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Systems and Solutions to the Migrant Labour Crisis

August 6, 2020 | Expert Insights

The size of the informal or unorganised workforce in India is staggering; a population almost the size of France migrates from one state to another within India, with a large section that migrates and returns annually, in search of seasonal work and daily wages.

While there are no exact figures data provided by Prof Amitabh Kundu of Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries, estimates that there are about 65 million inter-State migrants in India. Of that 30 percent are labourers, and of those labourers, 30 percent are casual labourers.

A study conducted by the Azim Premji University concluded that 29 percent of the population of big Indian cities are predominantly interstate and intrastate migrants. For instance, a typical Indian metro with a population of 80 to 100 million would have up to 30 million of such migrant workers.

When India announced a sudden and strict lockdown to counter the COVID 19 spread, it is these teeming millions who were exposed, caught between the devil and deep, far from the safety net of their rural homesteads amidst the uncaring urban chaos. TV images beaming visuals of their pathetic journeys across the baking hot Indian plains, on foot, cycles and an assortment of modes of transport, gave an indication of their size and the unsung service they perform behind the façade of a rising India.

While this unorganised or informal sector of the economy plays a major role in the agriculture, transport, reality and warehousing industries, their presence is critical in other sectors too. Changing demographics and uneven pace of growth in the country over the last three decades has triggered these migrations, resulting in a chaotic situation which accords almost zero social security cover to these workers, unlike their counterparts in the organised or the formal sector.

In a disposition by the Government of India before the Hon’ble Supreme Court, it was revealed that around 57.72 lakh (5.7 million) migrant labourers were involved in this abrupt migration spurred by the lockdown. However, it is suspected that the actual numbers are much higher as recording keeping was poor.


Daily wagers can be broadly divided into two categories; the intrastate and the interstate migrants. While the former manage to get better access to resources of their home state, it is the latter who are left to fend for themselves with no social security cover of any kind, neither food from the public distribution system nor access to other social schemes run by the state.

A research study by Alpa Shah of London School of Economic and Jens Lerch of the University of London estimates that Adivasis and Dalits, who form the lower socio-economic strata, from States like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh amount to around 40 percent of the seasonal migrant workforce. States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal too contribute to the migrant labour force. These states could be broadly classified as ‘Sender’ states. The destination is industrially developed States in south India, Maharashtra, and bustling cities like New Delhi and they can be termed ‘receiver’ states. Agriculturally rich states like Punjab are also heavily dependent upon these migrants for the sowing and harvesting.

While such studies reiterate a common notion of ‘Sender’ or ‘Receiver’ States, they reveal little more. The need is for an exhaustive exercise to collate detailed data of every migrant worker and his or her family. And, then formulate targeted solutions for diverse segments, like State-specific, industry-specific remedies.


To understand the magnitude of the problem, precise data of their numbers and movements is critical. The government in consultation with the sender and the recipient states have to set in place processes to register and track this workforce.

A large scale, "mobile-based survey could generate good ideas about the post lockdown recovery from both the employer and migrant" point of view, suggests Mr Sanjay Mitra, a former secretary to the Government of India.

Migration by itself is economically beneficial to the country as it leads to the distribution of cheap labour from labour-surplus areas to labour-deficient ones, thus boosting employment while keeping input costs low. Mr. Mitra suggests that targeted measures should look at “protection for migrants” and not try to mitigate migration itself, which he feels is the result of a “functioning economic model where resources move where demand and returns are higher”.

Mr. Mitra feels that "trust deficit" would have hurt the migrants and that post lockdown effects will be "temporary". However, there is a need to assess the recovery process through precise information and ensure that the lessons from the crisis that followed the lockdown lead to systematic solutions.

A "universal ration" card could enhance social protection for migrants; he points out. The concept of 'one nation one ration’ is one solution for providing social security for migrating, lower economic strata of the population in terms of subsidised food and health care.

In fact, aligning ration card to the nearest ration stores could also enhance data gathering to reveal the real-time geographic spread of migrants and help to target the delivery of relief, subsidies, and assistance to them in a crisis.


There is a counterview that such massive movement of populations from rural to urban centres on a regular basis does not give much credit to the stability of such an economic model and needs a deeper analysis.

Mr E.S.L.Narasimhan, former Governor of Telangana and Former Director of the Intelligence Bureau, says “It’s time we look at the underlying cause” and adds that “We need to see how industrial growth specific to an area is to be identified and made into a hub of activity for the rural populace”.

Mr. Narasimhan suggests that like smart cities, we could look at “smart rural regions” as a possible solution and proposes to “semi urbanises rural areas, so wealth spreads evenly.” However, this would require an accompanying push for education and other infrastructure in rural areas.

There are compelling arguments for a social net for the migrant labour, including a national urban employment guarantee programme, on the lines of NREGA, and an economic focus to contain massive migration. Without a concerted effort, the situation will only deteriorate, even without a pandemic.


Each state has a unique demography, and a ‘sender’ state is in the best position to understand the needs of its population. However, the ‘receiver’ state is better placed to track the number of migrants with their exact locations. It would be morally binding on the receiver state, which is reaping the economic benefits of this cheap labour, to cater to their social needs too.

The centre at best could act as a regulator by ensuring laws safeguarding the rights of the migrant labour are enacted and acted upon. Mr. Mitra warns that a "centralised intervention would be disastrous" and argues that the break was a result of the pandemic and the system did not crash on its own.


In a post lockdown economy, measures have to be put in place to facilitate the return of the millions of migrant workers so that the wheels of the economy start turning soonest.

According to Roshin Mathew, Executive Director and President Engineering at Brigade Enterprises, Bangalore “the labour situation today is at around 55 per cent of what it was before the lockdown. It was at around 32 percent on the day lockdown was lifted”.

Amidst restrictions on road and train travel, it is an ordeal for interstate workers to return to their job sites. While easing interstate movement may restore some labour flow, there needs to be long term systems and solutions. Mr. Mathew points out that key learning for the industry was that the need for migrant labour was “very evident” and the receiver state must treat its “guest” labours at par with the locals.

As a long-term solution from the industry, Mr. Mathew proposes the following measures: A registry of migrant workers, transfer of wages online so that there is an electronic trail, on-site housing for labour before large projects receive clearances like in the Gulf along with ancillary services like medical and counselling and lastly dedicated special trains to facilitate mass movements.

Author: T.M. Veeraraghav, Consulting Editor, Synergia Foundation