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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Development Perspectives: Migrant Workers of India

Development Perspectives: Migrant Workers of India

Ayushi Misra (MADev14) gives a personal perspective on the informal sector workers of India on whom a spotlight of attention fell when Covid-19 exposed the vulnerabilities of these citizens.
Image from i-stock: Dehradun, Uttarakhand/India- August 15 2020
Image from i-stock: Dehradun, Uttarakhand/India- August 15 2020

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India

nothing can keep the middle-class Indian at home, they are always out to work, to fight, and to survive

India is an overwhelming country, its diversity, complexity, and social fabric is a topic of immense interest for the rest of the world. What is most surprising is its ability to "bounce back" after every setback. The people of the country show tremendous fortitude during testing times. For example, after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, India bounced back. While the city of Mumbai was under siege, the rest of the country  was on  its toes, not letting the catastrophe affect its morale. The relentless, tireless middle class Indian that just keeps moving no matter what, is the picture of India in my eyes. Whether it was the Gujarat earthquake in  2001, or the Tsunami in 2004, floods, cyclones, landslides, nothing can keep the middle-class Indian at home, they are always out to work, to fight, and to survive.

The year 2020 changed that for India. I saw Mumbai like I’d never seen it before, silent, dark, and  at  a standstill. When the Prime Minister announced a complete lockdown on the 23rd of March 2020, he stated  that there was no need to panic; essential services would run as normal, not a single Indian will face trouble during the lockdown, the doctors would get their PPE kits, there will be money in the ATMs, and groceries, pharmacies, petrol pumps will be open and run smoothly. Thus, allowing the average Indian to sit at  home and stop the spread of the virus.

With a few thousand cases in a population of 1.38 billion few understood the gravity of the situation in India. The more literate part of the population expressed concerns over crucial issues such as how would the economy absorb the loss? is it another PR stunt by the government? why was not this step taken earlier? or was this even required as people in India are believed to have higher immunities than the west?  Everything was shut, airlines, malls, movie theatres, the Indian railways that boasted of functioning  even  at  wartime came to a complete halt, and all of this made the news.

India began witnessing a large exodus of over 10 million people on its streets… Who were these people, where did they come from?

What the government forgot, and we all forgot to acknowledge was the presence of an army of 450 million people who run the wheels of the country that 'bounces back' promptly after every setback. On the eve of the lockdown when people were preparing to stay put in their homes, India began witnessing a large exodus of over 10 million people on its streets. Who were these people, where did they come from?

Perhaps if we ever raised our heads to look at the cobbler, the vendor, the plumber, the electrician, the taxi driver that we come across every day and who make our lives so easy that we comfortably ignore them, we would have been able to recognize those faces in the crowd.

Theoretically, several things were done for these migrants, after all, they had their magical Jan Dhan  (Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana transl: Prime Minister’s People’s Wealth Scheme), a financial  inclusion  scheme to expand access to financial services) accounts where they were to receive direct benefit transfers from the government during these times of distress, but was this enough?

These people belonging to the informal sector who worked on daily wages were suddenly left out of work, many miles away from their native places

These people belonging to the informal sector who worked on daily wages were suddenly left out of work, many miles away from their native places. In cities like Mumbai where many such workers reside in chawls (a specific type of residential building found in western  India) in  rooms as small as 4x10 feet,  social distancing is not even a luxury, it is witticism on their poverty. In many instances, these this entire out  of work labour  class was forced out of their rented rooms because landlords feared they will not be able to pay timely rents. With no home, no work, and barely any money, these labourers were forced to travel on  foot  for  miles  to reach their homes.

Image above from i-stock: Dehradun, Uttarakhand/India- August 01 2020: Migrant people returning to their home from different states due to corona virus situation.

Those who brave heartedly left the borders of their work lands… were stationed in large 'camps' on the borders of the state

Those who brave heartedly left the borders of their work lands had bigger battles to fight. State borders were sealed and for the longest time, there was a battle between  states regarding  where these people belonged and whose responsibility they were. While, for those who could pay the exorbitant airfares, several global flights brought back Indian citizens during the pandemic, most states vehemently expressed their inability to allocate a budget for these migrants. In many horrifying stories people were stationed in large 'camps' on the borders of the state, on the outskirts of cities, in the most deplorable conditions to 'isolate', sometimes they were given food, sometimes they were just forgotten.

Some of them, including children and the elderly could make it to those camps, many did not. I recall an incident where 14 of these labourers who were traveling from Maharashtra to Uttar Pradesh (around  1,000km) were run over by a goods train while they chose to sleep on the railway tracks after many days of walking. They were not told that the goods train was functional and only passenger trains had been put to a halt and thought that the railway tracks were a decent place to rest 'comfortably', and of course people were criticizing the act because after all who sleeps on the railway tracks anyways? Well, the poor people do, and many times are killed because they have no option but to sleep on the footpaths or as in this case the railway tracks.

do their lives do not matter?

Many such tragic stories have pierced our souls during the lockdown, one of which is that of Mr. Rampukar Pandit a construction labourer working in the national capital, New Delhi, he could not go back to his native village in  Uttar Pradesh to see his ailing son who died before his father could reach him. Help came   thereafter, from a woman who gave him 5500 rupees and some food to reach his place, but he had just one question, if the government could run flights to bring back people stuck outside the countries back home why it cannot do something for them, do their lives do not matter?

I guess it was his naivety that he did not understand that yes his life did matter, when the sewer needs cleaning, where there is plumbing required in the house or when our air conditioner stops working, or when that food stall serving the yummy street food in Mumbai and Delhi are found closed by some foodies, they are remembered good and well, but not during these times when it’s time for the so-called well off to do something for them.

I have often wondered why we are unable to give these people the respect and dignity that they deserve as humans and why every problem big or small makes them vulnerable to the worst state of human life

The migration of people from rural areas to urban areas has been a popular issue in development and policy discourses, it is a crucial indicator of any country’s economic development. In India, the informal sector employs close to 450 million, yet these people are deprived of any social security. Almost every government scheme is targeted towards the upliftment of these people and provide them access to a dignified life. However, these people barely got an opportunity to exercise their human rights leave alone a life of dignity. I have often wondered why we are unable to give these people the respect and dignity that they deserve as humans and why every problem big or small makes them vulnerable to the worst state of human life. They were being denied everything, health facilities, banking facilities, education, and even a basic meal, and yet these are the people who slog day and night away from their homes and families to just  survive which many of us have been made to believe is possible for Rs 500 a month.

The sad part is that these people have already been forgotten, the taxi driver, the security guard, the  electrician, the plumber, all have been replaced by new faces and life has moved on, and who has the time to think about those old faces, living without whom was so difficult a few months ago, poverty has no face, as they say, wealth has so why even bother?

If we can put cooking videos on Instagram could we not commit to adopting one person during these times and talk about building social capital to make India great?

It is these times when these people are just thrown in the hands of fate, with no social security, health benefits, or livelihood, they are not thought for by any of us. Those who kicked these people out  of jobs will hire new people in better times but what about the lives of these citizens, what will they eat, how will their children go to school, are those Rs 600 in their Jan Dhan accounts enough?  Is that  all we owe them,  and if the government could not do enough, why did we fail, why did the community fail? Were these 10 million people too much for a country of 1.38 billion? If we can put cooking videos on  Instagram could  we not commit to adopting one person during these times and talk about building social capital to make India great? Has something died in us and we are so blinded by the progress that we do not stop to look at these people, they who keep the wheels of progressive India running?

Image above from i-stock: Dehradun, Uttarakhand/India- August 01 2020: Migrant people returning to their home from different states due to corona virus situation.

For development professionals like me, the past year has been a year of contemplation and realization that even after years of labour towards ‘uplifting’ these people, we did fail to acknowledge the troubles and tribulations of a large part of our population who were already vulnerable, even during ‘normal’ times. In these times of distress and trepidation about the near future, I see hope and determination to embrace my  misgivings about the concept of  development and I am resolute to do better, build back better and work towards building capabilities and creating opportunities for all, because no one knows what the future beholds,  but never again I would like to see any person as defenseless, exposed and irrelevant as these migrant workers appeared to be at a time when the world stood together in solidarity……and this was just in India, there are many such stories in the world, some told many untold and many already lost into oblivion.


This is one a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2020-2021 Spring Term.

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