Migrant workers- A humanitarian crisis triggered by the lockdown

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Smt Nirmala Sitharaman
Union Finance Minister

Dear Smt Sitharaman,

I have suggested several measures to be taken by the government to counter the spread of COVID19 and the relief to be provided to the vulnerable sections of the population affected by the lockdowns imposed initially by the States and the nationwide lockdown announced later on the 24th by the Prime Minister.

I have enclosed here a copy of my letter dated 23-3-2020 addressed to you.

I welcome the relief measures announced by you today specifically for the low-income sections of the population.

It is not enough for the Centre to allocate funds and release cash. Many of the disadvantaged families may not have Jan Dhan bank accounts to which cash can be readily transferred. Several of them have no documents to prove their identity. More than cash, they need care, help in kind and medical attention.

The problems faced by the daily wage earners and the other unorganised workers are far more complex than how they are being visualised at present. The Centre cannot deal with those problems on a stand-alone basis. It needs to coordinate its efforts with what the States are doing in a more comprehensive manner. Many local NGOs are involved in working closely with the unorganised workers and their inputs should be sought. Many progressive measures are being taken in States such as Kerala. The Centre should not only extend a helping hand to them but also help the other States in going to the rescue of the unorganised workers in their respective areas.

Migrant Workers:

Among the “relief measures” announced by you for the disadvantaged sections, you made the following statement on migrant workers.

“A package is ready for the poor who need immediate help like migrant workers and urban and rural poor. No one will go hungry”

The problems of the migrant workers are complex and they call for a coordinated effort from the Centre and the States. Mere packages and cash releases are not going to provide any solace to the displaced migrant workers nor would they resolve their problems. The status of most migrant workers is that of bonded labour. They get meagre wages hardly enough for their survival. The majority of the migrants are not registered under the labour laws meant to provide them social security cover. There are migrant families working in brick kilns in AP and Telangana who work in sub-human conditions. Their women are subject to harassment and the children have no access to education. While those concerns will have to be addressed in due course, what they need urgently in the context of the present occupational displacement is humane treatment from the police, shelter, food, medical help, care and logistic support.

The lockdowns imposed by the States, reinforced by the national lockdown imposed at the national level on the 24th, have abruptly thrown lakhs of migrant workers out of employment in Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab etc., forcing them to return to their native villages in north AP, Odisha, W.Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. While some of them could squeeze themselves into over-crowded trains/ buses, others have no other alternative than to trek all the way.

Those that could get into trains have got stranded at intermediate stations, as the Railways have abruptly cancelled many trains midway. It is the local State authorities and the local NGOs who are trying to cope with the task of providing them shelter, food, medical assistance, pending their departure for their native villages.

For example, there are hundreds of such migrant workers proceeding to Odisha but got stranded at Visakhapatnam. Feeling helpless, they are squatting under the city’s fly-overs. We are trying to get a temporary shelter set up for them and provide them relief, till such time they can leave for their respective destinations. They need medical attention. The local authorities are providing food but the Railways may have to run special trains soon to move them to their destinations.

Those migrant workers who have started trekking to their far-off villages from Mumbai, from several cities in Gujarat, Punjab, Delhi etc. are harassed and subject to all kinds of indignities at every stage by the police on the ground that they are violating the lockdown restrictions imposed by the Home Ministry. Several of them are being stopped at the inter-State borders, once again in the name of lockdown restrictions.

NGOs in AP and Telangana, with the help of the respective State authorities, are trying to provide relief to those workers trekking from construction sites in and around Hyderabad towards north AP and Odisha. In the other parts of the country too, similar efforts are being made.

I have enclosed for your ready reference several distressing reports on how migrant workers are treated across the country.

With a view to help the migrant workers stranded at intermediate railway stations, I have requested the Railways (Letter dated 24-3-2020 enclosed) to run special trains to move them to their desired destinations but the Railways are yet to respond. Railways should cooperate with the States in providing temporary shelters at intermediate stations and providing other relief at the shelters, besides running special trains to move them further.

The Home Ministry should advise the State police not to treat the migrant workers as offenders, treat them in a humane manner and help them to trek safely.

The Union Labour Ministry should coordinate with its counterparts in the States to look after the migrant workers wherever they are and provide them the relief they need. Also, the States should relax the inter-State movement restrictions to allow the migrants to proceed towards to their destinations.

In the present context, the migrant workers are exposed to the threat of COVID19 infection. Mass migration during these days can also accelerate the transmission of the virus to the community at large. Therefore, the problems of the migrants need o be addressed on a war footing, failing which this can explode into a major humanitarian crisis.

I feel that the Centre should set up a task force comprising of representatives of the Ministries concerned with Home, Labour, Social Justice, Railways to coordinate with the States and the local NGOs to ensure the welfare and the safety of the migrant workers across the country. Any plan to provide relief to the migrant workers has necessarily to be a joint effort of the Centre and the States.


Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to GOI




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