#MigrantWomenWorkersontheRoad:  Seen, Unseen and already forgotten?

migrants coronavirus


Sighting 1: Jamlo Madkam[1], a 12-year-old Adivasi girl starts to walk home to Chattisgarh from the chilli fields of Telangana. She walks 140 kilometres in three days and finally collapses exhaustion, dehydration and muscle fatigue, 60 km from her home.

Sighting 2: News headlines begin to report about women giving birth on the road and continuing the long march after a few hours rest.   Sometimes we learn a little more about these remarkable women, sometimes they remain unnamed.

Sighting 3: Women, children and men squat with their heads bowed in a big group outside a bus station.[2] Masked figures in white PPE suits move around behind them spraying the group with the same bleach solution to disinfect nonliving surfaces after walking home from New Delhi to Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.   From a safe distance, men in pressed shirt and trousers direct the process while filming on their smartphones.

Sighting 4:  A woman drags a large wheeled suitcase down the national highway.   An exhausted little boy lies sleeping on top of it.  She is reluctant to be filmed or talk to the men filming so a man speaks for her.  They are walking from Punjab to MP.[3]

Sighting 5: Thousands of migrants gather in a 70-acre saltpan in Vasai in the hope of catching the next Shramik train home.   Their numbers include women and children.  At the end of the day, the police drive and beat the migrants away even though all are now homeless.  The site boasts one mobile toilet.   Where do the women and girl children go to relieve themselves?[4] The next day, Virottama Surendranath Shukla, a 58 year old woman standing in the long line to register for  a Shramik train from Vasai station collapses and dies under the blazing sun[5].  All we know is that she was in her late fifties and had a preexisting medical condition.

Sighting 6: At night on a Shramik train headed from Mumbai to Gosaiganj, a woman tries to wake up her husband because she wants to go to the toilet.   He doesn’t respond.   The passengers soon realise that the man who was unwell when he boarded has passed on.  Since the Shramiks are non-stop trains, the woman sits by her dead husband for the next six hours until it reaches its destination.

Sighting 7: A woman collapses and dies while traveling from Ahmedabad to Muzzafarpur on a Shramik Train ordeal without adequate food and water.  A video of her infant child attempting to play with her covered corpse on the railway station goes viral. In reports, the woman’s age varies between 23 and 35 but all agree she died of hunger and dehydration. TIMESNOW also deems it necessary to also include a statement by Railway Police that the woman was purportedly mentally unstable.[6]

Sighting 8: 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari cycles 745 km from Gurgaon, Haryana to Darbhanga, Bihar with her injured father on the cycle carrier.[7]   Most news headlines on this achievement named Ivanka Trump, the Sports Minister, and the President of the Cycling Federation of India but not the girl herself.   None of these luminaries felt it necessary to acknowledge the abysmal failure of governance that created these conditions in the first place.

Sighting 9: Two Santhali-speaking migrant women from Jharkand have been trafficked into bonded labour in an incense factory outside Bengaluru.  For over a year,  they are illegally confined with their young children and one of them is raped as punishment for trying to escape.  A chance encounter with another Santhali-speaking migrant man during the pandemic eventually leads to their rescue by local activists manning a Migrant Workers Helpline.  The story does not make much news.[8]

Seen, yet unseen

There is no shortage of news reporting on #MigrantWorkersontheRoad.  Media discourse about the Great Migrant Worker Exodus is a strange mix of celebration and tragedy.  On the one hand, news reports glorify the strength and stamina of the countless young men walking thousands of kilometres home.   They write approvingly of masculine loyalty and sacrifice where some of these men refuse to abandon their sick and dying friends on the road. On the other hand, news articles report one death after another. It is almost as if they are in a competition to find the migrants who have died in the most horrible way possible.  While much is made of the manner in which they died, not so much is made of their names  and who they were when they were alive. [9]

Amidst this masculinist discourse of endurance and suffering, the power and resilience of migrant women appears to remains unworthy of noting.  Women and girls can be glimpsed in these reports – carrying younger children and luggage – but always in the background or edge of the camera. These women have walked the same distances and survived the same-yet-different indignities, humiliations and brutalities at the hands of police, bureaucrats and fellow citizens.  (Imagine, dear Reader, what it may be like to be a woman on a never-ending journey on one of those 40 ‘lost’ Shramik trains where the toilets have not been cleaned for over 24 hours?). Yet, the only women who appear in the news are those whose stories fit into these dominant frames of inhuman endurance, superhuman sacrifice, subhuman suffering.

What is happening to the women migrants on the road and during the pandemic?  Answers to this question are not readily available. They have to be sought after,  gleaned from reading between the lines of news reports shaped by the male gaze and I am not referring to the sex or gender of individual journalists here.  But these gendered, classed and casteist silences and invisibilities are not just a problem of the pandemic – they can be found across pre-pandemic news media, government policy and academic research.

Enduring invisibility

Migrant working women as a whole remain in the shadows of dominant official and popular discourse.   Transnational professional migrant working women are invisible in official state discourses about the Pravasi Bharatiya (overseas or non-resident Indian). We all know that the government of India is proud and protective of highly skilled male migrants working in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector in the Global North.  In comparison, Oishi (2005) [10]  found that there was little official recognition or support for women migrants – professional (in ICT, engineering, medicine, nursing) as well as well ‘low skilled’ (in domestic, service, or construction industries).

Though they comprise an estimated 16 % of the migrant workforce, data and policy on internal (interstate and intrastate) women migrant workers remains highly limited due to gender- and caste-insensitive questions on data collection surveys (Mazumdar, Neetha et al. 2013[11]).   There is a complete absence of a gender perspective in our labour laws (Mazumdar and Neetha 2020)[12] even though Women migrants can be found across the organised and unorganised sector.  While workers in the organised sectors have minimum rights, at least on paper, female-intensive work in the unorganised sector remains unregulated, e.g. paid domestic work performed mostly by migrant women and home-based manufacturing (Mazumdar and Neetha 2020).

Furthermore women migrant labourers are predominantly from  dispossessed[13] and impoverished  Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim communities from the most economically backward regions in the country and across the border in Nepal and Bangladesh (Samaddar 2020). They are more concentrated in short-term and circular migration and perform dangerous and exploitative work alongside men on farms, construction sites, brick kilns, textile and other small factory units . However, they are typically paid far less and rarely on time in these sectors (Dutta 2019).  They are more likely to be subject to trafficking, sexual harassment and violence from contractors, supervisors and employers (Mazumdar, Neetha et al. 2013; Krishnan 2020[14]).   Finally, the research tells us that ‘returning home’ is a gendered experience.  Men are usually welcomed but women, particularly young women, are viewed with suspicion because of patriarchy and caste-based oppressive codes of honour (Priyadarshini and Chaudry 2020).

Already forgotten

Already, the public gaze is turning away from migrant workers on the road to Unlock 1.0, upcoming elections and sports events.  The new corona flashpoints and hotspots are a safe distance away in whatever we imagine to be ‘rural India’.  The migrant workers represented an inconvenient but temporary anomaly in what was supposed to look like a well-planned strategy for disease management.   There is now far less news about what is happening to them when they return home other than the regular reports about illness and death in state quarantine centers.

If the public gaze is easily (mis)directed, the sarkari gaze has deliberately ignored the plight of migrant workers for most of the lockdown.  The recent AtmaNirbhar Bharat Abhiyan economic package offers neither immediate relief nor support for rural India where most live in precarity including small farmers, agricultural labourers, pensioners, disabled, and widows (Sainath 2020[15]).  Instead of providing remedy for the gendered impact of economic and social precarity, our government has chosen to further facilitate the entry of multinational agricultural corporations against which small farmers cannot hope to compete (Agarwal 2020)[16].   This is a very different meaning of self-reliance than understood by Jyotiba Phule, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar or Mahatma Gandhi.

Nisha Thapliyal is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle, Australia.  She studies and teaches about comparative education, critical pedagogies, gender and development, social movements and activist media. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @NishaT4edu Research Profile: https://www.newcastle.edu.au/profile/nisha-thapliyal


[1] https://ruralindiaonline.org/articles/jamlos-last-journey-along-a-locked-down-road/

[2] India Today Live. March 30 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud0EBebmV88

[3] https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/coronavirus/videos/migrant-worker-drags-exhausted-child-on-her-luggage-as-they-walk-from-punjab-to-jhansi-in-up/videoshow/75734275.cms

[4] Parth. May 25 2020. https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/coronavirus/news/the-promise-of-tomorrow/articleshow/75955553.cms

[5] https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/coronavirus/news/vasai-58-year-old-woman-dies-before-boarding-shramik-special-train-to-uttar-prades h/articleshow/76010875.cms

[6] https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/migrant-crisis-child-tries-to-wake-dead-mother-at-bihar-station-shiv-sena-leader-tweets-heartbreaking-video/597688

[7] https://thewire.in/rights/jyoti-kumari-bihar-gurgaon-cycle-covid-19-lockdown

[8] https://gaurilankeshnews.com/bangalore-shocking-tale-of-human-trafficking-sexual-assault-and-bonded-labour-of-migrant-adivasi-woman/

[9] Pratishta Pandya. May 10 2020. https://ruralindiaonline.org/articles/locked-down-with-blood-on-the-tracks/

[10] Oishi, N. (2005). Women in Motion: Globalisation, State Policies, and Labour Migration in Asia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[11] Mazumdar, Indrani, Neetha, N. and Agnihotri, Indu. 2013.  Migration and Gender in India. Economic and Political Weekly 48(10): 54-64.

[12] Mazumdar, Indrani, and Neetha, N. 2020. Crossroads and boundaries: Labour migration, trafficking and gender. Economic and Political Weekly 55(20).

[13] Dispossessed of land, home, occupation or a combination of the above through systemic processes including colonisation, mining, industrialisation, large-scale agriculture and similar processes.

[14] Kavitha Krishnan (2020). Fearless Freedoms. Delhi: Penguin.

[15] In India neither tokenism nor panic can reverse this crisis. The Wire. March 26. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/government/india-coronavirus-migrants-agriculture

[16] Agarwal Kabir.  Center opts for longterm reform leaving farmers Atmanirbhar in crisis. The Wire. May 16 2020. https://thewire.in/agriculture/agriculture-economic-package-lockdown




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