The ‘Turmoil’ of Internal Migration in India during the Covid-19

The ‘Turmoil’ of Internal Migration in India during the Covid-19

Article by Dr. Poonam Sharma


While the world gets enveloped by the menacing shadow of the Covid-19, India as a nation is also struggling to prevent itself from the impact of the new coronavirus. This article highlights the ‘turmoil’ of internal migration that erupted in India after a three-week-long nationwide lockdown was implemented by the Indian government. A nationwide lockdown attempted to contain the spreading of the virus turned into a mass exodus of labor migrants driven by economic reasons. According to the census of 2011, it is estimated that approximately 22 percent of India’s population lives in poverty. This article emphasizes the situation during lockdown when hundreds and thousands of labor migrants journeyed from the cities to their hometowns barefooted. These migrants struggle to comply with the preventive measures like ‘social distancing’ and ‘quarantine’ because they are faced with greater problems of earning ‘food’ and ‘shelter’ for their families. The mass movement of migrants brought to light a crucial question of how these people were overlooked and forgotten by the policymakers before the implementation of the lockdown. While India is trying its best to cope with these uncertain times, the story of the vulnerable migrants reflects the harsh realities of the world.

Keywords: migration, Covid-19, India, labor migrants, lockdown
Header image “World Class Traffic Jam” by joiseyshowaa is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The world persisted in its normal rhythm until the deadly coronavirus was discovered towards the end of December 2019. By May 2020, almost the whole world had become enveloped by the menacing shadow of a new strain of the novel coronavirus. A highly contagious coronavirus;  termed as the Covid-19, was reported to have broken out from the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province of China, which was later declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020. The new virus became the most discussed topic around the world in the blink of an eye. Within a few months, apart from China, the Covid19 seized major parts of the globe,  including India and the Middle East in Asia, Italy, and Spain in Europe, and the United States and Canada in the Americas. Suddenly and unexpectedly evolved a situation of fear and turmoil which was unseen in years; words like ‘quarantine’ and ‘lockdown’ instantaneously became the most regularly used phrases in everyone’s life. By April 2020, one-third of the world came to a standstill, many countries called for complete lockdowns as strict measures to prevent the spreading of this virus. And, in October second waves of infections began to spread in European countries. 

In India, the first case of the Covid-19 was reported at the end of January 2020. The number of infected cases in the country remained substantially low compared to most other nations until the first week of March when it began to increase significantly afterward. While the initial numbers of infected cases were considerably low in comparison with the massive population of the nation (1.35 billion), the adoption of measures to contain further spread of the disease was expected and necessary. Therefore, the Indian government did not delay taking required measures, and on 24 March 2020, a three-week lockdown was announced in an official address to the nation.

In his statement, Ramanan Laxminarayan, founder and director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, a public health research organization, said: “India is probably the first large developing country and democracy into which this pandemic will arrive and there will have to be a uniquely Indian response to Covid19” (Chandrashekhar, 2020). India’s decision for a nationwide strict lockdown was applauded and supported by its population as well as international audiences. However, to a nation of 1.35 billion people; a complete shutdown of the economy was not simple. According to the census of 2011, it is estimated that approximately 22 percent of India’s population lives in poverty (Mahapatra, 2019). While the country came to a standstill, those that were hit the hardest and were most severely affected were the poor labor class and the economically vulnerable groups. These were the people who relied on daily wages for their economic sustainability. What followed was a debate and discussion on the impact of this lockdown on the socio-economic sector of the country; some blamed while others supported the move of a nationwide lockdown. Although these extreme measures appeared necessary to restrict the coronavirus from killing millions of people, the sudden lockdown jeopardized the lives of the migrant workers and their families. An immediate lockdown in a country where a large part of its population was trying to survive in vulnerable conditions looked like a nightmare to millions of people. As part of the economic responsibility, the Indian government also announced an economic package of 23 billion US Dollars to support the poor with their daily meals.

In India, there has been large-scale rural-to-urban migration in response to the demand for menial jobs in cities and sub-cities. The uneducated and unskilled laborers migrate in clusters seeking jobs as construction workers, domestic servants, security guards, watchmen, chauffeurs, waiters and waitresses, delivery people, plumbers, construction workers, and so on. Thus, internal migration takes place to fulfill virtually every aspect of the socio-economic sphere.

The sudden lockdown turned thousands of workers jobless and financially unstable menial labor category of the population dwelling in cities of India became homeless in a matter of a night. Also known as the informal working class, this category of workers can be regarded as the backbone of the Indian economy. In 2017, the Economic Survey of India estimated that approximately 9 million inter-state migration took place between 2011-2016. A large section of migration consists of daily wage workers, who became most vulnerable due to the lockdown. The BBC News on March 30, 2020, reported that around 100 million menial migrant workers reside in poor living conditions in the slum-like areas in the cities. The lockdown and the loss of jobs leading to an ultimate halt in daily wages as their sole income source has been terminated.

Thereafter, what erupted was a mass inter-state migration of labor migrant workers from urban cities to remote rural areas of India. Left with no other alternative and faced with hunger, tiredness, and uncertainty of their future, these migrants were forced to go back to their native hometowns. The migrant workers started walking hundreds of miles, which, within hours, became a piece of news both nationally and internationally. “We are doomed, and if we don’t die of this disease, we’ll die of hunger”, said Chandra Mohan, a 24-year-old plumber who worked in the suburbs of New Delhi. He and many of his friends started their journey on foot towards the eastern state of Bihar which is around 910 kilometers away. Even more, there was news of hundreds of instances of vulnerable migrants and their families who collapsed on their journeys. A 39-year-old migrant worker, while returning from New Delhi to his village in the state of Madhya Pradesh, collapsed and died on the way due to over-exhaustion and heart failure after walking around 200 kilometers. Several other people died in road accidents caused by heavily loaded vehicles while walking on the freeways. Also, a large number of migrants were turned back and held by the police at state borders to avoid the possibility of spreading the virus amid growing chaos.

While the Indian government continued to promote and inform the public to maintain the necessary measures like wearing masks, hand sanitizing, social distancing, and home quarantine, the mass migration of people heading back to their families in villages looked uncontrollable. In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) administered an advisory with measures to control the turmoil of these migrants. It stated that the migrants and those who are stranded and homeless due to the lockdown situation would be provided with basic amenities and medical care. The government officials on various levels also tried to convince the migrants to stay in the government-assigned shelter homes and halt their journeys amid the ongoing pandemic to avoid risking their lives and most importantly to avoid the risk of larger community transmission.


Broken-Landscape-Still” by Environmental Change and Security Program is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

Regardless of all the adopted measures, the Covid-19 has markedly impacted the nation, which was apparent when the number of infections continued to surge even after a month-long nationwide lockdown. Therefore, the government had to extend the lockdown but allowed considerable relaxation for the public and some local businesses. To implement the relaxations, districts and areas were divided into red, orange, and green zones based on the place’s reported number of infected cases. Despite the efforts, India got listed as one of the majorly infected countries in the world. On 13 November 2020, the world meter (a platform that tracked the coronavirus cases around the world) recorded total infected cases in the country to be 8,727,900. By this time India is the second country after the United States. In India, the pandemic accelerated after the lockdown, and the movement of migrants worsened the situation. Meanwhile, thousands of labor migrants who have attempted to reach their native villages in groups and denied to abide by social distancing and precautionary measures have got infected and caused several cluster infections.

Faced with complications from the “reverse migration” (i.e., urban-rural) amid a crisis-like situation, the Indian central government based in New Delhi, working in collaboration with the state governments, decided to move the migrants to their native states/districts. The Indian government prepared its best with measures to combat the virus but the sudden internal migration of thousands of workers brought a tough challenge at a time when a deadly pandemic had overwhelmed some of the best healthcare systems in the world. Later it was announced that the movements of people (workers) who were stranded and looking to reunite with their families would be possible through their facilitation by the state governments. Respective state governments were assigned with the task of arranging for specially operated buses and trains to take the migrant laborers from the places they were stuck into their destinations. Additionally, it was announced that measures such as health screening both before and after the travel and a two-week-long quarantine upon reaching the destination would be mandatory. The government quarantined its people by employing schools, council buildings, and other vacant spaces as quarantine centers. However, news of people fleeing the quarantine camps and hospitals were repeatedly reported by the media. It is when infected patients ran out of hospitals and became spreaders in crowded places that led to larger cluster infections.

On May 15, 2020, Barkha Dutt called the situation a ‘humanitarian crisis’(Dutt, 2020). She added that the continuing of the nation-wide lockdown will worsen the situation of the already panicked and economically devastated migrant workers in the country. These migrants struggle to comply with the preventive measures like ‘social distancing’ and ‘quarantine’ because they are faced with greater problems of earning ‘food’ and ‘shelter’ for their families. It got highlighted that state governments failed to efficiently handle the security of these migrants. The mass movement of migrants brought to light a crucial question of how these poor were overlooked and forgotten by the policymakers before the implementation of the lockdown. The ‘humanitarian’ question in light of the vulnerability of these migrants in India has created a loud hue and cry on the ground and through the media. With the measures of Covid-19 in India, started a distressing journey of migrants that has suddenly emerged as an unattended subject amid all the urbanization and development in the past.

The international and national audiences including the civil society began questioning the government’s decision of a sudden lockdown without considering the situation of these millions of migrants. It is the mismanagement of the lockdown that has highlighted the dark and harrowing realities of seasonal migration to the urban hubs in India. On April 01, 2010, it was mentioned in the Diplomat: that state policies for inter-state migrants were unconcerned and discriminatory. 

The pandemic and the subsequent measures have left innumerable migrants jobless, distressed, poor, and helpless. While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to haunt the world there is a parallel saddening plight ongoing along with it, i.e. the story of the labor migrants. It has also highlighted the inner overshadowed conflict that exists between the labor migrants and the state. While India as a nation has been trying its best to assist its migrants, over-population and poverty have played as the major drawbacks in this plight.

After several months of struggling with the pandemic, commercial operations have slowly begun to operate in some sectors of the economy. In India, the pandemic is predicted to bring major setbacks in business operations. Since, the majority of the internal migrants have moved back to their native villages, resuming work in the urban centers has countered a setback. Countless businesses including small, medium and large-scale industries rely on domestic migrant workers. Thus, I would like to point out that reverse migration will highly impact the manufacturing and construction industries relying on migrant workers and will be faced by labor shortages and high production cost margin. Moreover, I would signify that internal migration in India in the post-pandemic era will be directed by factors other than the ‘money’ factor. For instance, the migrants will consider their experience of the treatments they have received during the lockdown and the troubles they have faced in their journeys towards home. 

While the world together struggles to fight the global pandemic, India has also tried its best to cope with these uncertain times. After almost a year of its detection, the pandemic is still an ongoing reality. While the world eagerly waits for this pandemic to subside with the help of vaccination, the economic stability is expected to hit a rock bottom like never before. Lastly, the turmoil of internal migration, the deaths, and harrowing stories of the migrants in India has showcased the never-ending battles of migrant laborers and jeopardizing conditions of vulnerable communities in the world.


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