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Migration crisis

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  • Published
    29th Apr, 2020

India's effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic has gone into disarray after thousands of migrant workers started flouting lockdown rules to head to their homes, fearing starvation following the imposition of a complete lockdown. The condition of seasonal migrants has raised important questions for the government and regulatory authorities


India's effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic has gone into disarray after thousands of migrant workers started flouting lockdown rules to head to their homes, fearing starvation following the imposition of a complete lockdown. The condition of seasonal migrants has raised important questions for the government and regulatory authorities


  • The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created havoc across the world, putting extraordinary pressure on not just public health systems, but also on crisis communications.
  • With social media being the primary medium for information consumption, clear, end-to-end crisis communication with diverse target groups becomes key in dealing with such a pandemic.
  • On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic as the number of cases worldwide had surged 13-fold.
  • At that time, only 62 cases were reported in India, a mere 0.05 percent of the global count.
  • While many European countries and the WHO had understood the severity of the crisis and the need to combat the situation, India was still sitting on the fence trying to play defensively, biding time before facing the avalanche.
  • However, today the situation is entirely different and scaring.
  • With about 736 districts in 28 states and eight union territories, and varied shades of dialects and cultures within the states, migration in India becomes a complex exercise. 


What is migration?

  • More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the number is steadily growing every year. India, where the majority of the population is still dependent on agriculture, is no exception to this trend.
  • Urbanization in India is a consequence of demographic explosion and poverty-induced rural-urban migration.
  • India is geographically diverse and is no stranger to the effects of environmental change.
  • Sea level rise, irregular precipitation, glacial melt and extreme events endanger a large number of lives and livelihoods.
  • Migration is an established household adaptation to cope with environmental and economic stresses.
  • Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest source states, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal; the major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

Who is a migrant?

  • A person who moves from one place to another to live and usually to work, either temporarily or permanently. Migrants may move to take up employment or to be reunited with family members. 
  • Migrant Worker: According to the Migrant Workers’ Convention, “a person, who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which the worker is not a national.”

Main drivers of migration:

  • While marriage is a common driver of internal migration in India, especially among women, a significant share of internal movements are driven by long-distance and male-dominated labor migration.
  • A major chunk of migrants move in search of employment. Other top reasons for migration among Indian men (often with other members of the household) include family, business, and education.
  • Internal migrants have widely varying degrees of education, income levels, and skills, and varying profiles in terms of caste, religion, family composition, age, and other characteristics.
  • These flows can be permanent, semi-permanent, or seasonal.

Types of internal migration:

Labor migration flows include permanent, semi-permanent, and seasonal or circular migrants.

  • Permanent migrants: They move from one place to another and have no plans to return to their original home
  • Semi-permanent migrants: They have precarious jobs in their destination areas, or lack the resources to make a permanent move. While they may reside in their destination cities for years or decades, they likely have homes and families in their sending district.
  • Seasonal or circular migrants: They are likely to move from place to place in search of employment, or to continue returning to the same place year after year. Such circular flows encompass migrants who may stay at their destination for six months or more at a time and hence need social services at their destination.

Why it’s a good thing?

  • Internal migration spurred primarily by employment and marriage helps shape the economic, social, and political life of India’s sending and receiving regions. 
  • Internal migration, both within a state and across states in India, improves households’ socioeconomic status, and benefits both the region that people migrate to and where they migrate from.

Vulnerabilities of the migrant workforce:

  • Issues in unorganized sector: In an unorganized and chaotic labour market, migrant workers regularly face conflicts and disputes at worksites. The common issues they face are non-payment of wages, physical abuse, accidents and even death.
  • Insensitive legal machinery: The existing legal machinery is not sensitive to the nature of legal disputes in the unorganized sector. Many informal sector disputes never make their way to labour courts or keep languishing in courts for lack of proof.
  • No say in the big decisions: The cities were built on the hard labour and exploitation of migrant workers, but they never entered the consciousness of the architects; instead, they are considered part of the problem in cities.
    • Due to their mobile nature, they don’t find any place in the manifestos of trade unions. They spend their whole day on worksites and silently sneak into perilous shelters at night, without the cities even noticing them.
  • Political exclusion: The political class ignores them because they don’t count as votes, especially in the case of inter-state migrants.
  • Language barrier: Many migrants—especially those who relocate to a place where the local language and culture is different from that of their region of origin—also face harassment and political exclusion.
  • Other challenges include restricted access to basic needs such as identity documentation, social entitlements, housing, and financial services.

International labor standards:

  • The International Labour Organization (ILO) has played a significant role in promoting International Labour Standards which has formulated international labor standards at various conferences.
  • India is a founder member of the ILO, already has ratified 37 of the 181 conventions.
  • The constitution of India upholds all the fundamental principles envisaged in the seven core international labor standards.
  • Out of the seven core labor conventions, India has ratified three; they are
    • forced labor
    • equal remuneration
    • discrimination

Legal provisions for labours in India:

  • The principles of free migration are enshrined in clauses (d) and (e) of Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution and guarantee all citizens the fundamental right to move freely throughout the territory of India, as well as reside and settle in any part of India.
  • The Constitution of India guarantees the minimum rights at the workplace to enable people to claim and realize a fair share of the wealth. These rights ensure a process of translating economic growth into social equality. 
  • According to the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution of India, the state is required to secure for the citizens, both men and women to right to an adequate means of livelihood, equal pay for equal work for both men and women, protection against abuse and exploitation of worker’s, etc.
  • India has formulated various laws upholding the principle of equality between men and women, and also provides law for fixing the hours and minimum wages of laborers and to improve their living conditions. Relevant Labor Laws for the Welfare of Workers:
    • The Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946: It requires that employers have terms including working hours, leave, productivity goals, dismissal procedures or worker classifications, approved by a government body.
    • Industrial Disputes Act, 1947: The Act regulates Indian labor law with an objective to maintain a Peaceful work culture in the Industry in India" which is explicitly provided under the Statement of Objects & Reasons of the statute.
    • The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970: It aims at regulating the employment of contract labor placing it par with labor employed directly.
    • Payment of Wages Act 1936: The Payment of Wages Act 1936 requires that employees receive wages, on time, and without any unauthorized deductions. 
    • Minimum Wages Act 1948: The Minimum Wages Act 1948 sets wages for the different economic sectors that it states it will cover. It leaves a large number of workers unregulated.
    • Payment of Bonus Act 1965: The Payment of Bonus Act 1965, which applies only to enterprises with over 20 people, requires bonuses be paid out of profits based on productivity. 
    • Workmen's Compensation Act 1923: The Workmen's Compensation Act 1923 requires that compensation be paid if workers are injured in the course of employment for injuries, or benefits to dependants. 
    • The Employees' Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1952: It created the Employees' Provident Fund Organisation of India. It functions as a pension fund for old age security for the organized workforce sector.
    • The Unorganised Workers' Social Security Act 2008: It enacted with an objective to extend the coverage of the life and disability benefits, health and maternity benefits, and old age protection for unorganized workers.
    • The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013: It seeks to protect and provides a mechanism for women to report incidents of sexual harassment at their place of work.

What needs to be done?

  • The emergence of COVID 19 in India has raised the alarm and exposed the loopholes not only in the public healthcare sphere, but also in the allied legal frame work pertaining to risk communication and crisis management.
  • Amendment to outdated Acts: The government has enforced the lockdown under the provision of the colonial Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 and the more recent National Disaster Management Act, 2005.  However, both these acts do not elaborate explicitly on crisis communications, one of the most important tools of crisis management in such times.
    • But these legislations need to be urgently amended and expanded to chart out a national crisis management framework, keeping in mind the exponential growth of digital communication channels.
  • Global protocols: Additionally, the WHO should alter the IHR and properly establish global protocols for mitigating crisis/risk communications.
  • The policymakers should take leads from the Hyogo Framework, which sets out a workplan of crisis management and details out the communication framework during crisis.

Hyogo Framework:

  • In 2005, as an outcome of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, the international community working on DRR adopted the ‘Hyogo Framework for Action’.
  • It sates, “Develop early warning systems that are people centered, in particular systems whose warnings are timely and understandable to those at risk, which take into account the demographic, gender, cultural and livelihood characteristics of the target audiences, including guidance on how to act upon warnings.”
  • Similar broad and all-encompassing guidelines need to be embedded in the legal framework in order to make it more contemporary.

While amending laws will take time, the Government of India and all it’s ministry concerned must proactively engage with their counterparts in the states as well as civil society organisations to strengthen their communication channels and messaging, before the country gets swamped by the impact of COVID-19’s increased community spread.


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