According to the 2011 Census, there were 450 million internal migrants in India by the ‘Place of Last Residence’ metric which accounted for almost 37.7% of the total population (Registrar General of India 2011). An article titled, “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Internal Labour Migration in India: A ‘Crisis of Mobility’” published in The Indian Journal of Labour Economics in November, 2020 by S. Irudaya Rajan, P. Sivakumar and Aditya Srinivasan estimate that based on the Census trends, there has been 600 million internal migration in 2020. Among this, one-third are interstate and inter-district migrants which accounts for 200 million people, and within this 200 million, two-thirds are estimated to be migrant workers that roughly constitute 140 million. The enormous numbers of migrant workers faced immense crisis when the lockdown was enforced in the country. Labourers in Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and other industrial cities became jobless overnight. There were continuous viral videos and media reports on the labourers migrating by foot to their home states. According to several experts, maximum numbers of workers who migrated from poor Human Development Index (HDI)‐scored states to high HDI‐scored states, faced with higher informalisation of their jobs due to deprivation from basic rights during the pandemic.
Sudhir K. Khandelwal, Department of Psychiatry, Holy Family Hospital and formerly Head, Department of Psychiatry and Chief, National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, in an article titled ‘Debating the process, impact and handling of social and health determinants of Covid-19 pandemic’ published in the Indian Journal of Social Psychiatry, wrote, “Blamed for leaving their rented homes in defiance of the lockdown, hungry and cash strapped migrants struggled in packed shelters, those who managed to reach home were shunned by their own neighbours. What made it more ironical was the fact that vast majority of the migrant labour force did not qualify for the welfare measures announced by the central or state governments.”
HDI and migration of workers in India
The HDI is a summary measurement of basic achievement levels in human development. In India, there are regional disparities in line with HDI that are caused because workers tend to migrate to a developed state with higher HDI. The article titled, ‘Regional disparities of growth and internal migrant workers in informal sectors in the age of COVID‐19’ in Wiley Public Health Emergency Collection by Diganta Das states that regional disparities in growth is responsible for migration of labourers in the informal sector of the country. The article states, “States like Bihar, Odisha, Rajasthan, MP, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and so forth are continuously experiencing poor economic development, and see a larger gap in regional disparities with regard to achievement in Human Development Index as compared to states like Kerala, Maharashtra, Haryana and so forth.” While addressing the prime causes for the disparities, Das stated the problems associated with undeveloped states like chronic drought, deforested landscapes, devastated agro‐ecologies along with the failure of the government to implement welfare schemes, higher level of corruptions, lack of village industries and poor water conservation.
Several experts opined that bridging the gap of regional disparities was one of the major initiatives of the government since independence. Such efforts accelerated after 1991 with the help of structural reform of India’s economy. Though eradicating regional disparities were the foremost objective through improvement of people's standard of living, evidence has shown overall increasing gaps of regional disparities into different layers like inter‐state, inter‐district, rural–urban and so forth among states in India. Das in his paper pointed out that few studies have stated that higher per capita incomes always help to eradicate the poverty of a state, however, all poor states on HDI scores could not afford to spend more on the well‐being of human development programmes like education, health, sanitisation, drinking water etc.
Long-term government policies
Several experts are of the opinion that the debacle of the lockdown on migratory workers should lead to major policy changes for protecting these workers from poverty, despair and distress and chronic poor health. There were also media reports about the suicides of many of these workers because of their job loss due to the pandemic. Later, though the government officially approved the movement of people to their native places, the workers were forced to pay for travel tickets. This also compelled them to borrow money from others at higher rates. The government should provide social protection for the workers through self‐registration of workers. In such a way, digitisation of registration records could be used for delivering benefits. Also, for a smooth negotiation of the entire issue, a separate ministry of the government should be a prerogative.