Citizens and the Sovereign: Stories from the largest human exodus in contemporary Indian history


This report was published by Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (a collective of individuals and organisations in India) on November 7, 2020. It documents the experiences of the Covid-19 lockdown on migrant workers from across the country.

The 76-page report discusses the government’s response to the migrant worker crisis under the lockdown, as well as protests by migrant workers for wages, food, travel, shelter and other facilities. It also contains interviews with activists aiding migrant workers during the lockdown.

The report contains 10 chapters – Travelling 500 kilometres to get quarantined in a home that doesn’t exist (chapter 1); “Despite having lived in Gurgaon for fifteen years, they have remained ‘migrant workers’” (chapter 2); “Uttarakhand issued ‘fit to work’ certificates within days of factories reopening” (chapter 3); Neither ‘charity cases’, nor public nuisance (chapter 4); “They knew that employers were violating all laws” (chapter 5); Between home and the world (chapter 6); Organised cities want workers unorganised (chapter 7); Environmental migrants (chapter 8); “I am afraid for the future of migrant workers” (chapter 9); and Migrants were being stoned, lynched and locked up; then lockdown happened (chapter 10).


  1. The first Covid-19 case in India was reported on January 30, 2020. The number of cases had already reached thousands globally by then. However, the Indian government declared the nationwide lockdown only on March 24, giving just 4 hours’ notice to citizens.

  2. The announcement of the lockdown created a situation where tens of millions of migrant workers felt the need to return to their homes immediately. Many set out to go back even when all forms of transportation came to a halt.

  3. The condition of migrant workers has remained precarious despite the various government schemes aimed at providing housing, employment and ration, such as the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana. Now, after the lockdown, most migrant workers still cannot find employment in their villages and finding work in cities has become even more uncertain than it was before the lockdown.

  4. Santosh Gangwar, the minister of Labour and Employment, government of India, had stated in Parliament on September 14, 2020, that the ministry had no data on migrant workers’ deaths during to lockdown, hence the “question does not arise” of compensation.

  5. The report contains the story of Imdadul Haque, a migrant from West Bengal who worked as a temporary employee at several hospitals in Bangalore. When the lockdown began, several families that had come to Bangalore for medical treatment from far away areas were stuck in the city with their ailing members. Eventually, many ran out of money with nowhere to go. Haque began helping such families with food and lodging. He contacted various organisations to arrange for ration for himself and 150 others. Even after returning home to West Bengal’s Barddhaman district, Haque struggled to find a job.

  6. In Rajasthan’s Alwar district, several factory workers in Neemrana town’s special economic zone were only given 21 days’ pay in March once the lockdown was announced. Many contract workers in the region did not get any salary during the lockdown.

  7. The construction sector employs 4.4 crore workers and forms the country’s second largest employee base – the report observes. Yet informal employment within the construction industry amounts to 97.6 per cent of all jobs, according to 2009-10 data from the Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation’s National Sample Survey Office (now the National Statistical Office).

  8. Citing data from the Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation, the report notes that only 23 per cent of all construction workers across the country are registered with Welfare Boards under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. A survey by New Delhi-based Jan Sahas (an organisation that works with socially excluded communities in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) showed that 94 per cent of construction workers were ineligible for accessing welfare funds as they were not registered with Welfare Boards.

  9. The report states that internal migration increased exponentially after the neoliberal economic reforms which the government passed mid-1980s onwards. Special economic zones were set up to attract foreign investment; they were exempt from labour laws and subsidised using public money. Accompanying this was a phenomenon of ‘formal informalisation’, where the share of informal employment was expanding within the formal sector.

    Focus and Factoids by Sayani Rakshit.

    PARI Library's health archive project is part of an initiative supported by the Azim Premji University to develop a free-access repository of health-related reports relevant to rural India.


Migrant Workers Solidarity Network


Migrant Workers Solidarity Network


07 Nov, 2020