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This article has been written by Rakshit Kapoor. The article has been edited by Khushi Sharma (Trainee Associate, Blog iPleaders) and Vanshika Kapoor (Senior Managing Editor, Blog iPleaders).


The developing countries identify migration as an integral income-generating strategy to abridge the income gap of the population. In India, Migration is still viewed as an adaptive survival strategy. Interstate migrant workers who have been employed in a different state has been seen in staggering significant magnitude, yet what has been the harsh identification of such migrants is low wages, hazardous working conditions and poor supply to their essential needs and services.

Adding to the distress of interstate migrants, the sudden nationwide lockdown in wake of rising cases of COVID-19 Lockdown brought their livelihoods to a miserable halt and the pandemic precipitated a severe crisis of mobility. 

The migrants were not only crunched between the directives of public policy and their inadequacies to reach their home state but millions lost their livelihoods when the factories or businesses were shut down. 

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The Constitution envisages within Fundamental Rights as the right to freely move and work yet the experience of the workers is quite contrary to the egalitarian principles stated in the Constitution.  The various diluted labour legislations form a disparity to the protection and entitlements of the vulnerable labours. The challenges faced are not only limited to identity issues or accommodation problems and mental crises but also exclude from optimum access to finance and political inclusion.

With the economic growth hinging on the mobility of labour, the need of the hour was to reckon the contribution of migrant workers and return the same for their security and well-being. The rewarding opportunity sees the light of day not only in temporal nature which the migrants received from the Apex Courts and respective governments but also the reform to consolidate and amend the legislation relating to social security was enacted. The paper critically analyses the disparities prevalent, the distress suffered and the reforms that aim to heal.

Pedagogy of migration

Migration is the demographic movement of people caused by barometric changes of socio-economic and political conditions to establish a new permanent or semi-permanent residence both internally i.e., between states and globally and hence they form a chain of rural to rural, rural to urban, urban to rural and urban to urban.

The term migrant per se has not been defined under the regimes of international law but to bring it under an umbrella of understanding, it represents a person who moved away from his or her usual place of residence for a variety of reasons and may also include smuggled migrants exploited for work or flesh trade.

The legal migration, however, takes place due to a plethora of reasons including struggles of survival, chasing prosperity, education or closing the disparity of underdevelopment and poverty. It is majorly done by the most vulnerable and disfranchised group in India.

J.K. Galbraith in 1979, recognized migration as the oldest action against poverty, and the modern understanding of poverty evinces from the underprivileged class suffering due to population pressure and finite resources. And such an agglomeration witnesses 456 million migrants in India as per the official 2011 data, and over 600 million as per estimates of Prof. Rajan in 2020. This means roughly half of India can be brought under a blanket of a Migrant.

Further, interstate migration has been well recognized since the constitution of India, guarantees all Indian citizens, the fundamental right to reside and settle in any part of India.  Further, the directive of Right to work was peculiarly elucidated by Hemalatha Devi’s research. Both of this when combined together with increasing social networks providing a common medium has simply driven the slope of migrant percentage to a whopping high and a need to move to chase affluence or undertake a vast array of work in Industries from states like UP, MP, Rajasthan to significant employers or the migrant magnets in Maharashtra and Kerala.

Migration in India is a two-sided sword, it not only helps achieve the targets of the migrants but also contributes to the economic sector of the nation by being the backbone of several sectors such as construction, fishing, agriculture and hence, contributes to 10% of India’s GDP. Furthermore, the number of women migrant have even seen a hike by 129%.

Understanding the disparity of interstate migration

In India, despite the enormous numbers of migrants, and the importance of migration but fiscally and socially is significant, yet there are integrated barriers that not only create a set of inequality but often leads to social disarticulation which hinders growth. Migrant workers in India face unfortunate yet unique challenges and thus are not able to develop socio-economically. Some of these disparities are:

Loss of Identity

Invisibility or fragmentation is one of the major challenges, migrants face at a national level. Due to the high diversity in India, and the interface between the migrant provider states and migrant magnet states is quite different. Hence, the workers remain unrecognized in a pool of local and regional levels and this highly subcontracted works often leads to an informal lack of their documentation and thus, a loss of accountability. This not only creates a barrier of language or diversity but also creates a loss of identity as one does not even have representation or adequate bargaining power due to cultural dominance in local unions.

Missing narrative of Gender

As already noted, women outnumbered men in internal migration, an orthodox school generalizes the inherent reason of marriage and associates migration to accompany the in a patriarchal society and puts a face of men to the migrant crowd, but the contemporary understanding outreaches this stereotypical picture and moves forth to recognize the concept or nuclear and working couples and understands that even if the marriage was the reason of the migration it simply became a  relocation in the job for many. Though the upliftment has been well recognized at promising levels the barriers to inequalities have been exacerbating. The gender-based challenges not only restrict to discrimination in the market, but they often fall prey to harassment- physical and sexual, trafficking and bondage leads to common factors of lack of safety and paves a narrative of gender disparity which impacts a major chunk of migrants.    

Lack of Social and Health Protection

Migrant workers often have a hanging sword on their heads about occupational and social safety. Not only does the work impose a risk of instability and unsafe practices e.g., dangerous scaffolding for construction workers, lack of proper ventilation for mining workers, no safety gears for manufacturing units and fumes of surrounding chemicals.

Apart from such risks and hazards which could lead to impairing disabilities, crush injuries or even deaths, social protection poses another set of problems such as poor access to proper housing, sanitation, health care, or hygiene facilities. This not only ends with the living borne disparities but also extends to lack of financial security as according to an ILO report one out of every three workers did not even receive minimum wage.

All these factors accumulate together for the migrants to compromise on their social security and find such little room before falling prey to highly exploitative circumstances especially by the interstate migrants in uncertain times.

Vulnerability in uncertain times

The disaster management system deals with debris removal, contingent case management and help cope up with disasters but the crisis of uncertainty that dawns upon the migrants in these challenging times often pose a greater threat and are seldom recognized. The rapid spread of pandemics precipitated a severe ‘crisis of mobility. 

India implemented a nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020, and had caused a wave of panic in the veins along with the contagious COVID-19 in many. The devastating concerns of rising cases and closed industries paved a predominant attempt to return. Whilst the whole country was busy dealing with the rising pandemic and trying to stay indoors to get protection and boost immunity, the migrants were yet again neglected and, in an attempt, to return without functional transportation and closed state borders. Several of them realized the shortcomings and had a lack of survival instincts hence, some wanted to return to their native places to their agriculture, family or simply because they did not have any other option. This vulnerability was hitherto simply invisible to the eyes of people and the government until the millions of migrants including the elderly, pregnant women and children really started walking across hundreds of kilometres with limited food and essential supplies carrying their belongings. The hardships did not end walking under the scorching but nearly 200 migrants were killed in road accidents in a period of 2 months. 

Most of the migrants did not have recourse to collect their wage arrears or have insurance for the hardships caused in the journey or to repay the loans. 

In some areas or villages, the dwellers too, discriminated by the insiders out principle by laying barricades to exclude the migrants and treated them as outsiders and outcasted them in fear of the stigma of being carriers.

The deficit aggravated mental health due to lack of any assistance, mental breakdown and to avoid resistance of aggression, mistreatment and a dreadful grievous apathy.      

The life of interstate migrants become nothing but a catastrophic event in this pandemic and subsequent lockdown and a need to build an integrated and holistic intervention system to bring about reform and abridge the disparities faced by migrants stuck in the hinterland.

The legal framework and steps undertaken

Apart from the fundamental right to reside and work in India, the migrants got aided by several civil society efforts. The government too aimed to regularize the migrants to help achieve their rights and be entitled to social protection. 

Apart from Draft code, 2020 for potentially strengthening the wage policy, several states have too passed ordinances to help the impacted worker’s abilities and their need for fair wage.

Another code so enacted consolidated 13 acts regulating health, safety and working conditions. This has also expanded the definition of ‘Interstate migrant workers’ as directly employed, self-employed to ensure no one falls out of social security measures and includes all workers who migrate to another state and their monthly family income does not exceed Rs. 18,000/-. Further, in lieu of millions losing work and depending upon self-employed livelihoods, the definition further covers the self-employed migrant workers.

Yet another code replaces 9 laws related to social security which even furthered the concerns of maternity benefits and unorganized social securities. Apart from such gender-based and social concerns, there are central shortcomings revolving around the migrant disparities which have been aimed to consolidate to a Code on Industrial Relations to increase the threshold to smaller establishments and engagements of ID Act, Trade Union Acts and Standing Order Act.

Urban policies of governance have catered for the slewing indifferences between the states and balance the empty loopholes to fill them with domicile-based documentation, proof of employment and local amenable governance for inclusion in electoral rolls and ration fulfilment.

Nor only have the legislature taken steps to form an airtight governance system, even the judiciary took cognizance of the hardships. The circular migration was recognized as a lack of interest of settlement and unwillingness to commit to the industry and this paved way to policy gaps and the extent of sufferance was immense. Apart from interstate migrants, the 600 million were not crisscrossing between the borders but the executive and local authorities and organizations such Aajeevika and SEWA helped set camps and supply essentials to migrants providing sustainable advocacy for workers.      


Amidst the rising migration process, the Apex Court had come as a boon to the migrants by bringing in extra-ordinary reforms wherein it had directed the state and centre to:

Aid and expedite the process of transportation and to provide for Shramik Special trains within 24 hours of receiving the request. 

It had further asked to formulate employment schemes by the personal labour and skillset of workers and to form a detailed welfare plan.

It had further asked to withdraw all the police complaints registered in lieu of breaking lockdown norms.

The process helped the migrants in a small run but the pandemic situation is still prevalent. The lockdown lasted 3 months but the industries became operational in phases, with expanded working hours and limited staff. Even the trains which aimed to facilitate the transportation eventually ended at least 80 deaths of migrants confirmed by Indian Railways.

This hardship sees no end as the workers who still seek to return but having migrated back are living a life of contingency as the second wave of Covid-19 had impacted the lives of migrants again and in a more deteriorating stage. With the country breaking all statistics and recording over 1 Lakh daily cases of Covid-19, the migrant magnet state of Maharashtra itself contributes to over half of it and the Chief Minister warns of a total lockdown and has already shown the red flag to private offices and markets.

The road ahead for the migrants lie on the two-bladed sword, wherein the catastrophic event of opening and closing affecting the economical balance and the lack of medical care paves a flaking situation and hence, the stringent and expeditious reform policies be undertaken to abridge the crumbling backbone of migrants in India.

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