Till now, the biggest dark spot in India’s lockdown to prevent Covid-19 from spreading has been its lack of planning about migrant workers. While countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka ensured that most of their migrants were able to head back to their villages before cities were sealed off, India planned to keep the workers in place in the cities.

This has caused incredible misery for the migrants, some of whom were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to get back home since the daily-wage jobs on which they depended for survival had disappeared. For those who were stranded in cities, the distress has in recent days begun to spill into the street: in Gujarat, their frustrations even escalated into mob violence.

Rich and poor states

The political fall-out of this distress has been a broad division between states that send out migrants and states that host them. While the hosts broadly want migrants to be sent back home, the home states themselves are reluctant to receive them, fearing that this movement would escalate the spread of Covid-19.

As part of this pattern, West Bengal on March 21 was the first state to formally ask for a complete stop of inter-state rail transport. On the same day, the state blocked all inter-state bus transport, sealing itself off from other states. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has issued public orders that district authorities should not allow migrant workers to re-enter the state at all.

Like West Bengal, its neighbour Bihar also has the same policy on disallowing its migrant workers to return. “The very purpose of the lockdown will be defeated if thousands of migrants are sent to Bihar by bus,” said chief minister Nitish Kumar on March 28, urging workers to stay in their place of work.

Kumar’s party was even more strident. “Migrants being allowed to leave Delhi and other towns is like launching a health war against Bihar,” said the Janata Dal (United) spokesperson KC Tyagi.

Uttar Pradesh has also adopted a similar position, urging migrants to stay where they are rather than try and walk back home.

A migrant worker in the textile town of Bhiwandi, near Mumbai. Credit: Reuters

Send migrants back

This stands in contrast to rich states in the west and south, which have to play host to large populations of increasingly anxious migrants. In the April 12 review meeting between the prime minister and the chief ministers, Kerala argued that keeping migrants in the state would cause social unrest, reported the Indian Express.

As a solution, Kerala asked for migrants to be sent back to their home states. “Kerala has 3.85 lakh [inter-state] migrants and they want to return their homes urgently,” the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the Modi. “So after [first phase of lockdown] April 14, this should be allowed. Railways should allow special non-stop trains for returning them.”

Maharashtra backed Kerala’s position during the meeting, arguing that arrangements have to be made to transport workers back to their home states.

Maharashtra publicly repeated this demand on Tuesday, as thousand of anxious workers gathered in Mumbai demanding passage back to their villages. “The current situation at Bandra station, now dispersed, or even the rioting in Surat, is a result of the Union government not being able to take a call on arranging a way back home for migrant labour,” said state minister and son of the chief minister Aaditya Thackeray. “They don’t want food or shelter, they want to go back home.”

Like Kerala, Thackeray demanded a special train service for migrants: “Right from the day the trains have been shut down, the state had requested trains to run for 24 hours more so that migrant labour could go back home.”

Relatively small numbers

Despite the enormity of the hardship faced by India’s migrant workers, there has been relatively little unrest so far. This is because most migrants in cities are from within the states in which they work. As per the 2011 census, India has around 5.6 crore inter-state migrants – compared to more than 12 crore intra-state migrants. This means less than one in three migrants in India has travelled out from her home state.

Compared to other large countries, research shows that India has very low rates of inter-state migration – China and Brazil were nearly four times higher while the United States was nine times. In fact, in a survey of 80 countries, India ranked last on internal migration: a situation that led the researchers to describe state boundaries in India as “invisible walls”.

This low rate of inter-state migration might go some way in explaining the fact that India is the only country in the world to impose a complete lockdown by preventing migrant workers from going home.

However, as strident demands for a migrant train service by rich states such as Maharashtra and Kerala shows, these government will face more pressure as the lockdown runs longer. While the first, three-week phase ended on Tuesday, the Union government has extended the lockdown to May 3.

This is part of a series Coronavirus and Indian federalism that looks at the critical Centre-state relationship in the wake of India’s unprecedented moves to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Other pieces from the series can be read here, here, here, here, here and here.

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