Migrant workers and human rights

A critical study of India’s COVID-19 lockdown policy
Need to introduce a new pandemic policy that is more humane, adaptive, and inclusive in nature (Image: Rajesh Balouria, Pixabay)
Need to introduce a new pandemic policy that is more humane, adaptive, and inclusive in nature (Image: Rajesh Balouria, Pixabay)

India was one of the leading countries to swiftly implement the initial lockdown in March 2020 to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but still, the lockdown failed and within a few months, it joined the list of countries most affected by the coronavirus epidemic. Why did this happen? What did the Indian government miss?

A recent paper ‘Migrant workers and human rights: A critical study on India’s COVID-19 lockdown policy’ by Shailendra Kumar and Sanghamitra Choudhury deals with the lacunae in the lockdown plans of the Indian Government and indicates an “apparent lack of planning and coordination in the scale of its implementation” that “further exposed the domestic migrant labourers to unbearable difficulties.”

The paper argues that the fundamental and economic rights bestowed upon the domestic migrant workers and other labourers under labour laws and the Indian constitution were breached extensively during the lockdown and that the state’s policies during the lockdown worsened the condition of the domestic migrant workers.

Ambivalent response

The impact of the pandemic on domestic migrants of India was extreme and the poor and marginalized were the hardest hit. Migrants died due to reasons ranging from starvation, suicides, exhaustion, road and rail accidents, police brutality, and denial of timely medical care (Guha et al., 2020).

The announcement of the lockdown triggered mass exodus and reverse migration of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers from major urban cities who walked back to their villages without food and money. (Dandekar & Ghai 2020Singh et al., 2020). The continuous reverse migration of millions of migrant workers to their native villages had a very detrimental impact on their physical, mental, and economic well-being.

The study was based on secondary data and used an analytical and descriptive approach. The literature available on migration, newspaper reports, surveys, the government of India census-2011 were widely consulted for the study.

The first part of the paper provides a glimpse of international human rights and labour protection laws, business and human rights, and the rights of migrant workers in India. The second part of the paper looks at the demographic condition of migrants in India, whereas the third part critically examines the COVID-19 lockdown policy of the central government.

A critical analysis of India’s lockdown strategy

Sudden lockdown

A three-week stringent nationwide lockdown implemented at a very short notice of four ​hours led to migrant workers getting stuck where they were. After the promulgation of lockdown, the central government invoked the Disaster Management Act-2005 which empowers it to convict a person for one to five years if found obstructing the government employee or disagreeing to comply with the directives of the central or state governments. The act additionally provides for the confining and fining of a government officer for failure in duty. Many human rights of the citizens got suspended overnight.

The sudden lockdown led to the panic buying of essentials and the return of migrant labourers to their homes. There was a rampant breach of human rights of migrant labourers during the lockdown as indicated by the enhanced number of human rights infringement cases filed at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Forsaking stranded migrants and workers

The majority of the labourers lost their jobs and many companies failed to pay them salaries for the lockdown period. There was a lack of empathy and concern for the labourers and migrants.

The Indian Home Ministry in its March 29, 2020 notification did authoritatively mandate the companies to pay full wages to employees during the lockdown period. When the order was challenged in court, the government decided to keep its order in abeyance and asked the employers and employees to go for mutual settlement on lockdown period wage issue in accordance to the provisions mentioned in Industrial Dispute Act. 

Also, the ration cards designated to avail the benefits under the Public Distribution System (PDS) were issued to only citizens of that particular place and not to outsiders. Since most of the migrant workers didn’t have these they couldn’t avail of the benefit of the free ration scheme. Furthermore, the government didn’t come up with any rent-resolution plan.

Apathy towards migrants ambulating home and an inappropriate conveyance policy

Some migrants died ambulating, some died in accidents, some died of hunger, and some even committed suicide. The government was thoroughly missing from the highways and failed to provide food and water for the migrants. The least that the government could have done was ordering the establishment of stalls and highway kitchens to alleviate the hunger and suffering of the migrants.

Charging exorbitant fare from destitute workers

The decision to charge the stranded migrant labourers for Shramik (Labour) Special Trains was an apathetic decision on part of the central government.

Exploitative amendments in labour laws

After imposing a nationwide lockdown from March 25, 2020, onwards the government started allowing resumption of some economic activities from April 20, 2020, onwards in low-risk zones, but due to wide-scale reverse migration of migrant labourers, the economic activities continued to remain low.

Citing a lack of human resources due to the corona crisis, several Indian states amended their labour laws and enhanced the working hours of labourers without any provision for paying overtime to them. This was against the International Labour Organization (ILO) convention to which India is one of the signatories and also against Article 43 of the Indian constitution.

The Supreme Court of India declined at the initial stage to hear any public interest litigation on the migrants’ plight and only after two months of lockdown took suo-moto cognizance of the plight of migrant workers and allowed the opening of transportation for the migrant workers.


The COVID-19 pandemic underlined the solemn deficiencies in the Disaster Management Policy of the Government of India. The responses of the government in addressing the pandemic indicates that:

  • it was ill-prepared to withstand any widespread epidemic or catastrophe situation.
  • the Indian government and world bodies including WHO completely failed to properly assess the severity of the pandemic in a timely manner.
  • there exist serious flaws in the pandemic policy of the government of India and there is an urgent need to address those flaws and introduce a new policy that is more humane, adaptive, and inclusive in nature.
  • the epidemic highlighted the government’s limited reach in successfully implementing the lockdown.

Discrepancies exist in India’s pandemic and emergency replication strategies which need to be more humane and increase the inclusion of the marginalised, especially children and women. Before introducing any legislation that could impact the life of the masses, the public needs to be taken into confidence. There is a need to avert sudden policy decisions that can affect the lives of a sizable population.

There is a need to prioritize internal migration in policymaking. In Indian society, there is a further need to alter the derogatory perception towards internal migrants.

The full paper can be accessed here

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