Prioritizing Migrant Workers’ Health, Safety & Welfare

S Irudaya Rajan, Nelgyn Tennyson

The Indian government imposed a nationwide 21-day lockdown on March 23, 2020, As a preventive measure against the COVID-19 pandemic. The nationwide lockdown continued until May 3, after which it was extended with conditional relaxations until May 31.

The economy slowly started reverting with Unlock 1.0 being announced on June 1. Today, almost a year later, COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out across the nation. This article locates the need to prioritize migrant worker’s health, safety, and welfare during the pandemic. 

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Picture Curtesy: QUARTZ India

Nearly 105 million Indians have been vaccinated so far. Vaccination distribution is being prioritized in India based on occupation, age, and health conditions, with the recent decision to make the vaccine available for anyone above the age of 18 years. Being a dynamic community with no specific definitions based on any criteria, it seems that migrants have been dropped from the priority list for vaccination.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared “Teeka Utsav” from April 11-14 across the nation’s healthcare centers, apartment complexes, residential colonies, traditional halls, workplaces, and more, the focus group for vaccinations was individuals over the age of 45, not migrants. 

Even though the economy thrives on the value of their essential services, why are migrants being kept off the priority list? Migrants contribute significantly to India’s GDP. Almost 90 percent of Indians work in the informal sector, 75 percent of whom are migrants, while vulnerable circular migrants manage most of the essential services. As of 2020, India has approximately 600 million internal migrants.

As we gradually return to the “new normal”, the distressing images of hungry migrant workers walking back to their homes with small children are etched in our minds. When factories and workplaces shut down, and a lockdown was imposed, millions of migrant workers lost their jobs, forcing them and their families to go hungry.

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Picture Curtesy: India TV News

With no jobs, no money, and a bleak future ahead of them, there seemed to be no choice but that of a mass exodus of migrant workers from the cities. Many of them were even arrested for breaking the lockdown, and some died from dehydration or road crashes. It was the second-largest population displacement since Partition witnessed by the country,  COVID-19 crisis displacing nearly 200 million migrants, of which 140 million had migrated to make a living. 

The worst-hit class of people during the pandemic were the “vulnerable circular migrants”. They are “vulnerable” because of their weak position in the job market and “circular” because they seasonally move between their urban workplaces and their rural hometowns. Such migrants work in construction sites or in small factories or as rickshaw pullers in the city, but when such employment avenues dwindle, they go back to their rural hometowns. They are often denied adequate healthcare, nutrition, housing as well as sanitation facilities as the majority of them operate informally. The majority have no savings and reside in broken-down houses, shut down factories, dormitories or chawls.

Soon after the nationwide lockdown was announced in late March 2020, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a Rs 1.7 lakh crore ($24 billion) spending plan for the poor which consisted of cash transfers and other measures to ensure food security. The average daily wages under the MGNREGA were increased to Rs 202 from the earlier Rs 182. Nearly Rs 1,000 crore from the PM CARES Fund was allocated for the support of migrant workers. Later on, free foodgrains for 80 million migrant workers were also announced by the FM. 

Though it seems that the government did much for the migrants and their families, only some of them could avail the intended welfare. It was only on May 26, 2020, after the Supreme Court admitted that the migrants’ issues had not been addressed and that there had been “inadequacies and certain lapses” on the part of the governments that it requested the central government and states to provide stranded migrant workers with free food, shelter, and transportation. Only in the last week of May last year were the state governments finally permitted to operate buses for stranded migrants. Conditions in the buses were generally poor, with social distancing being impossible due to overcrowding and higher fares being charged than promised.

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Picture Curtesy: The Wire

Some of the migrants were unable to benefit from the food security schemes as promised by the government through its public distribution system. This was because ration cards were area-specific, required registration and because fair-price stores were largely inaccessible during the lockdown. Although One Nation, One Ration Card permitted migrant workers to obtain free foodgrain anywhere, very few knew of the scheme.

Although the Centre issued an order instructing landlords not to demand rent and employers to pay wages without deduction during the lockdown period, the order regarding payment of wages was later withdrawn. The Supreme Court denied a plea requiring payment of the minimum wage, as laborers had already been supplied with free food at the relief camps.

While vaccinations have helped reduce COVID-19 caseloads, the country fears another lockdown situation and closure of borders between states just like the previous year due to growing COVID-19 cases again. It is painful to see that migrants are still not being prioritized for vaccination drives even when specialized drives for various age groups have started. It is true that the sick and the elderly need to be vaccinated first, and this might take another year, but the migrants should not be made to wait until then. 

Migrants were the most affected during the lockdown. Most of them live on meager jobs they do in the cities every day. Without being vaccinated, they will not be able to take up jobs or continue the ones they could find due to the fears of Lockdown 2.0. Developmental indicators such as the health and education of migrant families would decrease dramatically if they are unable to come back for work. They will never be able to survive this situation without an adequate support system. Our failure to prioritize their vaccination will lead the country to a major economic crisis, with not just low productivity and increasing unemployment, but also a breakdown of the critical but informal services sector.

First Published in Indian Express titled Putting Migrants First on April 22, 2020.

About the Author

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S. Irudaya Rajan, Chair Professor, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) Research Unit on International Migration at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. 

Nelgyn Tennyson, Research Associate at International Institute of Migration and Development; former Student at International Institute for Population Sciences and Member of International Union for Scientific Study of Population  

Watch Prof. S. Irudaya Rajan at IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk



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