To leave or not to leave? Lockdown, migrant workers, and their journeys home


On March 25, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19. Two days later, on March 27, volunteers associated with the Right to Food Campaign (a network of individuals and organisations in India) and the Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan (an organisation that works on accessing government programmes in Muzaffarpur, Bihar) formed the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) to respond to distress calls from migrant workers in different parts of India.

SWAN’s first report, 21 Days and Counting, which was released on April 15, documents information collected from the calls of 640 groups of 11,159 stranded workers. Their second report, 32 Days and Counting, was released on May 1 with data on 1,531 groups of 16,863 stranded workers. To leave or not to leave? Lockdown, migrant workers, and their journeys home is SWAN’s third report, based on interactions with about 34,000 workers by June 5, 2020.

This third report notes that many migrant workers preferred to return home due to a lack of cash, food and income security during the lockdown. The report discusses court judgements and decisions by central and state governments on the distress of migrant workers, problems faced by workers during their journeys home and data collected through SWAN’s helpline. The report also contains letters written by SWAN to government officials containing recommendations for travel and other arrangements for migrant workers.


  1. On March 26, the government of India announced a Rs. 1.7 lakh crore relief package “for the poor” under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana. Citing the International Monetary Fund’s report Fiscal Monitor, April 2020, the SWAN report states that the actual spending announced by central and state governments comes to a total of Rs. 1.42 lakh crores.

  2. Citing COVID-19 Livelihoods Survey (2020), a report by Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, that contains data on over 5,000 households across 10 states in India, the SWAN report says that 77 per cent of all households reported consuming less food than they did before the lockdown, and 47 per cent of all households reported not having money to buy essentials for the next week.

  3. In the Livelihoods Survey, among the urban workers surveyed, 82 per cent of all female and 80 per cent of all male casual workers lost employment during the lockdown. Among urban households, 89 per cent reported not having money to pay the next month’s rent.

  4. Citing a news report, the SWAN report notes that 80 people have died on board Shramik Special trains for stranded migrant workers between May 9 and May 27, according to data from the Railway Protection Force. The Ministry of Railways must adopt “a humane approach to the repatriation of migrants,” keeping in mind the “hostility and indignity” they faced in April and May.

  5. Based on data collected from 821 distress calls received from May 15 to June 1, for 5,911 migrant workers across the country, SWAN notes that 80 per cent of workers did not have access to government rations. Among the 5,911 workers, 76 per cent had less than Rs. 300 remaining, 72 per cent had less than Rs. 200 and 63 per cent had less than Rs. 100. Those with no money or rations left comprised 57 per cent.

  6. SWAN collected data from 1,963 migrant workers who had previously contacted them for help. The report states that 67 per cent (or 1,166) of the 1,963 workers were stranded in the same place since the lockdown was announced, and 55 per cent of these 1,166 workers wanted to go home immediately. Among 1,124 workers stuck in the same place since the lockdown was announced, 75 per cent were unemployed.

  7. The report states that that 48 per cent of 1,559 migrant workers took loans of Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 5,000 since the lockdown began, and 30 per cent took loans of more than Rs. 5000 – as per data collected by calling 1,963 migrant workers who had previously contacted SWAN

  8. The report states that during the lockdown migrant workers faced such problems as eviction by landlords and employers, tedious and costly journeys home, and little help from the police. The workers faced several problems in accessing Shramik Special trains, such as having to pay people to fill ‘travel forms’ for them, no prior information about train schedules, poor facilities and little access to food and water on trains, no trains to smaller towns and the non-availability of seats.

  9. India is signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, an international human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966. The Covenant contains a scheme of articles for ensuring fundamental rights and freedoms for all people. The report states that it is “…high time that we reconfigure our society and strengthen our laws based on these principles instead of the proposed dilution of labour laws."

    Focus and Factoids by Ipshita Karmkar.

    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.


Stranded Workers Action Network


Stranded Workers Action Network


05 Jun, 2020