Coronavirus | Opeds and editorials

Vividly imagining the life of migrant workers

A regime of social policy must be installed to meet the basic needs of all citizens at all times – not only during pandemics

The current pandemic has forced us to think about the plight of workers in our country. While the virus has demonstrated the enormous value of health workers, it has also enhanced public awareness of the pivotal role of migrant workers in our economy. We have been compelled to realise that between 100 million to 125 million people leave their villages, families and homes to find work far away wherever they can find it; their invisible hands harvest the crops and feed us, clean streets, run factories, build roads, and construct our houses.

The trek back home

Living away from home is never easy. A home is not made of brick and mortar, certainly not tin or planks of wood. It is where one finds comfort, nurtures relationships, and raises a family. It gives sanctuary from daily struggles. An extension of one’s identity, it provides us a sense of belonging. A place of tranquillity and serenity, it is where one longs to be when not there. This can only be where one’s family, friends and community reside, not an inhospitable, overcrowded room with strangers. Not surprisingly, hungry migrant workers were determined to trudge hundreds of kilometres to reach “home” in their village. I believe many would have preferred to do so even if they were fed by their employers or the State, which clearly they were not. Surely, they were entirely justified in asking why Indians stranded abroad were flown back in special planes or middle-class students brought back to their hometowns from coaching centres in Kota, Rajasthan, but no such arrangements were made for them? Why this differential treatment? Are they not citizens of the same country? Are they any less Indian?

Full coverage | Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants

Condition in ‘normal’ times

The current plight of migrant workers during the lockdown should become an occasion to reflect on their abysmal condition in “normal” times. Many “contractual labourers” rarely see a written contract. A minimum, regular wage per month is legally required but seldom paid. Many do not receive wages for months, and at the end of the season when they are finally paid it is often less than what was agreed. There is a lack of transparency in accounting — excessive, arbitrary and unexpected deductions from final payments are common.

Lack of regular wages means that workers either borrow from employers or from local moneylenders. This renders them even more financially vulnerable because of indebtedness. Quite often they work long hours, between 10 and 13 hours a day, live in tents or makeshift shanties without access to potable water, toilets, and electricity. I doubt if they are ever fully protected from the elements. Many of them do not have a kitchen and are forced to eat from local street vendors who live in similar conditions. Under such dire working and living circumstances, is it a surprise that under an unexpected lockdown they all wish to return to their original homes?

The Prime Minister recently spoke of the need for empathy and compassion during pandemics. These are admirable moral virtues, always necessary, not just in emergencies. But ultimately, individual virtues are insufficient to deal with social malaise. For it is not feelings of individuals but enduring collective sentiment crystallised around a stable course of action by public agencies that really matter. Effective public policies are indispensable. Gurudwaras and non-governmental organisations may complement its efforts to feed the hungry, but it remains the prime duty of the state to do so.

Coronavirus lockdown | Migrant workers and their long march to uncertainty

Work, home and dignity

In short, a regime of social policy, pivotal for a minimal welfare state must be installed to address the basic needs of all Indian citizens, not only during pandemics but for all times, to meet any contingency. Socioeconomic rights, including the right to work, have long been part of our Directive Principles of State Policy. By enacting the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act law in 2005, the Indian Parliament had set in motion a process that makes a specific and significant welfare provision constitutive of the very idea of citizenship. To be a citizen of a polity is to be entitled to an opportunity to work. Now, manual work in extremely hot conditions on parched terrain is an energy-draining, back-breaking chore, not quite a source of self-realisation central to the emancipatory vision of Gandhi, Hegel or Marx. And yet, even such paid manual labour is a far cry from receiving charity. Under democratic norms of equality, living on charity is demeaning and lowers self-esteem. There is a sense in which any voluntary work, no matter how arduous, quietly uplifts and enhances dignity and basic self-respect — a point gracefully underscored by a group of painters (migrant labour) in Palsana, Sikar in Rajasthan, when they chose to give a fresh coat of paint to an entire school building in return for the shelter provided to them during lockdown.


Work is one among many sources of satisfaction and self-respect. Our Directive Principles focus on others — proper housing, for instance. It is time the state took these seriously. While no state can build a home — which needs personal care and must be our own handiwork — the right to housing can certainly be guaranteed for it is implicit in the article enjoining the state to provide a decent standard of living.

Coronavirus lockdown | Migrant workers not welcome back home in Bihar

Multiple deprivations

However, such social policies will not be forthcoming unless we, who make these policies, stopped viewing the poor as sub-human. This is a controversial statement and requires some explanation. I believe the best of us carry the image of the poor as labouring creatures with basic material needs who beget children. They suffer when deprived of these material needs. Our humanity lies in empathetically acknowledging this suffering. This, however, is not an image that we have of ourselves. We have more complex social, cultural, political and even spiritual needs. We need quality time with our children, and leisure for ourselves; companionship and friendship, a flourishing social life; music, literature, art, poetry; time to fulfil our obligations in the public domain. And of course, we need our privacy, hours of solitude, space for self-reflection. Our suffering too is different: we have anxieties and phobias, inner turmoil, loss of a sense of self.

Assuming these profound differences between them and us, it does not cross our minds that the poor have multiple deprivations — not only material but social, cultural, familial, spiritual. When did a policymaker ever worry about the quality of family or spiritual life among the poor? Or whether they have time for their children or for leisure? Or how impoverished they might be because of their inability to adequately self-reflect.

Coronavirus lockdown | Migrants’ return home will lead to fourth lockdown: Bihar BJP chief

I do not wish to make the absurd demand that our state policies be designed to care for all these non-material needs. My point is that unless policymakers have the same conception of the poor as they have of themselves — persons with rich, varied and complex needs — they will not realise the grave consequences of the material deprivations endured by the poor or show the urgency to remove them. In short, policymakers need to realise that they deal with complete human beings. Unless they are able to vividly imagine the poor as fully human they will never design proper policies to address even their material needs. Alas, this will not happen unless policymakers feel their pain — literature and cinema can help here — and there is real, continuing contact between the two.

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

We have been keeping you up-to-date with information on the developments in India and the world that have a bearing on our health and wellbeing, our lives and livelihoods, during these difficult times. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

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

Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 3:10:31 PM |

In This Package
Open with caution: On Unlock 1
It’s time for a universal basic income programme in India
The waning of subaltern solidarity for Hindutva
Export blocks: On India’s trade amid the pandemic
A moment to trust the teacher
The echo of migrant footfalls and the silence on policy
Enjoying the fruits of their labour
Helping supply chains recover
The heavy burden of social suffering
An effective lockdown
The lockdown has highlighted stark inequalities
Will sport be the same in empty stadia?
Cinema after COVID-19
The eternal longing for the distant home
Working safely: On workplaces during the pandemic
A hole in the whole: On health sector woes
China, better prepared for the post-COVID world
How public health boosts an economy
Keep it retrospective
Backing the ‘angels in white coats’
Standstill: On opening of stadia for training
Flawed stimulus is justice denied
We need social physicians
A callous response
Peaking: On India’s coronavirus tally
Farm gate in focus: On amending Essential Commodities Act
A question of quarantine: On migrant workers and other travellers
TASMAC tribulations: On Tamil Nadu liquor sale
The pandemic and the challenge of behaviour change
One for the poor: On Centre’s corona package
Lockdown syndrome: On virus-induced economic crisis
Are India’s labour laws too restrictive?
Stop the return to laissez-faire
States cannot be left to the Centre’s mercy
Local motif: On Modi’s call for self-reliance
Liquidity lifeline: On Nirmala’s MSME package
A plan to revive a broken economy
Provide income support, restore jobs
Perilous state: On State finances
COVID-19 and the path ahead
Reaffirm cooperative federalism
Riding roughshod over State governments
Tragedy on the tracks: On the killing of 16 migrant workers
Coming to terms: On India refusing to admit community transmission
The trends shaping the post-COVID-19 world
The epidemic and ensuring safety in courts
Responding to COVID-19 at the grassroots
The face of exploitation
Contempt for labour: On dilution of labour laws
Slower growth and a tighter fiscal
Back home: On return of Indian expatriates
Blame game: On Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric over COVID-19
Resuscitating multilateralism with India’s help
A war-like state and a bond to the rescue
Fear and loathing in the land of the free
Everyone wants a good stimulus
Rent control amidst pandemic
Slow release: On lockdown 3.0
No comfort in numbers: On Bengal’s coronavirus cases
Pandemics without borders, South Asia’s evolution
India’s disease surveillance system needs a reboot
No relief for the nowhere people
BRICS against COVID-19
Recovering early: On India’s COVID-19 patients
It’s about food, nutrition and livelihood security
Taiwan’s coronavirus protocol shows how it is done
Needed: a pandemic patent pool
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Plasma therapy is no silver bullet
Take care of yourself too, fellow journalists
Strategic shift: On home isolation of mild coronavirus cases
Coping with today, planning for tomorrow
No end in sight: On India’s coronavirus strategy
You are reading
Vividly imagining the life of migrant workers
A task for South Asia
Privacy concerns during a pandemic
Unlocking justice in the lockdown
Safe return: On migrant worker distress
The outline of another pandemic combat strategy
Pandemic and panic: On Tamil Nadu’s five-city lockdown
Protecting the poor from becoming poorer
Did SARS-CoV-2 begin from a lab?
Protection for protectors: On safety of healthcare workers
Rapid failures: On antibody testing kits
The COVID-19 paradox in South Asia
Fishing in troubled waters during a pandemic
How will India emerge out of the lockdown?
Making doctors wash hands
Locked out of cities, homes and livelihoods
Script of unity: On coronavirus and social prejudices
Exploiting a pandemic: On Trump’s immigration policy
The village is still relevant
A time for planetary solidarity
There may be no going back
No transparency in West Bengal
Focus on the curve: On India’s COVID-19 numbers
Economy in lockdown: On India’s worst case scenario
A shot of hope with a game changing vaccine
Caught in the heightened arc of communal polemics
Singing the corona tune
Helping a lending hand: On RBI’s second lockdown stimulus
A season of change: On IMD forecast system
A virus, social democracy, and dividends for Kerala
Across the gulf: On stranded Indian workers
Virtual reality: On telemedicine
A blueprint to revive the economy
A case to use JEE-Main instead of JEE-Advanced this year
Will the aviation industry recover from the pandemic?
Data-driven reporting during COVID-19
Stress test: On revised lockdown guidelines
Disastrous decision: On Trump halting funds to WHO
Cease the distractions, seize the moment
Getting the containment strategy in India right
In India’s response, a communications failure
Harmonising with nature
End the harassment of farmers now
A narrowing window: On extension of lockdown
Corona bond: On Eurozone COVID-19 rescue package
Halting the march of rumours
Polls during a pandemic
The pandemic and the contours of a health response
Economic liberalisation and its faults
Invasive, alien, most fearsome
Trade in tatters: On the global slump
Wanted, a collective national endeavour
Disingenuous and no antidote
COVID-19 and the crumbling world order
Women’s safety during lockdown
Lives and livelihoods: On economy after lockdown
Stage fright: On denying community transmission
Team India and winning the pandemic battle
In time of need: On hydroxychloroquine export
Will COVID-19 affect the course of globalisation?
Finding a scapegoat in WHO
Curating news for children during pandemic
A time for extraordinary action
For better use: On MPLADS funds
Needed, greater decentralisation of power
A key arsenal in rural India’s pandemic fight
Preparing for exit: On lifting the lockdown
Sanctions and pandemic: On America’s Iran policy
‘A script of action, responsibility and compassion’: Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot writes on Rajasthan’s fight against COVID-19
Taking a long view of the pandemic fight
Ten questions posed by the virus
A different economic approach
Why healthcare workers above 60 should be ‘benched’
Enemy at the gates: On Kerala-Karnataka border row
Reducing farm distress during a pandemic
Why everyone should wear masks
The criticality of community engagement
A niggardliness that is economically unwarranted
The spectre of a post-COVID-19 world
Light and sound: On Narendra Modi’s 9-minute light ceremony
A million and counting: On global coronavirus spread
Safe forests, safe people: On diseases of animal origin
Quarantine and the law
Making the private sector care for public health
Looking east to contain COVID-19
Limits to rugged individualism
Uncritical endorsement: On exodus of migrant workers and the Supreme Court
Beyond the blame game: On the Tablighi Jamaat episode
A long road: On India’s 21-day coronavirus lockdown
The missing notes: On politics and the fight against COVID-19
China’s zero: On China’s lead in containing coronavirus
Unprecedented step: On Wuhan lockdown
The return of the expert
Lessons from Hubei
A pandemic in an unequal India
Faith can’t override public health
Devising a people-centric response to COVID-19
Karnataka CM writes on how the State is fighting the pandemic
Tamil Nadu CM writes on how the State is stopping the pandemic in its tracks
The hunt for a cure begins with telling the truth
COVID-19 and a city’s anatomy
Long live the nation-state
The COVID cycle
Coronavirus | The worst of times, the best of times
It’s also a fight against punitive measures
The age of the neoliberal virus
The deep void in global leadership
Thinking national, acting local
Every man is a part of the main
Beyond social distancing to fight COVID-19
Next Story