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An issue of lives versus livelihoods


  • Strict to moderate lockdowns are being imposed again in April 2021, terminating jobs in many an establishment employing large numbers of informal workers.
  • Of those employed in the informal category, large numbers include migrants who face a bleak future, with job losses, loss of rented accommodations, a lack of sustainable income and savings to ensure food, transportation back to villages or any other emergency including falling victim to COVID-19 – like they did in March-April of 2020.


GS-III: Indian Economy (Economic Growth and Development, Planning usage and Mobilisation of resources, Inclusive growth and issues therein)

Mains Questions:

In the light of the second wave of Covid-19 in the country, suggest some ways to address the difficult situations faced by India’s migrants during the Covid-19 crisis in India. (10 Marks)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. The current situation is a repeat of the crisis in 2020
  2. Issues related to internal migration in India
  3. Flow and cost of migrant labour
  4. No labour safeguards
  5. Way Forward

The current situation is a repeat of the crisis in 2020

  • Given their bitter experiences in 2020, migrants have already begun their journeys back to villages and the continuing exodus unofficially records figures upward of 4 lakhs (Western Railway) & the Central Railways sent back almost 5 lakh migrants (all from Maharashtra) in the first couple of weeks of April 2021.
  • With multiple issues of serious sufferings on account of COVID-19- related distress, the country has less time to discuss the fate of these unwanted migrants on their path of reverse migration, fleeing from centres of livelihood toward dark holes of rural helplessness and poverty.
  • Providing a mirror image of the previous tragedy in 2020, the conditions faced by these workers under a ‘curfew-to-lockdown’ status include the immediate termination of their livelihoods in terms of jobs, access to accommodation and near insolvency.
  • There has been no attempt to have an official estimate of such flows, either incoming or reverse.
  • The recent official announcement of free ration of 5 kg cereals to 80 crore families is the only sop visible so far.
  • The measure of using lockdowns and curfews to save lives is simultaneously also taking away the means of livelihood for the rootless and roofless migrants.

Issues related to internal migration in India

  1. Non-portability of entitlements: Non-portability of entitlements for migrant labourers (such as the Public Distribution System) which further gets aggravated due to absence of identity documentation.
  2. Absence of reliable data: The current data structure lacks realistic statistical account of their number and an understanding of the nature of their mobility.
    • Data on internal migration in India is principally drawn from two main sources –Census and the surveys carried out by the National Sample Survey Office. One of the main lacunae of both the Census and NSS surveys is their failure to adequately capture seasonal and/or short-term circular migration.
    • A large majority of migrants hail from historically marginalized groups such as the SCs and STs, which adds an additional layer of vulnerability to their urban experiences.
  3. Exploitation by Employers and Contractors (Middlemen): Exploitation by Employers and Contractors in the form of Non-payment of wages, physical abuse, accidents. The existing legal machinery is not sensitive to the nature of legal disputes in the unorganized sector.
  4. Lack of Education: The issue of lack of access to education for children of migrants further aggravates the intergenerational transmission of poverty.
  5. Housing: Migration and slums are inextricably linked, as labor demand in cities and the resulting rural-to-urban migration creates greater pressures to accommodate more people.
  6. Social Exclusion: Since the local language and culture is different from that of their region of origin, they also face harassment and political exclusion. Due to migrant’s mobile nature, they don’t find any place in the manifestos of trade unions.
  7. Stuck in the cycle of poverty: Most migrants are generationally stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty. (See infographic.)

Flow and cost of migrant labour

  • The flow of migrant labour provided a reserve army of cheap labour waiting to be hired at wages which, often, could dip lower than the statutory minimum, especially after meeting the demands of the mediating contractor who arranged for the migration from villages.
  • With the formal organised industry employing as many as one half or more of employees with casual or informal status, it proved rather opportune for enterprises in factories, construction sites and other labour-intensive activities to make use of these migrants in their cost-cutting exercises.
  • On the whole, the presence of the rural migrants benefited the urban economy by providing cheap labour to manufacturing units and cheap services to households.
  • However, these jobs provided did not entail further obligations on the part of the employers or the state, given that the ‘footloose’ migrants never had any legal status as a working population.

No labour safeguards

  • Pieces of legislation, as available, do not provide any evidence of addressing the issue of ensuring some legal safeguards to migrant labourers.
  • The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970 conferred on casual labour a legal status by providing a mechanism for registration of contractors engaging 20 or more workers.
  • While it was never effective, the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 has replaced all such Acts.
  • Seeking, rather ineffectively, to regulate the health and safety conditions of workers in establishments with 10 or more workers, the Code has replaced 13 prevailing labour laws.
  • It is thus more than obvious that none of the so-called corrective measures was of any significance in relation to what the migrants have been experiencing today since partial or total lockdowns have been imposed over the last few weeks.

Way Forward

  • Universal food grain distribution: There are 585 lakh tonnes of grains stored in Food Corporation of India god owns, which could be proactively distributed.
  • Direct cash transfers: Mechanisms could be evolved to deliver cash directly into the hands of people, instead of routing it through bank accounts.
  • Committee for Coordination: Inter-state coordination committee could be formed to ensure safe passage of migrants to their villages.
  • Commission to protect wages: Legal bodies at the central and state levels could be created to protect wages- as there have been claims of non-payment of wages, forced leaves and retrenchments.
  • Mapping of migrant workers: There is a need to create a database to map migrant workers scattered across the country. Government is planning to map migrant workers which would be first comprehensive exercise to map migrant workers scattered across sectors.

-Source: The Hindu

June 2024