still stranded across urban India and industrial sites. Beginning from the flock of migrant workers crowding Anand Vihar to Mumbai’s Bandra station protest, the current picture of thousands of migrant workers fleeing en masse to their native villages with luggage hovering on their heads, babies in their arms, and elderly struggling alongside, is distressing.
A 39-year-old who walked from Delhi to his hometown in Madhya Pradesh collapsed and died after about 200 kilometres of walking. He had worked at a Delhi restaurant that had been closed due to COVID-19 spread. Realising the political damage this quantum of people crowding on roads could cause in the future, some state governments, including the Uttar Pradesh government led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, swiftly announced that they were arranging transport to commute them to their villages. And this, in turn, led to even larger crowds gathering on bus stations and borders of bigger cities.
One of the reasons that triggered this sudden panic is the lack of credible information from the state’s side. They didn’t get their news from TV or mobile phones, but they talked to their relatives on their basic handsets. The lack of contact from the state about how it will execute its lockout, and the suddenness of the national shutdown, contributed to their perplexity.
The principles of migrating freely are enshrined in clauses (d) and (e) of Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution. They guarantee the fundamental right to all people to move freely, to live and to settle in any part of India. An estimate suggests that about 6 million daily wagers are still hoping to set off to their villages fearing that hunger might kill them if the virus doesn’t. But the question is, whose job is it to move these workers safely? The central government? the host state where they are working or the receiver state? Continuous delegation of the duty to protect this vulnerable lot depicts a dilemma faced by the government itself, hence the plight of these helpless migrant workers is imaginable.
The Ministry and Department of Labour is obligated to look after these migrant workers. Labour is a subject of the concurrent list, giving both the central government and the state government authority to legislate and act. The Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Jobs and Service Conditions) Act, 1979, is legislation with worthy provisions, for different states to follow in order to protect the migrant workers however it is poorly implemented.
Another major error on the government’s behalf was not telling and assure these workers that their requirements will be taken care of. “All of us know that it is better for us to stay wherever we are, at the moment. But the government has not even once told us, ‘We’ll take care of you’,” Husseni, a seasonal migrant worker, said. This mistake was grave as these workers are dependant even for their daily needs on that day’s job. The announcement for the lockdown on the 24th of March was made merely with four hours prior notice, which gave no time to the workers to either go back home or make any arrangement for themselves.
The significant hotspots are UP, Bihar, Odisha and Rajasthan, but virtually every state has districts with out-migration clusters. Each state is to act differently depending on the prevailing circumstances, however, there are some uniform guidelines from the centre. For example, employers have to pay their workers & the state governments have to supply their food regularly. The Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Mr Ram Vilas Paswan has explicitly mentioned that even the migrant workers without ration cards are supposed to be provided food by the state governments. For implementing the same, the usage of the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRFA) and State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRFA) has been allowed in case of funds prove insufficient.
Unfortunately, these instructions aren’t being followed and the reality is starkly different. On April 4, 2020, the Andhra Pradesh government issued detailed instructions conveying “no person belonging to another state stranded in Andhra Pradesh should complain about the non-availability of food and other basic amenities,”. Though the migrants were permitted to obtain food through electronic PDS. While in other states like Gurgaon, the Aadhaar numbers, names and phone numbers were duly taken, but the distribution of food was inadequate. Government schools have been opened to feed about two to three thousand migrants once a day in the afternoon, but ultimately, is that enough?
The above-mentioned instances violate the fundamental right to live with dignity of these workers; as under Article 21 of the constitution. The state even has an international obligation to protect these interstate migrant workers as per the International Organisation for Migration Guidelines that say:
- All workers should be treated with equality, dignity and respect irrespective of their gender and status as migrants.
- The health, welfare and safety of all staff, including migrant workers, during this crisis, must be a priority for employers.
- Businesses must take a holistic approach to their duty of care to protect human rights and meet the basic needs of all workers, including migrant workers especially health-related ones.
In India, the wealthy and well-to-do middle class have hijacked the entire governance structure. A typical example is a recent Centre and Rajasthan government announced that they will issue the dearness allowances for their employees. Such workers, who will be paid for the lockdown time anyway, are priorities for the government, but the migrant labourers who earn less than Rs 500 per day, are left to fend for themselves.
The 2019 Interstate Migrant Policy Index (IMPEX 2019), an index compiled by India Migration Now, a non-profit based in Mumbai that analyses state-level migrant integration policies, has reported widespread apathy and prejudice by state-level politicians and unfriendly migrant policies towards migrants. Economic relief package scheme of the finance minister, Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman, missed out a major share of 139 million migrants, forced to walk hundreds of kilometres in order to reach their villages. Other economic relief measures like PM-KISAN, MGNREGS excluded migrants and restricted beneficiaries for farmers, daily wagers and construction workers. These acts have hampered the fundamental right to equality of the migrant workers, guaranteed under Article 14 of the constitution.
Although migration has existed since time immemorial, India has experienced the largest and longest voluntary migration in the world through history. There are over 400 million migrants in our country, hence their interests can’t be overlooked.
It is suggested that policies like the introduction of an interstate migration council are not only the need of the hour but essential for the future too. This is because interstate coordination is one of the major failures on the government’s end that needs to be rectified. Moreover, universal treatment shall be given to all needy alike. Like farmers, construction workers etc. migrants too need to be included in all relief policies of all kinds.
This isn’t a time to verify identities, but to provide essential facilities with no matter who is seeking them. Hence, the PDS and payment mechanisms shall be universalised so that interstate workers can benefit from the services provided by the state governments irrespective of where they come from.
Initiatives like One Nation One Ration that is planned to be implemented June onwards should be brought to action right now. Under this policy, one can access ration and other services at any place like one can at their hometown. What we need, isn’t a plethora of policies, but just ensuring the proper implementation of pre-existing ones. For example, a helpline number has been created for these workers, but mere creation won’t be of use unless their grievances are heard and timely solved.
Mental & psychological support is as valuable as financial support. Rural India is dealing with rumours and biases without a clear understanding of what the pandemic is all about. Government has the capability and efficiency to run a pandemic awareness campaign and ensure that the workers will be protected under all circumstances therefore no one shall panic or lose their calm. Loan waivers should be announced to resolve the anxiety due to fear of repayment of loans.
Testing, as it is a well-known fact, is the cardinal tool to regulate the spread of the virus. Random testing for these workers should be taken up. Government hospitals, especially need to be equipped with essential equipment like ventilators because these workers cannot afford private hospitals.
For people at the bottom of the pyramid, social security comes before social distancing, therefore prioritising them is the need of the hour. The government is trying to fulfil its bit, however, in crisis situations like these, extra effort is indispensable.
 Neeta Lal, COVID-19 and India’s Nowhere People, THE DIPLOMAT (Apr. 01,2020), https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/covid-19-and-indias-nowhere-people/
 INDIA CONST. art. 19(1).
 The Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Jobs and Service Conditions) Act, 1979, Act No. 30, Act of Parliament 1979 (India)
 Bhanupriya Rao, COVID-19: Intra-State Migrants Marooned Too, INDIASPEND (Apr. 08, 2020),
 INDIA CONST. art. 21.
 INDIA CONST. art. 14.
 Chinmay Tumbe, India Moving: A History of Migration (2018)