Covid-19 Pandemic, Interstate Migrant Labour and Public Health: Policy Responses in India

von Saumya Tewari, 14.04.2022

Portability of welfare benefits, employment opportunities, labour laws, food and shelter, healthcare, transport and travel; these are some of the basic necessities that interstate migrant workers in India face deprivation from. Interstate migrants in India can be generally defined as those unorganized workers who temporarily move to another region or state in search of economic opportunities, based on academic and public policy literature.

Hasty lockdowns had to be imposed during the first wave of the Covid-19 virus in March 2020. Access to these basics became even tougher for those who got stranded in their work destination states.

Transport services, both public and private, were not functional during the lockdown. Many were left with no option but to walk back to their home states. Media reports of this exodus brought the “human condition” of the migrants to the public realm. The exodus was compared to the mass movement during the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan at independence too. 

Table 1 below shows the main events of the first-wave lockdown in India.

Table 1

Events of the Covid-19 Related Lockdowns During the First Wave in India: The Uncalculated Lockdowns

National Lockdown Announcement

(March 24, 2020)

Resultant orders regarding borders, transport, healthcare from centre and states

(March-April, 2020)


Reports of stranded migrant workers

(Mid-April, 2020)


Shramik Special Trains; Policy announcements for welfare, livelihoods- Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Package

(May-June, 2020)

Jobs under MGNREGA, PMGKRA in home states  for returning migrants

(June-October, 2020)

Stories of migrants heading to destination states for work

(October, 2020)

Economic activity shrank abruptly and considerably during the first wave lockdowns. The policy challenge for the stranded interstate migrant workers was not just limited to providing food, shelter and healthcare. There was also a need to create opportunities, in their home states too, and rescue them from job losses. As the policy initiatives fell short, the judiciary had to step in. Guidelines to ensure the welfare of interstate migrant workers were issued by the Supreme Court of India. During the first wave lockdowns, there were also scattered instances of private philanthropy that reported some rescue modes for the migrants.During the first wave of the Covid-19 virus spread in India, uncalculated lockdowns were imposed. “Uncalculated” because there was a shortage of government data on temporary migration between states of India and their economic networks. The federal structure of welfare distribution had no scope for portability of benefits across home states and destination states for this group of people. Therefore, quick and efficient policy responses could not be implemented.

“Migration in India 2007-08” by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) is the last estimate done by the Government of India. This survey covered household migration, short-term migration, remittances and economic activities that migrants take up. Another important source of migration statistics is the census of India. The census records movement of individuals/ households, duration of stay in destination region, interstate, intrastate and rural-urban trends and reasons for migration.

It was by the budget session of the parliament in February 2021 that the government was able to present estimates of migrant workers who returned to their home states during 2020 lockdowns. This figure was 11.4 million, laid before the house by the labour ministry. The government could not estimate deaths among these migrant workers as well. When questioned in the parliament, general data on fatalities in road accidents from March to June 2020 was cited. After much public debate, a new database to keep record of migrant workers was proposed in December 2020. By August-end, 2021 a national portal e-Shram (translation: e-labour) has been launched, to register migration and unorganized work.

The federal structure impacted the policy responses towards the interstate migrant workers’ crisis during the Covid-19 related lockdowns. Policy responses that emerged in this situation during the lockdowns help explore the changing overtones in the centre-state relations in India. The federal scope for policy-making areas that impacted migrant workers and the level of government implementing them is determined by the seventh schedule in the Constitution of India. A multilevel policy response web developed during the first wave lockdown; and continued to keep improvising policy responses into the second wave in the following year.

The governments- both at the central and state levels struggled to manage policies related to the migrant workers, only to face a more severe crisis in the coming months of the year. Partial restrictions on travel and lack of availability of both public and private means of transport still prevailed. By January 2021, the government of India had started the vaccination programme for frontline workers and over the coming months, for the rest of the population, prioritizing older cohorts.

Policy reforms on portability of welfare across states, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS) food grains access, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act (MGNREGA) were still being discussed at various policy stakeholder levels. Implementation of the One Nation One Ration Card scheme (originally announced in 2019) was expedited in July 2020 with a deadline for January 2021. Later judicial interventions were required to push the state governments to implement the scheme by July 2021, a further six month delay.

The NITI Aayog, Government of India’s policy think tank, in partnership with the labour ministry and civil society organisations, began consultations with stakeholders from grassroots. A subgroup on migrant workers was formed in February 2021. The ministry of labour also announced the establishment of the National Commission for Migrant Labour. In the following month to this announcement, the ministry also declared to hold an all-India survey on migrant workers.

Table 2

Events of the Covid-19 Related Lockdowns During the First Wave in India: The Indifferent Lockdowns

News of the Second Wave

(March, 2021)

Migrant workers started returning home; fearing second, more stringent lockdown

(March, 2021)

State governments responsible for lockdown announcements, based on need; request migrants to not rush

(March, 2021)

Assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu & Kerala

(March-April, 2021)

Breakdown of healthcare facilities, oxygen supply shortage, cremation grounds; questionable records of data on illness and deaths

(April-May, 2021)

Judicial initiatives, activism and voluntary sector’s interventions; demand for quick implementation of  interstate portability of welfare

(May, 2021)

As news reports about the speculation of a second wave of Covid-19 infections surfaced, the migrant workers who had returned to their old jobs began to panic. But the governments- both central and states- knew better than to impose another round of uncalculated lockdowns. The restrictions imposed during the second wave were not as stringent as the first wave in 2020, as per the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker’s Stringency Index. The central government, this time, left it upon the states to impose restrictions as per need.The second wave led to further marginalization of the workers. Lockdowns and welfare in this wave were indifferent towards the migrant workers. Interventions from the judiciary and the voluntary sector played an important part in the multilevel policy responses for the migrant workers who were left in distress, without livelihood, food or shelter.

The central government and state governments with a high in-migrant population released requests for migrants to not leave. Simultaneously, some state legislatures were due for fresh elections. Both national and state political parties contesting the elections conducted public gatherings to mobilize the electorate. The push for political agenda from both the central and state governments was omnipresent; ignoring the spread of the virus.

Regions of India reported shortages of ambulances, hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines and equipment as the second wave surged. Some states expressed displeasure over the central government’s vaccination distribution scheme, calling it non-transparent. The central government issued an explanation stating that the distribution was done on the basis of population, reported cases, dose administering capacity and accounting for wastages in states. Cremation and burial grounds were working beyond capacity, with rising deaths. The conditions from the crematorium grounds also contested the official data on the number of illnesses and deaths during the second wave.

The Omicron wave rose in January 2022 and migrant workers again recalling the previous two waves and the socio-economic consequences they had to endure. Though the wave did not prove to be as devastating as the delta wave, the policy support for interstate migrant workers still needs to pick up pace. States and the central government need more coordinated policy focus. The NITI Aayog’s final policy guidelines, after detailed consultations, are also still in the pipeline.

A centralized command for lockdown failed in accommodating the needs of those who did not ‘belong’ in the first wave. But for the judicial interventions and civil society initiatives, the second wave multilevel policy continued to be indifferent towards the conditions of the migrants. The crisis brought the conditions of interstate migrant workers and the unorganized sector to the public realm. It is essential to keep this discourse active so that the multilevel institutional web works towards making them inclusive for migrants and the unorganized workforce.

Commentators on Indian federalism have in their recent works have mainly focussed on fiscal relations or constitutional design. Politically, “ethnofederalism” and challenges to the multinational federalism under the recent nationalist narratives are the trends captured in the literature on Indian federalism. Devolution and decentralization; competitive and cooperative federalism have been the keywords from the political campaigns in recent times as well. Though, sharing of power at all levels is still a question of governance capacity and will of the stakeholders.

The present nature of Indian federalism, in the context of the migrant crisis presents an urgent question to ponder upon. On the one hand, the political narratives speak of “one-nation”, cooperative federalism and the union government has been exercising a centralized command. And this has been a major concern for critics because it invokes a controlled, agenda-driven impact on India’s federalism trends. On the other side of the “one-nation” narrative, a centralized command for lockdowns failed in accommodating the needs of those who did not ‘belong’. The centre and the states had disagreements over the implementation of the lockdowns too and there have been some instances where the states were able to find solutions to tackle the crises they faced. However, there were little immediate policy initiatives to support the migrants in the destination states.

Whether the policy initiatives towards portability of social welfare across states of India will prove to be inclusive for migrant workers or not, only the future will reveal. Among the deadliest pandemics in recorded history, the Black Death or the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century has been known to have claimed the maximum lives. Comparative observations by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their 2012 book “Why Nations Fail” have shown how extractive as well as inclusive institutions were created after this pandemic in different nations of Europe, depending upon the political conditions in different regions. As evident from this, such critical junctures can end extractive institutions and help inclusive ones emerge or can lead to more exploitative ones.

The pandemic proved to be more exploitative for the marginalized, this juncture calls for rethinking discourses on migration for economic opportunities in Indian context. The mobility crisis that the migrant workers faced under the first lockdown opened up a public space for discourses on their conditions. A temporary migrant at the destination city or state works as a mere tool, labouring to make an income. Often treated as outsiders in destination states due to cultural and linguistic differences, they may also face other forms of socio-economic deprivation like access to housing, public welfare and even voting rights. The need for portability of social welfare across district and state boundaries was well articulated in the instances of exclusion that were reported during the pandemic. It is essential to keep this discourse active so that the multilevel institutional web works towards making them inclusive for migrants.

The stories of migrant workers’ struggles with the multilevel web of policies highlight how the federal administration failed to deliver at a time of need. There were two lessons from India’s federalism in the pandemic crisis. The first one, as discussed at this start of the article, is to improve data quality on interstate migration. And the approach to data research on migration must consider identities and socio-economic development as important variables. The second lesson is the need to focus on “states as laboratories”. While it may not be wise to expect a big bang change in the condition of the interstate migrant workforce, there is need for a model that can show the path for future policy. Such a model will have to emerge from a multilevel policy network as there have been instances of delivery of other social welfare services in different regions. Initiatives such as the One Nation, One Ration Card scheme, the E-shram Portal and civil society consultations with NITI Aayog’s group have been some examples of policy measures in this direction.


*The author would like to thank her mentor, Prof Balveer Arora, PhD (Sciences Po-Paris I) who is the Chairman, CMF Institute of Social Sciences.  This blog piece is a follow-up of an earlier demi-paper, describing the first wave of the Covid-19 surge in India, contributed to the CMF’s online publication, Indian Federalism Perspectives. The country report on India is also based on the online presentation of the same title on 29th October, 2021 at Breakout Session, “Federalism and the COVID-19-Crisis”, during the 2021- IACFS Conference.






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Saumya TewariSaumya Tewari holds a PhD in Development Studies from TISS, Mumbai. She is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Multilevel Federalism (CMF), Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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