India’s COVID-19 strategy of containment was derailed when the announcement of the national lockdown met with millions of migrant labourers hitting the road to travel back to their place of residence. 

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  • The process of convincing labour to stay where they were has met with minimal success. 
  • In a country where migrants are an important part of economic activity, the present crisis is more than just a humanitarian crisis. 


  • According to Census 2011, there were 454 million migrants in India  — doubling over the 1991-2011 period
    • Notably, the acceleration of migration was particularly pronounced for females, increasing at nearly twice the rate of male migration, a major chunk of it being for marriage
    • The percentage share of people migrating for work and business has actually declined.
    • The share of urban-to-urban migrants has risen over the years, indicating that inter-urban mobility is a growing phenomenon.
    • Further, the proportion of short-term migrants is much lower than long-term migrants. 
  • After 2011, estimates in the Economic Survey indicated that migration within India continued to increase manifold and on average, migration within states is around four times that across states. 

Significance of Migrant workers:

  • Contribution to GDP: Migrants perform labor in industries ranging from construction, brick manufacturing, mining and quarrying, hotels and restaurants etc. which enhances a country's GDP.
  • Essential Services and Menial Jobs: Urban migrants perform essential labour and provide services that many people want but are unwilling to provide themselves like Domestic Care, Car Cleaning, Sweeping etc.
  • Creates Demand for Products: Even though migrants predominantly are a part of a low income group but collectively they create a robust demand for products thereby boosting economic activity.
  • Cultural Integration: They bring their unique food habits and  festivities to their migration place. Eg - The Chhath Puja  is now celebrated in Delhi owing to the presence of significant migrants from Bihar and U.P.

Impact of Lockdown on Migrants:

  • The suspension of interstate transportation and inter-district transportation was a big blow to the migrant population as they got struck in their places of work.
  •  Financial issues entangled them owing to low savings and little support from their employers.
  • Health Stress was yet another negative fallout on them as they had to search for food, water, housing and clothing. 
    • Moreover in extreme situations they decided to walk to their hometowns on foot only, which deteriorated their health.
    • Further the necessity for creating a Bus/Train pass in order to reach home induced them to gather in huge numbers on depots/platforms, thereby violating social distancing protocols and making them more vulnerable to Covid infection.
  • Psychological Hardships were faced by them as it's been more than 2 months since they have seen their families and moreover the future potential of their work also seems bleak. 

Steps taken by Government:

  • The central government has permitted state governments to utilise the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for setting up shelters for migrants and providing them food. 
    • The Centre has also released Rs 11,000 crore of its contribution in advance to all states on April 3 to augment the funds in their SDRF. 
  • Additionally, the disbursal of the Revolving Fund (RF) to self-help groups was on-boarded on the PAiSA Portal in April 2020 on a pilot basis in Gujarat and is now being rolled out across all the states.
  • States/UTs have now been advised to provide work to the migrant workers going back home. 
  • The government will also allocate an additional Rs 40,000 crore under MGNREGA to provide work. 
    • This measure will help generate nearly 300 crore person days in total and create a large number of durable and livelihood assets, including water conservation assets. 

Way Ahead:

A permanent and lasting solution to this problem of migration is given by the 2017 report of the working group on migration constituted by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation.

Short Term Approach

  • First, there is a need to reorient the working of the Construction Workers Welfare Board (CWWB) in each state. 
    • The CWWB provides social security to migrant workers however their funds’ utilisation (ignoring interstate variation) is low, at 21 per cent. 
    • Based on the records available with the CWWB of major states, where the influx of migrants is the maximum, the Centre can transfer a fixed monthly amount for the next three months. 
    • Some states like Maharashtra have given one-time payment to such workers.
  • Second, a comprehensive database of migrant workers needs to be prepared on a war footing to establish a system akin to JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhar- Mobile)
    • The immediate starting point could be the MNREGA enrollments this fiscal year, which can be compared to last year rolls and new additions could be treated as migrant labourers.
    • The PMJDY (PM Jan dhan Yojana) can also be extensively leveraged to find out the remittance transfers from source to destination

Medium / Long Term Approach

Even as this exercise gets underway, in the medium term we can think of an alternative as the 2017 report suggests. 

  • With the country now moving towards the One Nation One Ration Card, all the respective state governments can start working in unison to ensure the use of such ration cards for extending all benefits other than PDS. 
    • As Even today, migrants who are registered to claim access to a number of legal and other entitlements at their source locations, lose access to these benefits upon migrating to a different location because of lack of digitisation
    • Portability of food security should be the first step towards portability of healthcare, education benefits. 
  • A basic social security framework for migrants, preferably through a simple interstate self-registration process that can be authenticated through SMSs, can be developed. 
    • This could be enhanced to include migrant children in the annual work plans of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Migrants can also have unrestricted access to skill programmes.
  • Contrary to international evidence, in India, language doesn’t seem to matter in terms of migration. Thus, states must put an end to restrictive domicile provisions for working in different states.
  • The Working Group also recommended that states consider the utilisation of CWWB funds towards the provision of housing for migrant workers in construction and related industries. 
    • In this regard an affordable rental housing scheme for urban poor, including migrants, under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) was launched , however optimal utilisation of these funds should be considered over the medium term.
  • The time has now come for a complete overhaul of obsolete legislation regulating migrant labour in India. 
    • For example, in the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act 1979 (ISMWA), the inter-state migrant has to migrate through a contractor.
    • Such laws create a serious challenge in extending stable employment and social security nets to this set of workers. 


  • Thus need is to clearly articulate a national policy of migrant labour in this era of digital technology.   
  • With so many social programmes running in the country, the government should now create a comprehensive database, drawing on the databases of Ayushman Bharat, PM-KISAN, PMJDY (Jan Dhan), PMUY(Ujjwala)  and MUDRA for future social welfare initiatives .



Image Source: Indian Express