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Criminalising interstate migration: COVID-19 and the Indian informal sector


The Constitution of India protects the citizen’s right to move freely within the territory of the State. However, emergency provisions in place due to the pandemic have effectively made free movement temporarily illegal. Amidst forceful evictions, familial estrangement and an upward spiralling joblessness, migrant workers are being socially ostracised by both the urban and their own village communities, as well as the government, for crossing interstate borders to reach home – socially criminalising the migrant’s journey. At the same time, this large-scale immiseration of migrant labourers due to the lockdown has created a herculean dent in the political trust index.

We undertook 385 open-ended and structured interviews with migrant workers across New Delhi, a city that comes second in the country (after Mumbai, Maharashtra) in housing around 2 million migrant workers. Employing an ethnomethodological approach, this article aims to inform both public reason and formative aspects of government policies, to measure the extent of change in political attitudes in India that re-characterise interstate migration as socially criminal.

After Prime Minister Modi’s second address to the nation, Rajesh, from the Seohar district of Bihar, decided to leave for his hometown on his own. On being asked what propelled him to take such a decision – to walk with his family and friends for more than 1,000 km without any means of modern transportation – flouting central and state rules, Rajesh recalls the lack of money to survive in the capital city of New Delhi. He borrowed from his friends and relations as much as he could but finally a stage came when he realised that there was no one left to help him. Everyday survival became a challenging task for Rajesh. There was no hope left as their employers turned them away on loan or aid requests.

Sunita, who was domiciled in Katihaar, Bihar, said that she struggled with the decision to take the journey on her own, with a 4-year-old to be responsible for. As a mother and a migrant domestic worker in the city, she had no savings to continue paying the urban expenses; nor could she ask her employer to allow her to continue working as the employer’s family had children too and, as she recollects, it felt irresponsible to ask them to allow outsiders indoors amidst the pandemic.

Our respondents directed much of their frustration at political representatives. Another migrant worker, Moinuddin, from Muzaffarpur, Bihar said, ‘Politics serves only the rich, we barely figure for them. Politicians don’t care for us. We are like insects. Who mourns for mosquitoes?’

Through our research, we found the respondents placed stakeholders in varied positions (Fig. 1). The village communities were both afraid and angry at the returning migrants as they might have carried the virus with them, though personally families felt happier having their loved ones by their side amidst the uncertainty – notwithstanding the fact that the village economy was already facing the brunt of the existing job crisis. The government was seen as apathetic, and the workers themselves faced acute spatial precarity and a loss of the built environment. Meanwhile, urban civil society shared the respondents’ concern over the inaction but engaged only minimally, fearing contagion.


Figure 1: Stakeholders’ map. Each bubble represents one of the four identified stakeholders that we have broadly grouped through our research. Here we place them in a square map, allocating each of the four quads to the four experiences and attitudes relevant to our hypothesis, as induced by the pandemic.

During the initial weeks of the pandemic, the government stayed busy counselling the middle-classes and the elite about the lockdown, yet also failed at this. The government did not tackle the rising cases of violence against women, help the gerontological distress of people forced into isolation due to the lockdown, nor support children missing entire years of school.

However, migrant workers in the Indian informal sector suffered excruciatingly due to their huge numbers and the apathy towards them. The 1.7-trillion-rupee package announced by the Finance Minister in March 2020 was only skin deep, and its section involving life insurance packages for healthcare workers was later cancelled. Our survey found that during April 2020, around 95% of migrant worker respondents felt that the government’s policies did not address their misery. 

It was only when crowds started to emerge at the railway stations, bus stations and similar places, to return to their homes, that the government came under moral scrutiny and made negligible attempts to arrange for commutation facilities.

Salma Khatoon, a domestic helper from Begusarai, Bihar, said, ‘We were taking the trains like flocks of sheep. 30 hours without food or water, the last thing we could worry about was physical distancing or immediate medical aid. We were glad we got a corner to squeeze into, is all.’ 97 passengers died aboard the Shramik trains during the lockdown period, with many more deaths occurring on highways due to exhaustion, accidents and assaults.


In our survey (Fig. 2), less than 5% of workers felt that the government had generated enough awareness about the few policies which they eventually put forth to aid the situation; this number went up to 20% of workers later. More than 35% of our respondents, however, were hopeful about Priyanka Gandhi’s efforts to arrange for buses, but this hope was temporary. The percentage of workers who felt that their local or other political representatives showed much attention declines again later on in the graph.


Figure 2: The graph represents three indicators foundational to political trust, where the Y-axis represents the percentage of respondents and the X-axis represents the time-frame for research, beginning April 2020 to January 2021. Each knot marks the 15th of the month surveyed employing the repetition method


The quarantine homes in Bihar were dismally kept, and facilities were made accessible on the basis of caste, religion and at times, even gender. The idea of physical distancing transformed into social distancing. Mukund, a 16-year-old, said,

‘There was no proper washroom, sometimes we had to take to open defecation a little further away into the fields. No, food, water or electricity. It seemed homecoming became some kind of a crime and we were kept in a prison of sorts for it’. 

The migrant worker exodus has restarted this April, as New Delhi and Mumbai start facing fresh COVID-19 spikes. Those who had returned to the city seeking work are once more forced to return home, empty-handed and in acute fear that they might face their earlier immiseration again. Even now, though the Chief Minister of New Delhi requested labourers to stay back, fearing further spread of the virus, and cash aids have been announced for the migrant labouring communities, labourers seem to be gathering at railway stations and bus stops, evindencing a loss of trust in any of the provisionary promises.

The way forward must respond to the demands of migrant workers in Indian cities: wide spatial efficiency in constructing make-shift COVID-19 care facilities, a socially and economically inclusive safety net, support for workers remaining in the cities, and a return to the policies of freedom of movement seen throughout India before the pandemic.


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The authors

Ankit and Aishwarya are researchers with shared interests in global capitalism and the informal sector in the peripheral economies. All influences/inspirations/sources have been cited. We have received no external funding. The authors are grateful to the Oxford Migration Studies Society, Routed Magazine and the Global Labour Research Centre, York University for encouraging our hopes of building larger solidarities through knowledge mobilisation.

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Ankit Singh

Ankit Singh has an MPhil studying populist leadership in India. He is presently pursuing research at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (CPS/JNU), New Delhi. He studies political culture in the Global South and specialises in its intersectionalities with the postcolonial political economy. He is also a non-tenured Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi, teaching Political Science at the Zakir Husain Delhi College, New Delhi.

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Aishwarya Bhattacharyya

Aishwarya Bhattacharyya obtained an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Presidency, Calcutta and has an MPhil, studying the self-ownership theses, from CPS, JNU, New Delhi. She currently works as a research assistant supported by The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (Internal Grant), University College London, and is a postgraduate student at the Department of Development Studies, York University, Toronto. She is a student associate with the Global Labour Research Centre, York University, and a member of York Centre for Asian Research and The American Association of Geographers.

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