ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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COVID-19 and India’s Ongoing Migration Fiasco

Some Lessons for Policy and Research

Drawing on empirical research with migrant populations, this article identifies four interlinked issues critical to understanding and addressing the contemporary migrant crisis that unfolded in India in the wake of COVID-19. These are (i) labour market segmentation by class, caste, and gender; (ii) inaccessibility of urban housing and services that challenge urban survival; (iii) differential access to documentation, which shapes the hierarchies of citizenship; and (iv) ineffective data that lets migrants slip through the gaps of welfare provision.


The authors are grateful to the referee for the comments on a previous version of this article.

Over April and May 2020, millions of migrant workers were trapped in Indian cities without any means of earning, in the wake of the swiftly implemented COVID-19 lockdown. These migrants typically work in low-paid jobs without formal contracts,1 such as working as “helpers,” machine operators, and floor supervisors in factories; pantry workers and janitorial staff in corporate offices; domestic workers and construction labour. They also tend to live in informal settlements or in worksites and lack access to the state-provided social welfare. This interlocking and long-standing set of exclusions has rendered migrant workers invisible to the government and the general public.

As the nightmare of the initial lockdown unfolded, people gathered in public spaces in desperate search of food and, in the absence of public transportation, walked hundreds of kilometres or paid up to a month’s wage to travel home on overcrowded vehicles. This, hitherto, “invisibilised” population, which also included many women and children, became the focus of worldwide media attention. The unpreparedness of the central and state governments to respond to the crisis revealed the lack of even the most basic understanding of the dynamics of circular migration, structures of urban employment, and lived experiences of migrants.

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Updated On : 16th Apr, 2022
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