Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

The urban migrant and the ‘ritual’ tug of home

Did our urban, means-ends rationality get it wrong again? Was it lockdown-related job loss that poisoned the well and led migrant workers, mostly single men, to head for their villages? Or, was there something non-economic, not quite this-worldly either, that turned their stomachs?

The migrant worker, when in crisis, is not seeking material help from his family in the village; they are, anyway, much poorer than he is. What disturbs him profoundly at such times is the fear of dying alone with nobody to perform the rites for him.

Also read | Cabinet clears affordable rental housing for urban migrants

In nearly every religion, the family plays a central role in the observance of mortuary rituals. Not just that, these have to be performed correctly so that the departed soul can easily negotiate the afterlife.

Unemployment as part of life

It is considerations of this kind, more than financial hardship, that prompt single migrant workers to leave for their rural homes. The Indian labouring classes are much less rattled by joblessness as unemployment is a frequent, if unwelcome, visitor at their door.

This is clearly an outcome of the fact that 93% of our economy is informal. Ironically, the Industrial Disputes Act encourages this trend. It mandates employers to pay severance wages, and other benefits, only if workers are hired, and on the rolls, continuously for over 248 days.

This law has had the unintended consequence of making it attractive for management to periodically flip labour around. As a result, only a minuscule minority stays employed for long.

Also read | After turning their backs during lockdown, cities now want migrant workers back

Most other workers suffer joblessness for long periods in the bear pit called the city. Yet, it took just two days of the lockdown for a large number of male workers to start the trudge to their respective villages.

Forget the industrial glue

When faced with an imminent threat to life, the tug of home and family is much stronger for the migrant worker than the industrial glue that comes with an urban occupation. This job could be well paid and the worker may have even held it for some time.

There are no laboratory conditions to settle this issue, but a comparative approach might help. In Surat in 1979, when there was a widespread fear that a satellite was going to fall smack in the city centre, causing untold deaths, a large number of migrants there left for their villages.

Again, in Surat, in 1994, the plague scare prompted over 6,00,000 to leave their work stations for the railway station. In both these instances, jobs were not threatened, but there was this perceived fear of death.

On the other hand, when demonetisation happened in 2016, only a few migrant workers left because this distress was primarily economic, without a threat to life. Later, in 2020, when COVID-19 started killing wantonly, there was a radical shift; now, men without families went home because they did not want to die alone.


We missed paying attention to this fact in the latest pandemic exodus because it was accompanied by an economic downturn. It also satisfied our middle-class mentality because, from our angle of vision, economic lenses provide the right focal point.

For the better off, even a temporary job loss can be traumatic. Besides a bruised self-esteem, there are also equated monthly instalments, or EMIs and mortgages to be paid. It is not uncommon, under these conditions, for a middle class person to turn to the family, as the first port of call.

Data from survey

A 2018 CBRE survey shows that 80% of young Indian millennials live with their parents. Further, a YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey conducted in 2020 tells us that they depend on their parents’ real estate property and savings to give them a start.

No wonder, Census figures show that joint families are growing, albeit slowly, in urban India, but declining in the villages. But the short, bullet point is that unemployment does not send migrant workers to their villages because their families there are in no position to help them financially.

What brings them home is the dread of dying on alien soil without the necessary prayers.

Also read | Two-thirds of migrants have returned to cities or wish to do so: survey

Rituals and customs

Among Muslims, washing of the body as well as the lowering of the shrouded corpse are important aspects of death rituals and ought to be performed by the immediate family. Despite regional variations, certain aspects of Islamic mortuary customs are constant.

Death rituals vary among Hindus too. There is no consensus, for instance, on how many days must elapse before major mourning rituals such as chautha and shraddha can commence. Also, most Hindus are cremated, but some are buried too.

Only the family would know the minutiae of these details. Further, among Hindus, male blood kin alone can perform the pind daan and the ritual erasure of debts, or (rin), of the dead relative.

If these, and other rules, are not followed correctly, the soul of the dead person could suffer perpetual torment in the other world. It will take more than a job somewhere to overcome the fear of dying anonymously, without proper ceremonies being performed.

Forced by poverty, workers can take economic hardship on their chin and stomach at the same time. They may have a face for radio and a voice for silent films, but in the theatre of survival, they move adeptly, playing their part.

Also read | Migrant workers returning to cities to reclaim jobs, Solicitor General tells Supreme Court

It is in the theatre of death that they need their families to provide the props. If about 90% of slum dwellers in Dharavi stayed put, post lockdown, it was because most of them lived with their wives and children and did not fear a death without rituals.

Newspapers were quick to notice that it was mostly men walking on highways, or leaving from train stations and bus stands. Though the image of vulnerable women and children in the midst of all this is much more wrenching, their numbers were not that many.

Gender factor

This is not a trivial observation because women actually form 55% (or, the majority) of rural migrants to urban India. If there were fewer of them on highways it was because arranged marriages have brought most of them to the city, not a flimsy job prospect.

This makes their transition more permanent because they now generally have properly anchored urban husbands. These women, in the fullness of time, make a home, birth a family and nobody in that unit need any longer fear dying alone and un-prayed.

On the other hand, rural men migrate with tentative employment prospects and it will be a long time before they can, if at all, imagine getting their families over. Of course, a stable job, with entitlements, would let them live that dream. Till then, the thought of death and a frantic bus ticket home will always be paired.

Even so, despite economic uncertainties, and underemployment, about 72% of slum dwellings are owned, not rented. This shows the overwhelming preference the poor have for family life, only if they could afford one.

Watch | How can migrant workers be protected?

When urban workers rush to their rural homes, it is because they fear a death where nobody prays for them more than a life where nobody pays them.

Dipankar Gupta is Retired Professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 6:04:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-urban-migrant-and-the-ritual-tug-of-home/article32279861.ece

In This Package
Migrant workers vulnerable again, say activists
Migrant workers face debt, job loss and separation from families
Coronavirus | Amid lockdown talk, migrant movement spikes on Mumbai-Agra road in Indore
Children of migrant labourers in Odisha face an uncertain future
Toll-free number launched to help children of migrant labourers
The migrant worker as a ghost among citizens
Labour Bureau study gleans migrant data
Data on migrant worker deaths | Madras High Court judge questions Centre
Govt. has no data of migrant workers’ death, loss of job
Coronavirus | Centre asks States to conduct free testing on migrant workers for COVID-19
An invisible humanitarian crisis in India
You are reading
The urban migrant and the ‘ritual’ tug of home
These Odisha migrant workers in Tamil Nadu are glad to have missed the train
Coronavirus lockdown | No clarity on ration for returning migrant workers
Re-enfranchise the forgotten voter
After turning their backs during lockdown, cities now want migrant workers back
Heading home: Migrant workers waiting at MGR Central Railway Station, in Chennai. File
For better conditions of work
60 lakh migrants took 4,450 Shramik specials to reach their home States: Railways
From HIV to COVID-19, Ganjam’s migrant workers remain undocumented
Yoked together, migrant workers and farmers are back in Punjab’s fields
Look back in relief: On the migrant labour crisis
Coronavirus lockdown | Migrant workers should not be prosecuted, says Supreme Court
Coronavirus lockdown | Union Home Ministry blames ‘fake news’ for migrant workers gathering at bus stations
Migrant workers | A boat ride home ends with a train journey back to work
Coronavirus lockdown | ‘Guest workers’ want to stay back, Kerala tells Supreme Court
Migrant workers waiting to board the Shramik special bound for Odisha at Chittoor railway station. File
Coronavirus lockdown | Deaths in Shramik trains not due to lack of food, water, says government
Coronavirus lockdown | 26 lakh migrant workers in halfway houses, says official data
Axing the economy’s trunk
A rude welcome for Odisha’s migrants as villages lack basic facilities
The waning of subaltern solidarity for Hindutva
How will govt. help migrant workers when it doesn’t have basic data about them: Cong.
Belated, but welcome: On Supreme Court move on migrant workers
People with serious ailments, pregnant women must avoid travelling on Shramik Special trains: Piyush Goyal
A moment for civilisational introspection
Migrant workers | Reports of ‘lost’ trains fake, says Railways
Coronavirus lockdown | Jharkhand flies its migrant workers back from Leh
Coronavirus lockdown | Muzaffarpur rail station incident shocking: HC
NHRC issues notice to government on migrant worker deaths
Coronavirus lockdown | ‘Runaway’ trains haunt migrant workers
Coronavirus lockdown | Don’t charge migrant workers bus or train fare, says Supreme Court
Use Central forces to send migrants home safely, petition urges PM
Migrant workers | Video of baby with dead mother in Bihar railway station goes viral
Coronavirus lockdown | Migrant workers returning to Bihar jump off trains to flee isolation
Coronavirus lockdown | 5 persons on Shramik Special trains die in U.P.
The echo of migrant footfalls and the silence on policy
Supreme Court orders Centre and States to immediately provide transport, food and shelter free of cost to stranded migrant workers
Failing to perform as a constitutional court
The need for a million worksites now
Coronavirus lockdown | Railways to run 2,600 Shramik Specials over next 10 days
The eternal longing for the distant home
Flawed stimulus is justice denied
Migrants trigger spike in U.P. cases
Soren seeks permission to fly back workers
Desperate migrants keen to return home
Two held for ferrying migrant workers on forged pass
Bihar-bound Shramik Rail leaves Chittoor with 1,440 workers
A callous response
Workers returning to Bihar caught between poverty of their villages and starvation in cities
Migrant workers assaulted by brick kiln owner in Tiruvallur
Coronavirus lockdown | 9 migrant workers die in Bihar road accident
Coronavirus lockdown | U.P. government locks horns with Congress over buses for migrant workers
Coronavirus lockdown | State nod not necessary for Shramik trains
Our families need us in this tough time, migrant workers say as they struggle to go home
Coronavirus lockdown | Image of a weeping Rampukar Pandit becomes symbol of India’s migrant worker tragedy
Coronavirus lockdown | Truck ditches ill man on road, friend stays back till his death
Coronavirus package | Will migrant workers benefit from the Centre’s measures?
Coronavirus lockdown | Centre tells States to upload details of migrant workers online
Coronavirus lockdown | Rahul Gandhi interacts with home-bound migrant workers
Coronavirus lockdown | 8 lakh MT more grains allocated to States for migrant workers
Coronavirus lockdown | Madras High Court directs Centre to disclose number of migrant labourers who died on the way to their home States
Coronavirus lockdown | Eight migrant workers killed in Madhya Pradesh road accidents
Coronavirus lockdown | 25 migrant workers die in Uttar Pradesh road accident
Coronavirus lockdown | 19 migrant workers injured in accident in Telangana’s Adilabad district
Coronavirus lockdown | Police cane migrant workers near Vijayawada
Coronavirus lockdown | M.P. in the middle of a migrant rush
Coronavirus lockdown | Can’t stop migrants from walking home, says Supreme Court
Coronavirus lockdown | Rajasthan moves to deal with huge migrant influx
Coronavirus lockdown | U.P. police warning against helping migrants sparks row
Workers are seen working at Muda Kala village in Sitapur.
Migrant workers in U.P. find meagre solace in shovels
Are India’s labour laws too restrictive?
Stop the return to laissez-faire
Back home in U.P., job offer worries migrant workers
Coronavirus lockdown | 9 migrant workers killed, 50 injured in Madhya Pradesh highway accident
Six migrant workers run over by speeding bus in U.P.’s Muzaffarnagar
Coronavirus package | Migrant workers to get free foodgrains
Coronavirus lockdown | Returning workers fight for food at Bihar railway stations
Coronavirus lockdown | NHRC issues notices to States
Provide income support, restore jobs
Call to set up common data portal for migrant travel
The face of exploitation
Tragedy on the tracks: On the killing of 16 migrant workers
Truck carrying migrant workers overturns in Madhya Pradesh; 5 killed
Coronavirus lockdown | Car runs over migrant worker on his way home to Bihar by bicycle
Lockdown | Cabinet Secretary seeks cooperation of States for transportation of stranded migrants
Coronavirus lockdown | Weary migrant workers lug crashed hopes en route their homes
Coronavirus lockdown | Three migrant workers on way to Uttar Pradesh die on Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border
16 migrant workers run over by goods train near Aurangabad in Maharashtra
Opposition slams Centre for Aurangabad migrant workers deaths
Coronavirus lockdown | With no work or food, workers brave the long march home from Uttar Pradesh
Railways ferried over 2.5 lakh people stranded during lockdown in special trains, says MHA
Migrant workers | Maharashtra train accident victims were battling hunger
Second train ferrying migrant workers leaves for Muzaffarpur
Contempt for labour: On dilution of labour laws
Karnataka to restart trains for migrants
4 CMs dial Yogi, want to retain labour from U.P.
Coronavirus lockdown | Back in U.P., migrants stare at an uncertain future
Coronavirus lockdown | Centre urges unions to convince labour to stay, return to work
Migrant workers | Row over sharing of train fares
Who will pay for migrants’ travel, asks HC
Supreme Court must help migrants, says Anand Sharma
Migrant labourers hunt for cycles to go home
100 migrant workers held near Silvassa town of Dadra and Nagar Haveli for rioting
Boost wages to stimulate India’s growth
No relief for the nowhere people
Shramik special trains | Migrant workers, other stranded people to pay ₹50 more to get home
Coronavirus lockdown | Despair packs migrant workers from U.P. into a concrete mixer truck
Coronavirus | Shramik Special train reaches Danapur with 1,174 migrants, students
Coronavirus | Migrant labourers take to the streets across Chennai
Firm up plan to employ 15-20 lakh people: Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath
Coronavirus lockdown | India’s first 'Shramik Special' train carrying 1, 200 migrants reaches Ranchi
It’s about food, nutrition and livelihood security
Coronavirus | Odisha to step up screening of those returning to State
Coronavirus lockdown | When a public toilet in Delhi serves as ‘home’
Seal inter-State borders, orders Chief Secretary
TISS team generates data on migrant workers
Coronavirus | U.P., Bihar migrants can now avail ration portability
Making the long journey a tad less painful
Vividly imagining the life of migrant workers
Safe return: On migrant worker distress
Coronavirus | Uttar Pradesh to bring back migrant workers in phases
How will India emerge out of the lockdown?
Locked out of cities, homes and livelihoods
Coronavirus lockdown | In Rajasthan, migrant workers repair and paint government school that sheltered them
Coronavirus lockdown | Plan ahead for transport of migrant workers, Maharashtra tells Railways
Coronavirus lockdown | Close to 6 lakh labourers from State stranded, says Jharkhand govt
Data | 96% migrant workers did not get rations from the government, 90% did not receive wages during lockdown: survey
Opinion | The ‘nowhere people’ of COVID-19 need better legal safeguards
Police intercept migrant workers leaving Delhi, lend help
Leaking pipeline valves, dried streams help migrant workers
Select passenger trains should be run to take migrant workers home, former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi
1.31 lakh sugarcane workers in Maharashtra can now travel back home
Coronavirus lockdown | Stranded in various States, Odisha migrants call home for help
Coronavirus | Workers face heat, hunger as lockdown is extended
Coronavirus | Migrant workers protest outside Bandra railway station
Disingenuous and no antidote
Coronavirus lockdown | Odisha youth pedals 1,700 km from Maharashtra to reach home
Coronavirus lockdown | Flight of migrant labour a deep concern for post lockdown revival: Nitin Gadkari
Lockdown | Migrant workers in Surat come out on road demanding salaries
Coronavirus | Migrant workers slip out of Bihar quarantine centres at night, return by day
Coronavirus | Centre files report on migrant workers
Shelters see total occupancy of less than 12%
Google introduces new feature to locate food, night shelters
1.95 lakh migrant workers on govt. radar
Community kitchens reach out to needy during lockdown
Migrant workers in Haryana worry about rent and wages
42% of labourers don’t have even a day’s worth rations left: Survey
Stream of migrant workers leaving Telangana dries up
Govt. may have to present second Budget to deal with COVID-19 aftermath, says Jairam Ramesh
Chennai hotels cater to migrant workers and those in the front lines of the battle against novel Coronavirus
Goa starts counselling for migrant labourers
Coronavirus | Lockdown triggers belated march of migrants from hills in Arunachal
A gruelling journey from Maharashtra that ended on a sweet note
India coronavirus lockdown | Migrant workers and their long march to uncertainty
Coronavirus | U.P. villages tense as many skip quarantine
Coronavirus | Centre releases ₹11,092 crore under State Disaster Risk Management Fund
Quarantined migrants attack officials in Bihar villages; run away from centres
With no help from companies, migrant workers out in the cold
The long and gruelling road did not take them home
Inmates at Gurugram relief camp bored, homesick and restless
A tedious trek to reach home
Trapped migrants in Capital long to be back with their families
Coronavirus | Coimbatore Police intercept container trucks packed with migrants
Namakkal youth dies in Telangana
Coronavirus | Forced to stay back, these workers now battle hunger
Coronavirus | Centre’s extra ration promise yet to be kept at PDS shops
Defiant migrants ready to confront anything that comes their way
Coronavirus | Treat migrants humanely, Supreme Court tells officials
Coronavirus lockdown | Centre again asks States to reach out to persons with disabilities
Coronavirus | At ‘Zero Point’ on Yamuna Expressway, flight from hunger beats fight against virus
Coronavirus | Similar stories, very personal tragedies
An unending journey for the migrants
Stranded non-Delhi residents struggle to return
Coronavirus | An unending journey to their homes
After UP, footage of travellers being ‘disinfected’ in Kerala surfaces; only ‘soap water’ sprayed, claims DGP
Beyond call of duty: police turn saviours for the hungry, homeless
Migrants want to return despite getting amenities at shelters
Ninety migrant labourers arrested in Surat after clashes with police
Coronavirus | With nil hopes at Zero Point, migrants face police batons
Coronavirus: In Bareilly, migrants returning home sprayed with 'disinfectant'
Community kitchens come to the aid of many
Migrant labourers sent back to Mumbai from Igatpuri
Migrants throng KMP Expressway looking for means to go home
Coronavirus | Lal Kuan is the new epicentre of migrant exodus from Delhi
Coronavirus lockdown | Migrant workers not welcome back home in Bihar
Coronavirus lockdown | After night-long ordeal, migrant workers in Rajasthan leaving by buses
Coronavirus lockdown | In Uttar Pradesh, workers made to go round in circles
Coronavirus | Migrant workers stage protest defying lockdown
Migrant labourers from Karnataka left to fend for themselves
Coronavirus | Exodus of migrant workers out of Delhi unabated but police block their entry into Anand Vihar ISBT
Coronavirus | Migrant workers returning to Balarampur village in West Bengal told to live in trees
Coronavirus lockdown | As inter-State buses dwindle, migrants are stuck on Yamuna Expressway with nowhere to go
2,500 workers make a bid to migrate
Coronavirus | Despite U.P. CM’s appeal, migrant workers throng Lucknow’s bus stands
Labourers in camps down to one meal a day as supplies deplete
Youth dies in Maharashtra's Melghat as doctors suspect COVID-19, shunt him from one hospital to another
Sea of humanity engulfs Kaushambi bus depot
Next Story