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Bengaluru: A day before the lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, the government told parliament that "it is not feasible to keep record/data of migrant labour workforce" because migrant workers tend to move often in search of employment. But over the next 68 days of the lockdown, as an unprecedented migrant worker crisis unfurled in India, it became clear that reliable data were critical to developing an effective migrant worker policy.

Between March 25 and May 1, 2020, distressed migrant workers, stranded without jobs, savings, shelter, food, transport or any organised support system, began long treks back home with their families and sparse belongings. The homeward exodus of around 11.4 million migrant workers--more than the population of Uttarakhand--resulted in at least 971 non-COVID deaths, including 96 workers who died on trains.

Five months after they left the cities where they worked, migrants started returning because of the lack of employment opportunities in villages, showed a rapid assessment survey. However, the pandemic had caused an economic contraction by then, and the number of poor Indians (with incomes of $2 or less a day) rose by 75 million. In April 2020 alone, 122 million Indians lost their jobs, a 30% fall in employment over the previous year.

All through this period, much discussion has focused on the extent of India's intra- and inter-state migration, and the issues that must be urgently addressed, including: migrants' work conditions and wages, housing difficulties, facilities for their families, and portability of benefits across state boundaries.

We spoke to migration and labour researchers to find out to what extent these measures are sufficient, and what more needs to be done. The overall consensus: India must collate credible data, create jobs, and implement existing and new labour regulations to address systemic problems.

Quick fixes

In March 2020, the government announced that 800 million beneficiaries would be provided an additional 5 kg of wheat or rice and a kilo of preferred pulses, free of cost every month. This continued until November 2020.

In June 2020, the government announced the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan, a rural public works scheme to employ returning migrants in some states.

These were relief measures, and did not address long-term issues. Some measures announced in budget 2021 to address enduring problems included ration card portability and a tax holiday for affordable rental housing projects that are commonly used by migrants. But these were not new--some of these measures have been around for a while others were an extension of established practices, a February 2021 IndiaSpend analysis had shown.

Rajesh*, 36, a migrant worker from Odisha's Kandhmahal, works as an operator in a plywood factory in Kerala's Ernakulam district. When the lockdown was announced, his factory closed, leaving him wondering if his job and income would last. His movement restricted, essentials were hard to come by. "I got the government kit with essentials like rice, pulses, oil, etc. only once and got 2 kilos of rice a few times from my company," he said, adding that no one informed me of other government relief or schemes, nor did he ask for support. "My company gave Rs 1,000 a week to supervisors and operators during lockdown and would give an advance if there was a requirement," he said.

Enduring problems

The lockdown shone the spotlight on migrant workers' precarious working conditions, even though multiple laws and regulations exist to protect migrants. Migration analysts point out that new labour codes passed between 2019 and 2020 to protect workers' rights may not benefit migrant workers.

In 1979, India had enacted the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act (ISWM) to protect interstate migrant workers. It applied to all establishments and contractors employing five or more interstate workers, but was poorly implemented, said Ravi Srivastava, director, Centre of Employment Studies, Institute for Human Development (IHD), a non-profit. The Act is now subsumed under the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSH) Code 2020.

The OSH has expanded the definition of 'employees' to include those who are self-employed or migrate on their own, and has narrowed the applicability of the code--from establishments that employ at least five persons to those that employ 10 and above, thereby not extending its ambit to migrant workers in micro units that employ fewer than 10 employees.

Although the ISWM "was obsolete and disconnected from the current economic realities", said Divya Varma, lead, advocacy and partnerships at Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions, Aajeevika Bureau, subsuming it under the OSH code and "arbitrarily" creating limits on employee numbers does not help migrant workers.

Another legislation, the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996 (BOCWA), requires state governments to form state welfare boards for construction and other workers to frame and implement welfare schemes. At 55 million, the construction sector that contributes 9% of GDP employs the highest number of migrant workers. The welfare fund comprises a 1% cess on construction costs that is levied and collected by the states and remitted to the central fund. The Centre claimed that state boards had disbursed around Rs 5,000 crore ($690 million) to nearly 18.3 million building and other construction workers during and after the lockdown.

"The BOCW has accumulated reserves but has poor registration and migrant workers are not part of BOCW welfare board," said Srivastava. Workers, especially itinerant migrants, find it difficult and challenging to renew their registration on an annual basis, said Varma.

Government response was 'inadequate'

The government response to the migrant crisis was delayed and partial, said those who work in the migration sector. "Often policies change on paper but grassroots realities do not unless there is substantial investment, strong political will and thorough monitoring of progress," said Benoy Peter, executive director of Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID).

Around 84% of the workforce was able to return to some form of employment in August 2020, with the experiences differing widely in terms of age, gender, and industry of employment, IndiaSpend reported in January 2021. But India's middle class (earning $10.01 to $20 a day) is estimated to have shrunk by 32 million, accounting for 60% of global retreat, according to Pew Research analysis.

The lockdown's impact on employment can be seen in the increase in demand for the rural jobs programme or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Nearly 133 million people demanded work through the rural jobs programme in 2020-21, a 43% increase compared to the previous year. Up to 110 million people worked in the programme in 2020-21, compared to an average of 78 million in four years to 2019-20.

Despite an additional increase of Rs 40,000 crore ($5.5 billion) in funds for the programme in 2020-21, the government allocated 35% lesser money for 2021-22 compared to the previous year's revised estimate--amount estimated to have been spent (as opposed to the amount budgeted for at the start of the fiscal year).

In June 2020, the government announced a Rs 50,000 crore ($6.9 billion) scheme--Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan--for 25 target-driven works to create infrastructure and boost employment in 116 districts of six states for workers returning home. The measures announced are not sufficient as schemes like the Garib Kalyan Yojana only converge existing schemes and require careful restructuring, noted Srivastava.

Some initiatives like Shramik trains that carried more than 6 million people to their home states did help workers and must be continued, said Peter.

A 2013 Unesco and Unicef report stressed the "urgent need to develop a governance system for internal migration in India", which includes a dedicated system of institutions, legal frameworks, mechanisms and practices to support internal migration and protecting migrants.

Kerala, Goa, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh have been most successful in integrating migrant workers, while crucial migrant receiving states, including Delhi, have done poorly, IndiaSpend reported in November 2020. Kerala has been able to implement migrant-focused schemes for social security and labour protection.

Unreliable data

The government undertook two significant data-related measures over the year 2020: First, it decided to undertake an all-India survey of migrants. The lack of credible data or registration of migrants had hindered efforts to organise welfare measures such as distribution of essential items and relief material to distressed migrant workers and their families. Then, the government started the process of developing and launching a national database of unorganised workers.

"The lack of timely and good data is an impediment for creating good evidence-based policy. In the case of migration, we had gone into a stupor," Srivastava said.

The last migration survey by the National Sample Survey was conducted in 2007-08. (A migrant was defined as a person whose last place of residence was different from the current one, who had stayed in the last place continuously for six or more months.) Around 29% of those enumerated in the survey were found to be migrants.

Although Census 2011 enumerated data on migration, it was shared partially only in 2020 because the Registrar General's office has decided not to proceed with its publication, said Srivastava of IHD.

In September 2020, the government informed parliament that it maintained no data on the death of migrant workers heading to their hometowns during the early months of the lockdown. It also maintained that it had no numbers on lockdown-related job losses among migrant workers.

Migrant workers remain unenumerated and unrecognised at the local, regional and

national levels, said a December 2020 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report jointly drafted with Aajeevika Bureau and CMID. An interface between workers and public systems can be established only if there are reliable databases at all levels of governance, the report said.

The government estimate that over 11.4 million migrants returned home during the lockdown is a "myth" because it only includes those who used public transport, said IHD's Srivastava. "The actual figures were much larger," he said.

The Census and the NSS have never captured the real numbers of those who migrate for work, especially seasonal migrants who are the most vulnerable because of the total absence of social security in their lives, said Varma of Aajeevika Bureau. This must be fixed, going ahead, by creating institutional mechanisms to record the movement of migrants and enable their registration for various laws and benefit programmes.

A national database on migrant workers, including records of returning migrant labourers and details about their source and destination, previous employment details and the nature of their skills, should be launched at the earliest, a December 2020 parliamentary standing committee recommended. The first draft policy on migrant workers prepared by NITI Aayog is reported to have made similar recommendations on the need for quality data as a 2017 working group report on migration.

The central labour ministry is currently creating a national database of unorganised workers to deliver social security and welfare schemes, according to a March 2021 government reply in parliament. The release of this database should not be delayed like the Census 2011 migration data, warned Peter of CMID.

However, workers' mobility could make "creating a dynamic database" a challenge, pointed out IHD's Srivastava. This is because the database will also require employers to register all their workers and this may not be feasible given that most migrant workers engage in informal jobs that are not on record, he said.

States reserve jobs for own residents

Even as measures to improve migrant workers' lives have been slow-going, some states have proceeded to reserve jobs for their own residents, in the face of the ongoing economic crisis. In March 2021, the Haryana government notified a law to reserve 75% of private jobs for local people. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh already have, or have proposed, similar provisions.

Article 19 of India's Constitution allows citizens the fundamental right to freely migrate and seek employment anywhere in the country. But domicile-related provisions will restrict opportunities for migrant workers and go against the recommendation of a 2017 working group that said states must "pro-actively remove domicile provisions in laws relating to work in an accelerated manner".

But state job reservations apply to formal employment, and since migrant workers mostly work in the informal sector, they will be less affected, said Peter. Of around 61 million jobs created in India over 22 years post-Liberalisation in 1991, 92% were informal jobs.

Urban employment schemes designed like MGNREGS, but without the payment delays that have marred the central government's marquee rural jobs programme, could provide jobs and income security for the low-skilled urban poor. The government would have to ensure that migrant workers are purposefully included in the ambit of such schemes, added Varma.

What a better migration policy would look like

Migration scholars and activists interviewed by IndiaSpend suggested the following measures to ensure a robust migrant policy:

  • All migrant workers, along with informal workers must be covered by universal, portable social protection schemes.
  • Employers must be held accountable for the work conditions they provide.
  • Labour laws should not be onerous, must be enforced strictly, and must make remedial justice accessible for migrant workers.
  • Policy reforms should focus on building up adequate infrastructure and resources, including human resources, to implement welfare measures across state and central departments.
  • Urban employment schemes to support the urban poor must include migrant workers.
  • Needs of vulnerable groups such as migrant women and children must be addressed.

*Names have been changed to protect their identity.

(Priyanka Gulati, an IndiaSpend intern, provided inputs for the story.)

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