Locked out under Coronavirus lockdown – continuing exclusion of India’s migrant workforce

Locked out under Coronavirus lockdown – continuing exclusion of India’s migrant workforce

Nabeela Ahmed and Priya Deshingkar

India announced a national lockdown for 21 days to control the spread of Covid-19 in the world’s second most populous country, on the 24th of March. While the government declared the protective measures involve ‘simply having to stay home’, for millions of internal labour migrants in India this means an immediate loss of income in an already precarious existence. They are forced to return “home” to their villages, travelling hundreds of kilometres on foot, risking hunger, destitution and disease in an exodus reminiscent of the Partition. Media reports convey horror and surprise at the plight of migrants, but the treatment meted out to them is nothing new in a country where migrants – predominately from the most excluded caste and social groups in Indian society – occupy the most dangerous and degrading jobs.

Unlike the surreal images of city centres gone silent and ‘ghost town’ scenes across other lockdowns in Wuhan, London, or Rome, in Indian cities it has sparked a mass migration of labourers working mainly in the informal economy – gathering on main roads and stranded at transport hubs in cities. Public transport and all but “essential businesses” have been shut down. In major cities such as Delhi, this has resulted in throngs of labour migrants, now both homeless and jobless in the wake of the lockdown, desperately trying to return to their home villages in distant states as far-flung as Madhya Pradesh (700 km from Delhi). Many are without access to cash or food, let alone medical testing or treatment for coronavirus.

So far, the government response has been disproportionate to the scale of the crisis. Limited public transport has been authorised to help migrants return, but upon arrival they are subjected to further dehumanising treatment in their own states. In Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, migrants were hosed down with a chlorine solution to ‘disinfect’ them, and confined in detention-like facilities in Bihar. Relief packages have been announced but are woefully inadequate and as Harsh Mander says so eloquently, the allocated food subsidy is hardly enough to sustain migrants and their families in the city.

Millions of migrants are now left without jobs or shelter, and risk hunger and lack of access to basic resources – let alone infection.  In mimicking other countries with drastic and swift lockdown measures, Indian planners did not think through the consequences of the lockdown on the poorest, especially migrants whose jobs disappeared overnight. Like the demonetisation fiasco in 2016, the lockdown is another tech fix with zero understanding of inequality, power relations and structural factors that have kept migrants on the margins of Indian society. Those affected include domestic maids, construction workers, rickshaw pullers, street vendors, rag pickers and a various other kinds of informal service providers. The numbers involved are vast: there could be as many as 90 million domestic workers in India according to informed estimates and many are Adivasi (tribal minorities) and Dalit (‘untouchable’ caste) women  – among the most vulnerable in Indian society – migrating to work in middle-class urban homes to support their families in poorer parts of India. Domestic work is one of the most important sectors for the employment of female migrants from disadvantaged backgrounds globally. Likewise, there are an estimated tens of millions of migrant construction workers who also belong to these excluded groups according to national data.  Others who have seen their livelihoods vanish include roughly 10 million street vendors, many of whom are migrants as well as rickshaw pullers, tea stall workers, and restaurant waiters.

However, despite these numbers and the vital contribution made to the construction and maintenance of urban middle-class lifestyles, migrants have long been invisible in India. Even the lack of adequate formal statistics – based on poor census and sample survey methods – is testament to the invisibilisation of labour migrants. Our work over the past decade on the lives of urban labour migrants within India (Ahmed, 2019; Deshingkar, 2017) has shown that they are not formally recognised either as citizens nor as workers (they lack legal employment protections, rights and guarantees), are often criminalised and conflated with undocumented overseas migrants (Ahmed, 2019). Indeed tensions around questions of belonging and rights have become worse in an increasingly exclusionary citizenship regime.

Implications of the lockdown
While labourers have lost their livelihoods overnight, exclusions from national protections are not new. A long history of marginalisation has made the current situation inevitable and raises alarm over the potentially devasting impact of coronavirus borne by labour migrants, bringing new meaning to the term ‘vulnerable’ populations.  Grassroots activists who have worked closely with labour migrants for decades such as Aajeevika Bureau, highlight the longer-term implications of the lockdown for labour migrants, rooted in entrenched structural and social exclusions.

Risks of hunger prevail with the sudden cancellation of livelihoods, wages and lack of access to cash – continuing long-running food insecurity and malnutrition among India’s poor and marginalised. Despite India’s shift to ‘lower middle income’ status the country is currently ranked 102nd of 117 in the Global Hunger Index. The impacts of nationwide food security programmes are often nulled by corruption and poor implementation, and migrants have systematically been excluded from access to such schemes. Currently, the closure of small businesses under lockdown, including roadside restaurants under lockdown also prevents access to food for labourers on their long journeys home. Activist groups have also called for migrants to be exempt from ‘lathi charge’ (sanctioned police violence for those who leave their houses) as they have a more urgent need to stockpile food items in lieu of access to cash and food subsidies.

The impact of the lockdown on expanding the outbreak itself is of grave concern, with fears that infection will spread to the villages where migrants are returning. Health infrastructure is severely limited and particularly biased against the poor and vulnerable across India, particularly so in rural areas. The burden of a COVID outbreak in rural areas, coupled with poor water and sanitation infrastructures could be catastrophic.

Migrants have always been marginalised
Hosing down migrants returning from Delhi is symptomatic of a long history of the hostility toward migrants. Structural inequalities and injustices perpetuated in the workplace and wider society through discrimination and patriarchal norms related to caste, ethnicity, and gender have ensured that labour migrants remain excluded in society. Despite multiple protective legislations and welfare programmes – some in place since Independence, labour migrants’ lives are hyper-precarious because of being excluded both from labour laws and citizenship rights such as access to welfare entitlements.

Furthermore, efforts to improve the distribution of economic surplus to labourers is low. Earlier this year it emerged nearly Rs 162 crores (more than £17,000,000) remains unpaid to workers involved in the construction of the Hyderabad Metro. Opportunities for collective action are limited due to a lack of awareness, rights and fragmentation of the workforce due to migrant exclusions. Employers continue to hire precarious migrant workers who can be hired and fired at will without any obligation for their welfare and no fear of the law.

While activists mobilised legal reform to guarantee adequate supplies of subsidised food to vulnerable households, labour migrants continued to be excluded and remain at a disadvantage. In addition migrants typically lack access to secure housing and infrastructure, basic healthcare, work in hazardous and exploitative conditions, and cannot avail education or childcare for their families.

In addition to state neglect and labour market exploitation, labour migrants are subjected to social hostility. Despite a slew of innovative urban inclusion policies in India, migrants have never been welcome in cities. Labourers within India are scapegoated for a range of social ills including urban violence against women, crime, disease, the squalor of informal settlements where they are compelled to live, and even as eyesores preventing cities from looking attractive.

Activists and academics have renewed urgent calls for improved welfare systems – highlighted across international responses to COVID-19. But there are no easy answers here. While migrants have actively challenged exclusions through the very act of crossing borders and strategies of survival and resistance, the devasting prospects of the coronavirus outbreak in India will most directly hit those most vulnerable – in terms of socio-economic as well as health status (and the two are inextricably linked). In addition to challenging the state, what remains to change are the attitudes of the public at large who continue to see migrants as a source of filth and disease rather than humans, who build and maintain the homes and cities they live in.


Ahmed, N (2019) ‘Vulnerability and social protection access’ in (eds) Rajan, I. and Sumeetha, M. Handbook of internal migration in India New Delhi: SAGE.
Deshingkar, P. (2017) Towards contextualised, disaggregated and intersectional understandings of migration in India, Asian Population Studies, 13:2, 119-123


Nabeela Ahmed is a post-doc researcher at the Sheffield Institute of International Development (SIID) and she completed her PhD at Sussex, on urban migrants in India and access to social protection. Priya Deshingkar is Professor of Migration and Development at the University of Sussex and has published extensively on migration in India.

Image Credit: Nabeela Ahmed, labour migrants in Ahmedabad.