The Great Indian Lockdown: Internal Migrants Fight for Their Livelihoods

July 11, 2020

On the evening of March 24 at 8pm, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week lockdown beginning at midnight that same evening.[1] With the goal of ensuring adherence to social distancing measures, the Indian lockdown included the suspension of all transportation systems and the closure of intrastate borders. The decision to declare a lockdown with only four hours’ notice in a country where 21.9 percent of the 1.3 billion inhabitants live below the poverty line was disastrous.[2], [3]

At the end of May 2020, India had recorded 175,957 cases of COVID-19 and 4996 deaths caused by the virus.[4] These numbers do not, however, capture the whole story. Hundreds of people have died from other causes linked to the lockdown.[5] Internal migrant workers – Indians who move from their place of origin to other states and cities within the country in search of better employment opportunities, more income, and improved livelihoods – are among the most affected. A large number of countries responded to the pandemic by imposing lockdowns, but there is no one-size-fits all solution to the virus. India’s circumstances, specifically, demonstrate the need for sensitivity to local conditions in policy responses.

India in lockdown: The ignored hardship of internal migrant workers

Large economic disparities exist between states in India, resulting in wide-spread interstate and internal migration.[6] The difference between the per capita income of the top five states and the bottom five states is 337.8 percent.[7] There are roughly 455 million domestic migrants in the country, of which approximately 194 million have migrated for work purposes and fall under the categories of main and marginal workers. [8] The imposition of a strict lockdown caused nearly 40 million internal migrants to suffer the loss of their jobs, incomes, and homes.[9] Most migrant workers live on rented properties and could no longer pay daily rent as a result of the lockdown. Deprived of a means to earn a livelihood, many had no choice but to return to their place of origin.

The central and state governments’ late response to the pandemic, which failed to anticipate and address the needs of migrant workers, further aggravated these issues.[10] The suspension of public transportation and the closure of interstate borders forced an estimated half million migrants to begin the long journey home by foot.[11] Many migrants died due to a lack of food, road and rail accidents, exhaustion from the journey, and subsequent denial of treatment in hospitals.[12], [13] Along their routes, migrants also faced discrimination. As they entered the state of Uttar Pradesh, 5000 migrant workers were sprayed with disinfectant as a precautionary measure.[14] A similar incident was also reported in Delhi.[15]

Protecting the livelihoods of internal migrant workers

Both the state and central governments should have been more proactive in their response. Preparation for the pandemic situation could have started earlier, around the time the first case of COVID-19 was reported in India on January 30. Prime Minister Modi’s March 24 declaration of a near-immediate lockdown did not allow for crucial buffer time. Advanced warning and preparation for the lockdown in the preceding weeks or months would have enabled migrant workers to travel to their place of origin at the beginning of the pandemic in an organized manner.

While advance preparation and warning would have been crucial to assuring the wellbeing of migrant workers, there remain opportunities for the Indian government to improve conditions for internal migrant workers. While the government has attempted to introduce relief such as cash transfers and food supplies to the poor, this too has not been successful. [16], [17] The relief package lacks specific provisions for internal migrant workers. Daily wage laborers in particular will need compensation to counter their losses and help them until the situation improves. India could establish a support program for unemployed migrant workers during the COVID-19 emergency. Local authorities should be involved as monitoring bodies to ensure proper delivery of the relief packages.

Some states and union territories have set up temporary shelters for migrant workers, and the government should ensure that every state provides the same support.[18] Schools, colleges and other free spaces can be converted into shelters where food, hygienic toilets and other basic necessities are provided. The government could also incentivize employers of migrant workers to provide appropriate accommodations and facilities to ensure their protection during the pandemic. In exchange, the government could offer financial reimbursement by allocating funds from the relief package to these employers.

The central and state governments’ unplanned, uncoordinated and delayed responses to the novel coronavirus pandemic have transformed the plight of the migrant workers from a struggle into a tragedy. As the virus spreads to poorer countries in areas like sub-Saharan Africa, countries with large migrant populations working in the informal economy should learn from India’s lockdown mistakes and ensure that better and earlier communication, relief packages, and shelters are in place.[19]


Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash

[1] Kulkarni Sagar, “PM Narendra Modi announces 3-week national lockdown from March 24 midnight,” Deccan Herald, March 25, 2020,

[2] Sibbal Kapil, “Why 4-hour notice for 21-day lockdown, Modiji: Kapil Sibal With thousands of migrants forced to walk hundreds of km, Congress leader Kapil Sibal slammed PM Narendra Modi for allegedly making no proper preparations before announcing lockdown,” Natioanal Herald, March 29, 2020,

[3] Open Government Data (ODG) Platform, India,”Number and Percentage of Population below Poverty Line by states – 2011-12 based on Tendulkar Methodology,” February 4, 2016,

[4] Worldometer, “Worldometer-Coronavirus,” Report coronavirus cases,

[5] Pavitra Mohan, Raj Gautam Mitra & Arpita Amin, “Stronger health system could have averted 500000 non-covid-deaths in india in early lockdown period,”, May 19, 2020,

[6] Paul, D.Sheeja and Dr. P.C. Jose, “An economic analysis of inter state disparities in india,” EPRA International Journal of Economic and Business Review, July 7, 2016,

[7] Nikita Kwatra, Pramit Bhattacharya, “The regional disparity challenge,” Livemint, August 28, 2019,

[8] Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner India, “D-6: MIGRANTS BY PLACE OF LAST RESIDENCE, ECONOMIC ACTIVITY, AGE, SEX AND DURATION OF RESIDENCE 2011,” Government of India Ministry of Home Affairs, 2011,

[9] World Bank, “Lockdown in India has impacted 40 million internal migrants: World Bank,” The Economic Times, April 4, 2020,

[10] Scroll Staff, “India may be forgetting over 100 million people in its coronavirus relief measures,” Quartz India, April 17, 2020,

[11] Huffpost, “Indian Migrants Walk Hundreds Of Miles To Return Home Amid COVID-19 Lockdown,” Huffpost, April 1, 2020,

[12] The Indian Express. Coronavirus lockdown: So far, over 130 migrants killed in accidents en route to their home states. The Indian Express. May 18, 2020.

[13] Kapoor, Sanjay, “Stories of hunger: India’s lockdown is hitting the poorest,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, April 4, 2020,

[14]Swati Gupta, Esha Mitra, and Vedika Sud, “Migrant workers sprayed with disinfectant in one Indian state,” CNN, April 1, 2020,

[15] The Tribune, “Migrant workers sprayed with disinfectant in south Delhi, civic body says ‘by mistake’: Watch video,” The Tribune, May 20, 2020,

[16] The Economic Times, “FM Nirmala Sitharaman announces Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package for poor,” The Economic Times, March 27, 2020,

[17] Trivedi Divya, “India: NGO survey finds that up to 51 million migrant construction workers ineligible for gov’t relief fund, leaving many at risk of debt bondage,” Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, April 15, 2020,

[18] The Times of India, “28,000 temporary shelters, 19,500 food camps for migrant workers,” The Times of India, April 6, 2020,

[19] Smith Elliot, “African migrant workers are unable to send money home, cutting off a lifeline to vulnerable communities,” CNBC, May 29, 2020,

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Lahari Chakraborty

Lahari is a student of M.A. Human Rights and pursuing it from Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen and Nuremberg, Germany. She has a Masters in Social Work Degree from Maharaja Sayaji Rao University, Baroda and Bachelors's degree in Geography from Miranda House, Delhi University, India.