Migrant people in Dehradu-Uttarakhand/India

What India’s COVID-19 Lockdown Revealed about Migrant Protection

As we approach International Migrants Day, observed each year on December 18 to mark the contributions and struggles of the world’s 272 million migrants, we examine the dramatic impacts that the COVID-19 crisis has had on migrants in India.

For the roughly 100 million internal and cross-border migrants living in India, COVID-19 has been a catastrophe that exposed the weaknesses of the laws and policies meant to protect them. On March 25, the Indian government launched a full national lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. With just four hours’ notice, all trains, buses, and taxis were halted, and 1.3 billion citizens and residents were ordered to stay home. But the swift implementation of the lockdown failed to account for the socioeconomic circumstances of most people in India, where 95 percent of the workforce is informal, with little or no social protection, and where many people live in conditions where social distancing is impossible.



Migrant workers in India’s cities found themselves in particularly dire circumstances. They were among the first to lose their jobs as businesses were shuttered, and most did not have enough savings to sustain themselves for the three-week lockdown period — subsequently extended three times. Construction workers and others who lived and ate at their worksites found themselves without food or shelter as lockdowns began. Migrants suddenly faced a choice: remain in the city and rely on authorities to meet their basic needs, or undertake a long and arduous journey home, risking arrest for violating the lockdown and the chance of contracting the virus en route. Some 30 million people — internal migrants and cross-border migrants from Nepal — began walking home, facing hundreds of miles on foot without sufficient food or water.

Migrants suddenly faced a choice: remain in the city and rely on authorities to meet their basic needs, or undertake a long and arduous journey home, risking arrest for violating the lockdown and the chance of contracting the virus en route.

The following day, the government of India announced a US$22 billion stimulus package to cushion the economy and mitigate the pandemic’s impact on the poor and vulnerable, including migrant workers. It included food aid, direct cash transfers, and livelihood support and was built upon 12 existing social protection schemes, including the Public Distribution System, which provides food subsidies to Indians below the poverty line. But poor urban households were inadequately covered by the stimulus, and unorganized workers were excluded, leaving millions of migrants and informal sector employees without emergency support. 

The crisis that emerged has revealed the extent to which laws and policies to protect migrants have failed to do so given uneven implementation and lack of oversight. For instance, India’s Inter State Migrant Workmen Act (1979) requires that migrants be documented and registered in their destination states and provides for benefits including equal wages, displacement allowances, accommodation, and access to medical facilities. Poor implementation and enforcement, however, meant that government relief provided through migrants’ registration cards failed to reach 94 percent of migrant construction workers. The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008 obligates state governments to create a provident fund and provide injury benefits, skills training, and other benefits for unorganized workers, but more than a decade later, the government has not yet assigned the identification numbers required by the Act. 

For Nepali migrants in India, access to services and relief was even more difficult. Nepalis are legally allowed to work in India and can avail themselves of nearly all the privileges of Indian citizens. However, even before the pandemic, migrants from Nepal faced a range of barriers to accessing food aid and healthcare, including lack of the biometric Aadhaar card, lack of insurance, low wages, unsupportive employers, discrimination, and confusion about where to find services. During the COVID-19 crisis, these barriers were exacerbated by the stigmatization of migrants, whom some viewed as potential carriers of the virus. The physical and mental stress of the journey home was also compounded for Nepalis, who had farther to travel and who were detained for weeks at the India-Nepal border before being shuttled to quarantine facilities in Nepal. Some of these facilities were substandard, and safety and protection issues arose, including overcrowding that led to COVID-19 transmission. Moreover, the number of returnees was much higher than expected — reaching 750,000 by early June — and many quarantine centers quickly reached capacity.

A major challenge in the government of Nepal’s efforts to support returnees and contain the virus was a lack of data on the number of Nepali migrants in India. While the government has set up strong legal frameworks to support overseas migration — including training, insurance, and mechanisms to redress migrant grievances — Nepalis crossing the border to work in India are not included in this framework and are not considered “migrants” under the law. As a result, they are not counted, and they lack the protections that overseas migrants enjoy, including employment-generation schemes and programs for returnees. This vulnerability is compounded by the fact that the Nepal-India corridor is primarily used by Nepalis of lower socioeconomic status, many of whom migrate seasonally to work in low-skilled jobs in India’s informal economy. The families of these migrants are highly dependent on remittances, spending 85 percent of these funds on daily consumption. With migrant families now reeling from the loss of income and remittances, and without access to programs for returning migrants, many Nepalis are already returning to work in India, even though the border is yet to officially reopen.

Despite the public outcry at the tragedy of millions of desperate migrants walking home in March, the Indian government has now shifted its focus to rebuilding the battered economy, including by weakening labor protections. Workdays have been increased from 8 to 12 hours, wages have been reduced, and curbs have been placed on workers’ power to negotiate. Widespread discontent at these measures has triggered protests among trade unions and workers’ advocates, as migrants have been rendered even more vulnerable than when lockdowns began. 

By ensuring that migrants are registered and included in existing protection schemes, the governments of Nepal and India can improve their own capacity to deliver targeted assistance in times of need, while strengthening migrants’ ability to weather future shocks.

What can these two countries do to better protect their migrant workers? One step would be comprehensive registration. In India, the pandemic has revealed how migrants fall through the cracks of the country’s social and labor protections, in part because they are not properly registered. Appropriate registration of all eligible residents of India — ideally through a nationwide system such as the Aadhaar card — would improve migrants’ access to benefits and strengthen their resilience to future shocks. 

Nepal must pay greater attention to the Nepal-India migration corridor, which accounts for 40 percent of Nepal’s international migrants. Systematic data should be collected on the number and profile of Nepalis migrating to India for work, so that government programs can be directed toward these workers and funds can be allocated. These migrants should be officially recognized as “migrants,” registered, and given access to the protections that Nepali overseas migrants enjoy. 

By ensuring that migrants are registered and included in existing protection schemes, the governments of Nepal and India can improve their own capacity to deliver targeted assistance in times of need, while strengthening migrants’ ability to weather future shocks.

Photo: Migrant people in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India coming from different states due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (iStock)

Author

  • Ellen Boccuzzi, Ph.D. is a consultant to bilateral and multilateral development organizations. She can be reached at ellen.boccuzzi@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author.