The Indian Catastrophe: MP Migrant’s Crisis Amidst COVID-19



The outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic brought life to a standstill worldwide. It exposed the inadequacy of global healthcare infrastructure and questioned existing capabilities to meet exigencies of such nature. While nations were imposing lockdowns and enforcing social distancing norms, India was battling a unique problem of its own: the migrant workers’ crisis induced by Covid-19.

Internal migration, including both inter-state and intra-state migration, is prevalent in India. It is a common phenomenon for the Indian rural population to move to urban areas in search of better job opportunities. The 2011 Census of India pegs the total number of internal migrants in the country at a staggering 139 million.1 The announcement of a sudden nationwide lockdown meant that these migrant workers were stranded in their host states of work, far away from their homes and families. With the transport facilities being discontinued, these migrant workers had nowhere to go. Most of them had already lost the means to sustain themselves as a result of the shutting down of workplaces. After much hue and cry, the government intervened and introduced transportation facilities to help them reach their home states. However, no concrete steps were taken to ensure that the returned workers found employment opportunities. The state failed to recognise that mere transportation of the migrant workers was not sufficient. It was equally important to ensure that such workers were able to sustain themselves and lead a life of dignity.


The M.P. Migrant Workers Project was initiated with the objective of filling the existing data gap in terms of the current employment status and living conditions of migrant labourers who returned to Madhya Pradesh during the lockdown. It also aims to know the extent of state intervention and aid provided to these workers throughout the process – starting from their journey from host states to settling in their respective villages.

Besides aiming to make us aware of the ground realities, the findings of this report are important as they hold the potential to guide policy decisions and legislations concerning migrant workers. A 360-degree analysis of the current approach will help us identify the strengths and weaknesses of the existing system and help us be better equipped to deal with such situations in the future.


The observations from the empirical study have been made based on data collected directly from about 2943 migrant workers spread across 52 districts of Madhya Pradesh.

We started the exercise with the preparation of a comprehensive questionnaire containing around 50 questions on basic details of the respondents, their condition before Covid, their travel experience, current situation, financial assistance received and so on.

Before we started a full-fledged empirical study, we conducted sample callings by contacting around 250 people chosen at random. Our volunteers could get around 25 responses out of this list which suggested a 10-12% conversion rate of getting a response i.e., for every 10 entries, there was a possibility of getting only one legitimate response.

Once the final questionnaire was finalised, we entered the response recording stage. Our team contacted a tentative number of 25000-30,000 people. However, roughly around 10% i.e., a total of 3147 responses were recorded in all districts of Madhya Pradesh. The reasons for this low conversion rate are multifold, with the primary reason being incorrect numbers of migrants and multiple migrants registering through the same phone number. In some cases, calls were picked by residents of Maharashtra who informed us that someone registered through their number when the lockdown was going on.

Out of these 3147 responses, 2943 responses were confirmed to be legitimate migrant workers. The remaining entries were rendered invalid because of several reasons including but not limited to multiplicity of similar entries, incomplete information, error in identification of migrant workers etc. A large number of people contacted by our team turned out to be IT professionals or engineers particularly in Ujjain, Bhopal and Indore and hence we could not cover 100 entries in these three districts.


  1. Demographical information: Of the total surveyed respondents,
    1. Category – Around 34% of the respondents belonged to the General category, followed by 31% belonging to the Other Backward Class category. Around 15% of the respondents were Scheduled Castes and another 15% identified themselves as Scheduled Tribes.
    2. Gender – 92% of the total respondents were males and 8% were females. 4 respondents preferred not to disclose their gender.
    3. Age – Majority of the respondents (83%) belonged to the working-age group of 15 to 34 years. Within that, the highest number (around 45%) fell in the range of 25 to 34 years.
  2. Employment trends: With respect to the status of employment, the majority of respondents (around 56%) admitted that they were unemployed since their return to Madhya Pradesh.Furthermore, respondents from the General category had the highest chances of being employed, and respondents belonging to the Scheduled Tribe category were least likely to be employed. With respect to gender, males stood a higher chance of finding jobs post-Covid, as compared to their female counterparts.The findings of this report thus bring forth the continuing relevance of factors like gender and caste/category that plague employment opportunities, especially in rural India.
  3. Industry of engagement-based analysis: During the pre-Covid era, the majority of respondents (around 40%) were engaged in the infrastructure development industry. This changed during the post-Covid era, wherein a majority of the employed respondents (around 37%) worked as labourers. It is pertinent to note that only 10% of the total respondents were employed in the labour industry in the pre-Covid period as compared to the 37% after the pandemic.This engagement shift in favour of the labour/worker industry is worrying. As per the responses received, the labour industry has been one of the least paying industries both before and after Covid. More than 60% of the respondents engaged in the labour industry earned below-average income2 at any given point in time.
  4. Positive correlation between education and employment: A combined analysis of the education and employment status responses before Covid indicated that more educated respondents secured better-paying jobs. It was observed that respondents who were educated were more likely to be falling in higher-income brackets – around 25% of the respondents earning more than Rs. 650/day were graduates.However, interestingly, there was no perceptible correlation between the employment status of the respondent’s post lockdown and their educational qualifications indicating widespread unemployment stress amongst people with varying education qualifications alike.
  5. Trends in income: The post-pandemic period saw a dip in the average income of the respondents. The data is especially alarming for lower-income earners, as only 7% of the respondents earned less than Rs. 250 per day pre-pandemic, as compared to 35% in the post-pandemic period.
  6. Gender disparity and pay gap: The data collected reveals that female respondents were more likely to be given daily wages than employment with a fixed income. Even before Covid, the share of female respondents employed as daily wage earners was around 12% more than their male counterparts.The above finding is relevant in light of the positive correlation established between the kind of employment (fixed-term v. daily wage jobs) and the income associated with each of these types. As per the responses received, people employed in fixed-term jobs were more likely to earn an above-average income.It is also pertinent to note that majority of female respondents (around 70%) formed a part of the average or below average income groups during the post-pandemic period.
  7. Shortfalls in government policies and Covid-specific initiatives:

(a) Transportation :
In the wake of the Covid pandemic, the Madhya Pradesh (M.P.) government introduced measures to aid the transportation of migrant workers. In furtherance of the same, an M.P. Migrant workers online registration portal was launched allowing stranded migrant workers to register themselves and avail shramik trains and bus services run by the state government.

Majority of the respondents (around 70%) stated that they registered themselves through the online registration portals. Around 57% of the respondents further stated that their travel tickets were entirely funded by the state government. Despite these measures being useful for the majority, there were complaints regarding lack of transport coordination between the drop-off railway stations and place of residence. Resultantly, around 12.5% of the respondents admitted that they were forced to walk back to their villages (either some part of the journey or the entire journey) in the absence of state-sponsored alternatives.

(b)  Scheme coverage

Despite various employment schemes introduced by different governments, it was observed that only around 1% of the respondents were covered such schemes in the state of Maharashtra. Even after the pandemic, the coverage of state employment schemes remained dissatisfactory. Only 1.7% of the total employed respondents said that they found employment under one of the employment schemes in M.P. Interestingly, there were no female beneficiaries under the M.P. specific employment schemes.

(c)  Monetary assistance
The M.P. government had also announced a Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme under which it promised Rs. 1000 to each returning migrant worker as financial aid. However, this initiative remained largely unimplemented with 88.5% of the respondents stating that no such amount was ever transferred to them. Amongst the 11.5% who did receive DBT, many mentioned not receiving the full amount.

(d)  Supreme Court directives for resettlement and future employment
In June 2020, the Supreme Court mandated all states to maintain records of incoming migrant workers and document crucial details such as their names, address, nature of their skill, and place of earlier employment. The state officials were further required to set up counselling centres and reach out to returning workers for employment opportunities.

Around 64% of the respondents said that their basic details were registered by government officials while entering M.P. However, majority of respondents (around 87%) stated that they were never contacted by government representatives in relation to any possible employment opportunities. Amongst the very few respondents who were approached by state representatives, around 95% said that the information shared by such officials was not useful from an employment perspective.

Furthermore, the majority (around 74%) also stated that no awareness/sensitisation programs were conducted and that state counselling centres, as required under the Supreme Court directives, were also not set up.

(e)  Policy failure and implementation gap
Despite the government’s noble intent of helping incoming migrant workers by setting up online portals for registration, an analysis of this measure from a policy perspective yields that such portals were not helpful.

Almost half of the respondents (50%) said that they did not possess smartphones or any other device with an internet connection to register themselves on these portals. Out of the respondents registered for travel, around 60% admitted that they were helped by government officials and civil societies for online registration.

The non-availability of internet and/or smart phones, and the glaring digital divide, had far-reaching implications on the employment opportunities of returned workers.

The M.P. government had also introduced a ‘Rozgar Setu’ portal to provide employment to incoming workers. Despite the government’s efforts, around 56% of the respondents remained unemployed even after several months of return to M.P. This could be attributed to several reasons, including but not limited to: (i) lack of assistance/support from authorities in the form of counselling centres/ awareness programs (as observed above); (ii) demotivation for employers to hire workers from a government platform as that would have subjected them to greater scrutiny; and (iii) improper measures introduced by the government (introducing online measures, a pre-requisite for which are smart phones and an internet connection, may not have been the policy decision in view of the fact that the target audience was vulnerable migrant workers).


The predicament of labourers during the pandemic elucidated gaps in the Indian labour law regime. The existing labour laws of India have been critiqued on several occasions in the past for being complex and archaic, with inconsistent provisions. Many of these criticisms were in line with the data findings of this report, highlighting the incompetence of extant laws in ensuring a safety net for migrant workers. None of the existing labour legislations in India adequately deal with inequalities faced by migrant workers employed in the informal sector on account of their category/caste or education.

In light of the above, this report identifies and highlights loopholes in the existing labour law regime which have a direct bearing on Indian migrant workers.

1. Limitations of applicable legislations: India has a limited number of legislations covering migrant workers employed in the informal sector. The applicability of such sparse laws is also limited because of the manner in which these laws are worded.

For instance, Section 2(e) of the Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 defines inter-state migrant workers as those recruited by contractors alone. This narrow interpretation of the term ‘inter-state migrant workers’ excludes a large number of workers from its benefits who migrate on their own without the assistance of a contractor.

Similarly, the Madhya Pradesh Unorganised Workers Welfare Act, 2003 is one of the very few labour legislations regulating the informal sector but is not fully exploited on account of the benefits being available only to members of the ‘welfare board’ established under the Act. As per the provisions of the Act, only those workers who reside in an area of MP for at least 12 months are qualified to be members of the welfare board. Such a requirement automatically disentitles migrant workers travelling to other states from availing benefits under the Act.

2. Payment of wages below the minimum wage rate: As per Section 13(1)(b) of the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act 1979, an inter-state migrant workman has to be mandatorily paid as per wages fixed under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.

The minimum wage rate in India differs from state to state. In the state of Maharashtra, the minimum wage payable to unskilled workers is fixed at Rs. 381.54 per day. However, approximately 42% of the surveyed respondents received wages at rates lower than Rs. 350 per day while they were in Maharashtra. Even after their return to M.P., 37% of the employed respondents received wages at rates lower than minimum wages fixed for unskilled workers for the state of M.P.

3. Lack of social security and protection: The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 directs the Central Government to form schemes for unorganised workers on matters relating to life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, and any other benefit as may be determined by the state government. These benefits aim to provide a minimum level of social security to workers in the unorganised sector.

Despite such provisions, the migrant workers lacked adequate social cover. Even welfare schemes announced at the state level, such as the M.P. government’s initiative of monetary assistance to returning workers, were not implemented properly.

There could be several reasons for paltry implementation of welfare schemes both at the central and state level, including but not limited to: (i) lack of data availability on migrant workers, (ii) lack of political and administrative will, (iii) articulation of schemes as benefits as opposed to legally enforceable rights, (iv) tedious and complex process for registration of workers (which require state government resources and manpower), (v) inadequate sensitisation.

Resultantly, migrant workers are unable to access these benefits as they fall in an administrative blind spot, wherein they neither have information on these schemes nor the necessary documents to avail them.


The term ‘migrant worker’ is generally used as a gender-neutral and caste-neutral term. Resultantly, while addressing issues relating to migrant workers, problems specific to the gender and caste/category of a worker are often overlooked.

However, in reality, gender and category of workers shape every stage of their migration experience. Understanding and addressing the gender and category-specific problems faced by migrant workers is crucial to ensure their amelioration in the truest sense. Some of these specific issues have been identified as under:

1. Menstrual hygiene – During the pandemic period, it was observed that menstrual hygiene products were largely unavailable for female migrant workers during their journey. The issue is pertinent as the sample size illustrates that almost 99% of the female respondents fell in the age bracket of 15 to 54 years which is also the menstruating age for women. Some female migrant workers complained of facing hardships during their travel on account of menstruation and further developing Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) because of the unhygienic conditions.

2. Education, employment and gender – An analysis of the responses received reveals that female respondents not only had lower levels of education across various categories, but they were also more likely to get daily wage jobs and less income as compared to their male counterparts.

3. Education, employment and caste/category: The survey data indicates that General and Other Backward Class category respondents had better access to education, as compared to respondents from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe categories. However, this inequality in access to education did not translate into inequality in employment, especially in low income jobs. During the pre-Covid era, it was observed that all categories were equally represented in terms of employment. This however changed in the post-Covid period, where the Covid induced uncertainty affected the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities more as compared to General and Other Backward Class category respondents.

We need redistributive, equalizing, and holistic policies and legislations to address the various issues faced by migrant workers. The conceptual framework of labour, migration and social-policy making should address gender and category concerns at all levels (including but not limited to education, healthcare, digital divide).

Report Prepared by: Rakshita Agarwal (NLUO), Rohit Sharma (NUJS), Lakshmi Menon (SLS Hyderabad), Niharika Tiwari (Ashoka University), Shilpa Shankar (NALSAR) and Saiyed Kamil (NUJS)

1 Data on Migration 2011, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, Available at, Last seen on 24/04/2021.

2 For the purposes of this part, average income is understood to be between Rs. 350-Rs.400 per day.

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