For a Migrant inclusive COVID relief measures and urban policy

migrants coronavirus

Covid 19 has brought migrant crises to the forefront. While migrants had always faced challenges, this has only become more visible now. This also presents with an opportunity to look back at the immediate implications of the crises, draw lessons from the same and to develop a migrant inclusive policy in urban areas.


Loss of Trust: The news reports and field based studies are indicating that the migrant population is losing trust in cities. A grievance that cities were not taking care of their needs at a time when they had no cash income, food and no means of transportation is emerging. A segment of the migrant population also seem to be suggesting that they are not willing to come back to the cities. Studies by Stranded workers association network (SWAN), Azim Premzi University and Transform Rural India do indicate that about a quarter of migrant population are not willing to come back.

Reduced cash-flows of households: Cyclical migration had served the rural households to supplement their household income. They would use the income, partly to remit to their family in village, save and buy basic things for household. The rural households had resorted to migration as wage employment and livelihood opportunities in the villages were limited. Migration supplemented their income. Now with a segment of migrant population giving up future migration could mean that there could be reduction in cash flows among such households. This has further implications on overall well-being.

Halt in economic activities in urban areas: Cities and urban areas owe their development to migrant population. Migrant population is engaged in economic activities such as construction, manufacturing, service sector jobs in urban areas. Any changes in reduction of flow of migrant population in urban areas could mean a halt in economic activities in cities and urban areas. Hence urban development activities itself could come to a standstill. It is expected that while migrant labour would still come to cities for their livelihoods, there could be reduced numbers.

Rural distress and reduction of rural wages: Migration reduces dependence and pressure on land for meeting household income needs in rural areas. Changes in migration patterns could mean, that there could be increased pressure on land. There would be higher availability of rural labour but limited land. Given the limited livelihood opportunities in rural areas and increased rural labour force availability could mean there could be reduction in rural wages. This has again an effect on cash flows of rural households and overall wellbeing.


Need for addressing immediate needs of migrants: Trust deficit among migrants has arisen as a result of failure in protecting migrants during the lockdown period. The loss of wages and income, shortage of food and feeding services and lack of provision of a means to move them back to villages was expected to be addressed. However, failure in meeting their food, cash and transportation means are the reasons for this loss of faith. Hence a need arises for addressing their immediate needs. Trust building measures are only possible through improving relief activities.

Need for improving relief: The relief work related to providing food, shelter, and cash to migrants was too huge. Most of the state machinery was not sufficiently prepared or equipped to handle the emerging situation. Civil society organizations did hugely contribute in providing food relief and reached out to migrants to meet their cash and medical needs.  Shelters too were run at many places, which however could not house all the migrants. This necessitates the need for strengthening relief services.

Facilitating movement back to villages: In the crises situation, the biggest felt need of migrants was to move back to their villages. However, the state priority to avoid situations of crowding had resulted in stoppage of transportation. Special trains (Shramik trains) to transport back workers were only introduced much later. By then many lakhs of workers had started walking back to their villages. Due to issues such as levying of travel charges at extra price, lack of surety of getting their turn to travel back resulted in migrants resorting to walking.

Taking care of larger migrant needs: While covid had exposed the immediate migrant crises, migrants did always face challenges in urban areas. They lacked the means for a decent housing, food and nutrition security, water and sanitation facilities, proper health access, immunisation and education of children. Lacking an identity proof of existence in urban areas due to temporal nature of existence in urban areas resulted in workers being denied the basic services.

Migrant Inclusive Policy

A migrant inclusive policy need to address their immediate, short, medium and long term needs.

Immediate relief

Food: Prominent economists such as Amartya Sen, Abhijeet Banerjee, Jean Dreze, Prabhat Patnaik, Jayati Ghosh have indicated the need to distribute the surplus food available with Food corporation of India (FCI) to the poor including migrants. While government is offering 5 kg rice per person for a period of three months, advocates argue for providing 10 kg rice per person for six months. There are also suggestions to include pulses, oil, soaps, sanitiser, sugar in the package.

At many places cooked food is being served to the migrant workers. State, Civil society organizations (CSOs) and Citizens groups are offering the same. These are offered at specified locations and times. Instances of migrants losing meals during scheduled times are common. Special food needs of pregnant and lactating mothers, infant children is not being met. There are also instances of insufficient meals (twice a day) and limited quantity being served.

To meet the need for serving cooked food, possibilities of engaging local self-help groups (SHGs) for preparing food, serving food beyond time limits, meeting the special needs of certain segments such as pregnant mothers and children, supplying food at doorsteps for those who are sick – aged could be explored. SHGs can be handed over the necessary food stocks such as cereals, pulses, oil and cash to purchase vegetables, milk (for infants and children). Cooked food could be supplied at doorstep to those who cannot reach food serving location. The ward members in the municipal corporation could ensure that SHGs receive the necessary stocks and serve.

Shelter: Shelter homes have been started for the migrant workers as part of the relief work. Apart from the existing ones, public spaces such as schools and private spaces such as lodges, hostels can be used to accommodate workers. The distribution of migrant workers across different locations is to avoid situation of overcrowding. Tents in open spaces such as stadiums, grounds, parks, army cantonments could also be explored if necessary.

Clean drinking water and water for domestic use such as washing and bathing is to be provided in all shelter locations. Water tanks are to be arranged where no water supply exists.

Cash: As part of cash relief, government has announced a cash relief of Rs. 500 per month for three months. However, this is insufficient to meet needs for food, water, transportation, communication etc. There has been suggestions to provide Rs. 7,000 to each migrant household for a period of three months. Economists such as Abjijieet Banerjee have suggested transfer of cash to 60% of India’s poor.

In relation to social security, advance payment of upto double the pension amount is to be provided for six months. Full entitlements are to be provided to all eligible mothers under Pradhan mantri mathru vandana yojana and Janani suraksha yojana.

Special Transport: Special trains named as shramik express were started to transport back workers into their home states. However, there was delayed action on this front. Due to the limited services for such trains as well as charges being levied, many of the migrant workers still continue to walk. This has also resulted in multiple accidents and hunger deaths on the way. The services of Shramik express needs to be increased both in terms of frequency and number of trains. Against an estimated population of 1 lakh migrant workers from a location, 80 trips need to be undertaken. If 8 trains are run in a day, about 10 days would be required to transport back 1 lakh migrant workers. The number of trains could vary as per the actual migrant population. These can be run from locations such as Mumbai, Delhi, Surat, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Thirunvanthapuram etc. The transportation costs can be compensated from PM Care’s fund.

Services on Highways: There are large number of migrants who are already walking to their villages. Being exposed to hot summer, lacking water and food facilities and lack of spaces for taking rest, they are at a high risk of falling sick and vulnerable to accidents. There is need for having facilities which offer feeding, water provision and medical aid at a distance of every 50 kilometres. These shelters could be set by the respective block / gram panchayats in partnership with local NGOs and community based organizations (CBOs).

Short term relief

Livelihood related

There is a likely chance of migration pattern reducing in the next 2 years. This necessitates the need for creating opportunities for wage employment in the coming years. Among the suggestions which are emerging include the need for increasing MGNREGA wages and person days of employment. The number of days of employment under MGNREGA can be doubled.

The number and size of micro-enterprise loans that can be provided to self-help groups can be increased. Increase in minimum support price (MSP) for crops are also suggested. Loans for initiating micro-enterprises can be provided to migrant households either through SHG or non SHG route. Agri, agri-allied, horticulture based enterprises can be encouraged.

Skill programs which promote local employment & self-employment opportunities can be promoted.

Deepening and widening public distribution system

Covid is likely to increase the proportion of poor in India. Due to loss of income, there is a likely chance of upper poor falling into extreme poor and low income into poor category. Studies by Transform Rural India show that to cope with the crises, households have started eating less and having lesser meals per day. This threatens the long term health of the workers. This situation necessitates the need for deepening and widening public distribution system to also cover new set of people.

Health, Safety and Hygiene awareness

As COVID is going to stay for some-time, it might be necessary to develop new work practices which adhere to physical distance, hygiene and safety. Awareness programs in relation to hygiene and safety practices needs to provided, to rural and urban poor households, inclusive of migrants. The informal sector enterprises related to repairs & services, food & beverages, transportation, manufacturing etc. can be trained towards the same. The concept of physical distance, safety and hygiene practices can be built into the same.

Medium and Long Term

Access to membership associations

Currently it is seen that migrants are hardly able to demand services in a city from urban local bodies, government and employers. It is necessary to improve their negotiating ability. Being part of the networks such as federation of migrant workers, workers unions, NGO formed networks can result in better ability to negotiate with state and urban local bodies and demand basic urban services.

Workers housing cooperatives

To promote decent housing among urban poor and migrants, workers housing cooperatives need to be promoted. These cooperatives can be funded by National cooperative housing federation, CSR funding, contribution by employers and workers associations. Two types of housing facilities can be built – for families (single room with kitchen), single male workers (dormitory type). There could be a common toilet for every four households. These houses can be maintained and run by the cooperatives. These houses would have municipal water connection. Rentals for houses could be similar to the ones currently prevailing. However, houses constructed through such workers housing cooperatives can provide better living conditions including for stay, water and sanitation facilities.

Sensitising the employers, officials and local citizens

Migrants undergo a harsh behaviour with the stakeholders. A pro-migrant environment cannot prevail unless the stakeholders with which migrants interact on a daily basis are not sensitised to the needs of migrants. Hence employers, officials and local citizens are to be sensitised of the migrant issues and challenges. Any rude behaviour against the migrants needed to be treated as a punishable offence.

Recognizing basic services as a right

Basic services such as housing, water and sanitation, health and education need to be treated as a basic right. Migrants should be allowed to demand these services from urban local bodies. A thing which comes in the way of entitlement to such services includes the local proof of address. In many instances, if they have identity documents such as Aadhaar card, voter id, ration card, these are usually in village addresses. Local address proof does not exist. In such cases, a letter issued by employers or registered membership associations or worker facilitation centres need be treated as necessary proofs of local address.

Workers facilitation centres

Aajeevika Bureau has Shramik sahayata evam sandharab kendras (3SKs), which work as workers service facilitation centres. These centres address the challenges faced by migrant workers on the ground. These could be related to counselling, accessing basic services and legal disputes if any. These centres can also network with other agencies such as NGOs, workers networks, government departments in facilitating access to services. Such worker facilitation centres can be established in major migrant clusters in cities.

PDS beyond local address proof

Since many of the migrants stay for a longer duration of the year in their destination locations, they lose opportunity to access services such as public distribution system. In such cases, Aadhaar card or any other card along with village ration card in combination should be treated as proof and provided with rations even in urban areas.

Integrating concept of Guest workers

Kerala model is being hailed for the concept of ‘Guest workers’. A paradigm shift takes place when the word migrant workers are replaced with the changed word. Among the good practices include ‘guest workers’ enjoying rights similar to ‘local workers’. Among good practices seen in relief operations include preparation of food to cater to varied regional food habits (roti and sabji for guest workers from uttar Pradesh, sattu for workers from Bihar, rice for others). Multiple languages are being used for information dissemination services and helpline services cater to lingual diversity. The services are available in Assamese, Odiya, Hindi and Bengali. This makes it easier for migrants across multiple regions and linguistic groups to seek redressal of their problems.

Addressing the immediate, short, medium and long term concerns of the migrants may make migrant related welfare measures and urban policies more inclusive.

T Navin works as a Researcher with Institute for Livelihood Research and Training (ILRT)




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