Migrant workers in India face lockdown

July 1, 2020

From the July-August 2020 issue of News & Letters

India—Labor in general, migrant workers and daily wage earners in particular, are vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19. Worldwide they are over-represented among the homeless. In India, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are desperately trying to return to their hometowns, battling hunger and scorching heat. “India is walking home,” headlined The Indian Express.

India is currently in its fourth nationwide lockdown—Lockdown 4.0. According to the The Indian Express of May 20, more than 4.8 million people globally had been infected, while over 318,000 deaths had been reported. [By press time, these numbers nearly doubled.] The positive rate for migrant workers which the state tested is about 8%—double the national average.


According to the May 22 The Hindu, the huge number of migrant workers returning to Uttar Pradesh during lockdown caused a rise in positive cases. The Health Department said then that so far 1,230 migrant workers who had returned to Uttar Pradesh had tested positive. In other states the number of people testing positive had gone up because of the return of migrant workers.

The government had promised them two meals a day, but lines are long and food insufficient. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a package of 1.7 trillion rupees aimed at helping the poor. Some returning migrants have been forced to sleep in trees because of overcrowded family homes and they don’t have separate rooms to self-quarantine.

“Social distancing” for migrant workers and daily wage earners is not supported and they do not have access to the basic necessities of life. Migrant workers don’t have basic handwashing facilities. They are dying with hunger on the roads. The government should have arranged transportation for the vulnerable and supplied mobile medical facilities, including hygiene, food and water. Whenever economic crises occur, migrant workers often face the biggest losses.


The concept of “crisis as context” connects with Walter Benjamin’s rejoinder to traditional Marxism in his essay “The Concept of History.” Benjamin’s point is that the “present” of the oppressed is never an “exception” that is disconnected from his social past. Analogously, the current state of exception facing the migrant workers in India is barely an exception. Rather, it is temporally connected to—i.e., forming a “tradition” of—multiple and ever deepening fractures of lived spaces, histories, and livelihoods in their everyday existence.

Many questions need to be answered regarding migrants during the COVID-19 outbreak. What steps is the government taking to manage their health during the pandemic? It is shameful to note that the “Vande bharat” [an express train], could do nothing for migrant workers as they struggled on foot to reach home.


During the lockdown, migrant women gave birth on the roadside, rested for two hours and then started the journey again. The police would not allow migrants to walk on roads, so they took to the railway tracks. This led to the accident near Aurangabad in Maharashtra on May 8 where 16 workers were killed by a train as they slept on the tracks.

Since then we’ve been seeing the realities of the thousands and thousands of migrant workers trying to reach their hometowns. The government should pay attention and look for better ways to help them.

—Nusrat Firdos

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