“I Am Happy At Home”/“Come Back Now…”: The Internally Displaced in India’s COVID-19 Landscape

“I Am Happy At Home”/“Come Back Now…”: The Internally Displaced in India’s COVID-19 Landscape

Ankushi Mitra and Mallika Magoon

On May 8th 2020, an early morning freight express killed 14 jobless migrants who were sleeping on a stretch of railway tracks in central Maharashtra in the middle of a perilous journey home to eastern Madhya Pradesh. Such precarious internal mobilities have propelled into the public consciousness critical questions about the circulating bodies that are making India’s developmental aspirations a possibility. Living at the crossroads of state retrenchments and informal economies, migrant workers are enmeshed in the biopolitical realities that have defined their condition for decades. And now, they are experiencing additional vulnerabilities produced by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Economic Insecurities
Rising labor circulation, particularly during “structural adjustment,” made migrants key to the “development problematic” of the rapidly-urbanizing Indian subcontinent in the 1970s-1980s. Concentrated economic growth strategies have produced, since then, uneven patterns of regional and national development, driving demand for skilled and unskilled migrant labor. However, these growth patterns have not been complemented by appropriate labor and social protection policies, or basic health and transportation infrastructure investment, leading to significant and asymmetric costs for low-income migrants.

In urban areas, most mobile workers live in small homes, temporary settlements, and dense neighborhoods, with minimal access to basic sanitation services. Navigating contingent, low-wage work, they are entrenched in the parallel cash economies of the unorganized sector. Evidence from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (2017–2018) speaks to these unstable and extractive labor lifeworlds: 70% of surveyed non-agricultural workers—most of them migrants—did not have a written job contract. 55% were not eligible for paid leave, and 50% did not have any social security benefits. Coupled with lack of access to safety nets, exploitative management, and chronic food and housing insecurity, internal migrants in cities like Delhi live and breathe on the edges of urban marginality.

COVID-19 has, in turn, reconfigured some of these daily indignities, adding to the ontological disenfranchisement of the vulnerably mobile. By some estimates, 65 million people lost their jobs in April 2020 alone, at least three-quarters of which were small traders and wage laborers, often migrants. The World Bank reports that up to 40 million migrant workers are facing the brunt of India’s COVID-19 shutdown. Most have swiftly burned through their meager savings. Starvation and hunger deaths have been on the rise. Housing vulnerability is also rising. Qasim, a construction worker from West Bengal, says:

“I have been in Delhi since February. I lost my job, I have no money to send my parents. I work in a grocery shop in exchange for rice and pulses. I live with 6 other people from my village, but my landlord says he will increase our rent if we don’t vacate by the end of October. My old job said they will hire us again in a few months, but at a lower wage. I don’t know what to do.”

Politics of Internal Displacement: “The Devastating Truth”
The politics of migrant labor mirror the liminalities of their lived experience between jurisdictions, spread across space, and thus belonging to none. Their incomes, as well as the incomes of remittance-dependent families, are usually very uncertain. Some projections suggest that these remittance flows in India are likely to fall by over 23% in 2020, which will impact the social fabric of several such rural and peri-urban communities anchored to jobsites and workfloors hundreds of kilometers away.

Living trans-bordered urban lives with one foot out of the door, these workers often also do not have access to well-provisioned inter-state identification (for instance, aadhar card, caste certificates, ration cards) and social security systems. Intransigent policing and administrative systems exacerbate this lack of care. Sreemayi Goyal, an employment lawyer working with IDPs, told us that these were long-term insecurities, and “the devastating truth… [is] that COVID did not create…but revealed them.”

In this context, low-income migrant labor has emerged as one of the most politically marginal groups in the early days of India’s March lockdown. Millions suddenly found themselves unwanted both by their host states and home states, strangers to their own country. Immobilized by closed road and rail networks, thousands began braving the scorching Indian summer on foot to make their way back to their towns and villages. One such worker, Usman, said:

“I was very scared that the Delhi government would put me in a camp and confiscate my aadhar card. I have a friend who was in a shelter home for 1 month before they returned his card…On the road [to Lucknow], I rode trucks and walked. Outside Meerut, I joined a bigger group and we slept on the roadsides every night and tried to find trucks in the morning. I am happy at home.”

Its COVID-19 response thus undercut by images of visceral desperation, the Indian state finally responded with federally-coordinated transportation assistance, piecemeal cash injections, promises of housing and food assistance, and some legal protection and oversight. And yet, provision has not equaled access for the displaced. Jannat, a Punjabi textile factory worker, said:

“I don’t have a job. My ration card does not work here. When I went to a hospital with a fever…they refused to test me because my aadhar card lists my address from Ludhiana…When I go back, I will apply for the relief scheme, but there are no trains going…my cousin says she could not apply for this scheme outside Punjab.”

Experiences of Internal Displacement: “My Heart Wants To Go Home”
Since those chaotic weeks in March, close to 10 million (by some estimates) have traversed worlds of local harassment, injury, hastily-built IDP camps and “shelter homes,” long detentions, and financial losses in their dangerous repatriations. And yet, neither ad hoc policy responses nor these desperate homecomings are adequate remedies for the distinctive threats mobile workers face to their mental and physical well-being. In their urban and urbanizing destinations, isolated from the familiar, living in zones of metropolitan surveillance and insecurity, they often find themselves in complex webs of novelty, anxiety, and other forms of psychosocial precarity. And this fear and uncertainty continue to be a given of the moment. Bala, a seasonal worker from Telangana, says:

“I need to go home, I want to see my children and my parents. I’m scared they will fall sick. I have also heard about how difficult it is to go back. My family members were forced in stay in quarantine camps for many days. They got food once a day. What will happen if I go? I don’t think I can find a job now, how will my family eat? But my heart wants to go home.”

Many of our interlocutors in Delhi’s migrant- and refugee-dense neighborhoods are also reporting a heightened police presence and arbitrary document checks. One restaurant worker from Odisha, living in the South Delhi neighborhood of Khirki—a slum fenced in by some of the city’s most affluent communities—said:

“There are police at every entrance to the colony. They don’t let us go outside. Two nights ago, when I tried to enter my sector, a policeman accused me of being a drunk, then followed me home to check my ID and note down my name.”

The biopolitics of internal mobility, in this case, are classed, spatialized, and gendered both in old and new ways. One migrant woman, Smita, recounted:

“It is difficult to live alone in Delhi. My brother said I should return [to Jharkhand]. In the shelter home, I didn’t have space to take a bath. A security guard raped me. I want to report this, but there were no women guards. By god’s grace, I somehow reached home…my brother has now advised me against going to police.”

She is now working with a Ranchi-based women’s NGO to seek counselling.

Live to Die Another Day?
These forms of nightmarish insecurity for migrant workers — constant, but “pandemicized” — speak to some of the fundamental paradoxes of their circulation. The massive repatriation of migrant labor is reversing decades-long mobility trends, leading to retractions of some of the vitriol thrown at migrants earlier this year: major migrant-sending states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar now struggle to provide healthcare, sustenance, and employment to their own residents, while the loss of essential labor and skills in key host states is now leading policymakers like Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to declare that “migrant workers who had left the city during the lockdown…should come back now.”

The fact that several states are attempting to loosen labor laws to hasten their economic recovery, in this instance, captures how the relentless dream of “growth” for India’s poor is inscribed within their own perpetual exploitation and dehumanization. Bodies constantly on the move remain barricaded, bounded by zones of exception, surveillance, and abuse. Yearnings for familiarity and home among those who find themselves economically, politically, and socially isolated in these ways, meanwhile, are reduced to ’irresponsibility’ and ‘all that is wrong with India’ the structural painted as the exceptional.

Though it is not entirely clear what the long-term impact of some of these paradoxes, revealed as well as emerging, will be, the conditions of this crisis are likely to persist and shape the subjectivities of the state, the displaced, and the non-displaced when it comes to public debates on mobility. When we asked Bala how the government could improve the current situation, she said: “I don’t have a job. Every summer, it is difficult to find a job. The problems are the same.”


Ankushi Mitra is a Postgraduate Excellence Scholar in Engineering, Environment, and Emerging Technologies at Trinity College Dublin’s Development Practice program. She uses participatory action research, ethnography, and quantitative analytics to think about refugee policy and integration, comparative citizenship, and spatial justice in North Africa, East Africa, and South Asia. She can be contacted at amitra@tcd.ie.  Mallika Magoon is an M.Sc. candidate in Economics at the University of Warwick. Her work focuses on development strategies, growth patterns, and impact evaluation in South Asia. She can be contacted at Mallika.Magoon@warwick.ac.uk.


Image: Goutam Dutta ‘Migrant workers stand in a queue for food during COVID-19 Lockdown at Delhi’