Invisible No More: The Migrant Workers of India, by Ranabir Samaddar

March, 2020. Up until 24 March, the official Covid-19 death toll in India stood at 12. Over 500 persons had been affected. Then, with four hours’ notice, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide, 21-day lockdown.

The results were dramatic. In the following three months, Indians became familiar with scenes of migrant workers trekking hundreds of kilometres to escape the lockdown and reach home in their villages and towns. Some dropped dead mid-way. Some gave birth to babies en route. Some were run over by trains, trucks, and lorries. Many spent days and nights in jail-like conditions in cities like Surat, or in quarantine camps, or “safe homes” in the middle of nowhere, with little food and water and scant arrangements for sleep or sanitation.

A “Shramik Special” train, image by Insunilsingh (CC BY-SA 4.0).

After more than a month, the Union government declared that from 1 May, “Shramik Special” (Workers’ Special) trains would start ferrying stranded migrant workers back to their native places. (The move came under fire as the government levied a charge on travelling workers, already victims of loss of jobs and income.) What unfolded on the railways of India was a disaster. Conditions on the trains were brutal,  with some migrants dropping dead in the trains or on railway station platforms. On 5 May 2020, the Karnataka state government cancelled train services meant for stranded workers to reach home. Now they were trapped.

Various other state governments followed suit. They passed ordinances overriding hard-won labour laws guaranteeing important rights. Gujarat on 7 April 2020 allowed 12-hour work shifts instead of the standard 8 hours for 6 days a week for the next three months (thereby going against the Factories Act of 1948 under which workers were entitled to receive double the normal rate for extra hours). It also cancelled overtime pay for workers. The governments of Rajasthan, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh made similar decisions. Noticeably, all these measures by various state governments were presented as temporary measures.

The government sought to prohibit migrant labourers, even those tested and found asymptomatic, from moving out of the state they were trapped in. It also encouraged the recruitment of asymptomatic labourers for  manufacturing, construction, and farming  – but only in the respective states in which they are currently located. In short, stranded labour would become forced labour.[1]

The consequences of such repressive measures were highly visible, watched in the homes of countless Indians, as they suddenly saw on their televisions thousands upon thousands of workers undertaking the long march back to their “homes” – whether that meant families, villages, bustees (slums), tenements, workers’ colonies, towns, states, or familiar workplaces. Such workers sought their own protection, in a land that had imposed a lockdown upon its people without comprehensive provision for their social welfare.

Throughout April, 2020, news items anxiously dwelt upon the economic consequences of this protest. From ports to farm fields, from construction sites to mines, from the steel industry to the domestic sphere, one could hear cries of concern about labour shortages.

On the top of all these measures, governments for the next few months did not ensure rent-free accommodation for labour migrants They also did not ensure payment of their back wages nor guarantee other savings by contractors and employers. Likewise, there were no measures facilitating migrants’ access (in fact their legal entitlement) to the public distribution system. Cash transfers to the migrant workers were few and far between.

The migrant workers could be denied their rights, and menaced with starvation and insecurity, because of their political invisibility. Yet, paradoxically, Covid-19 also meant they literally became very visible, first to the employers who relied upon them, and then to the state, and then to everyone watching the news.

Workers met the economic package offered by the state by simply walking off work  in thousands upon thousands, from every corner of the country. Here was a veritable general strike in a ghostly form.

It came with ghastly results. Incidents of unrest and violence in Surat, Mumbai and elsewhere, and reports on deaths on the roads, not only showed that migrants were in urgent need of cash transfers and food, but also revealed the vast magnitude of the “migrant worker crisis.” When the migrant workers defied the lockdown and came out on the streets to march back to their often distant homes, their precarious situation became visible, both to mainstream politicians and society at large.

Once invisible in politics, migrant workers, once marginalized in the economy, were suddenly transformed into a “problem.” Once smoothly side-lined by the neoliberal agenda and considered to be people with no political agency, such precariously positioned producers came to be seen as the active ingredients in the “migrant crisis.” The bourgeois order of visibility/invisibility – rendering voiceless and discounted many of the workers indispensable to India’s economy – became plain. The vast world of undocumented migrant workers without labour security – recruited, dispatched, settled, paid wages, dispossessed, dying, all bound together in a system of informal ties and unwritten contracts – was no longer hidden away.

The migrants’ dilemma was of a piece with longstanding policies of India’s governments. The neoliberal state in India has accelerated a process of primitive accumulation – all those processes through which large populations are divorced, often violently, from their traditional means of life, in the interests of capitalist development.  Under Covid-19-stimulated “disaster capitalism,” India’s state strove for a comprehensive reorganization of labour – a sort of top-down force majeure, through which it not only sought to discipline workers by throwing them out of their jobs and compelling them to live in desperate, camp-like conditions, but also to dispossess them of the rights to life, livelihood, mobility, and health. A longstanding pattern of dispossession was intensified. And now, everyone in India could see it happening before their own eyes.


The population of migrant workers in India is huge. More than ten years before the pandemic, the government of India country had acknowledged the existence of vast number of unorganised or informal workers in the country. Exactly six years before the pandemic, a relevant government report reported that 76.7% of contract workers and 41.1% of waged or salaried employees were not eligible “for any social security benefits,” a pattern higher in rural areas.[2]

“Stranded migrant workers during fourth phase of the lockdown because of COVID-19 pandemic in Delhi, taking rest on the way to their village near New Delhi railway station.” Image by Sumita Roy Dutta (CC BY-SA 4.0).

This hinted at just how many Indian workers were trapped in situations of precarity and cut off from state provision. Yet it was indicative of neoliberal capitalism’s indifference to them that the precise numbers remained obscure.

Estimates of the number of migrant workers in India ran from 70,000,000 to 170,000,000.[3] Many public data on migration were reliant on 2011 results that were released in 2019 – hardly a reliable, up-to-date source. India’s National Sample Survey (NSS) could be consulted for a more reliable and authentic gauge of the phenomenon, but here, too, sampling procedures raised worries about accuracy. In truth, there was, and is, no commonly-agreed-upon number for migrant workers, even though they number in the millions and do jobs essential for the economy.

Few, especially after 2020, doubt their economic significance. They are, for instance, the motor of India’s logistical development. The booming waste-reprocessing industry, the construction of ports and highways, the growth of new towns and smart cities, the setting up of digital infrastructure – all rely upon migrant workers. Yet their near-invisibility meant that India’s government could claim, as it did in representations to the Supreme Court, that it had adequately addressed migrants’ problems.

Many reports suggested otherwise. Some, reliant on survey data, highlighted the need to offer them access to basic services – and as a matter of right, not as a consequence of ad hoc decision-making. Others pointed out the need for provisions to ensure at least a minimal standard of living. The gender-specific needs of migrant women (including fuel and health), calls to recognize informal settlements and to require urban governments to recognize their needs (or even to map their areas of concentration) were outlined. Some reports also spoke of the widely-recognised need to enumerate migrant settlements with a view to facilitating their access to basic amenities and services – either through direct provisioning or by performing a regulatory function.[4]

Such reports did not radically transform the migrant workers’ plight. India spends less than 1.2 per cent of its GDP on public health; it has 0.7 beds per 1,000 inhabitants (including the private health system); and private hospitals now account for 51 per cent of the hospital beds in the country, which in any case are not affordable for the poor.[5] Millions of migrants remained outside any framework of social provision. The pandemic would reveal how exposed they were to calamities that a more comprehensive welfare state might have mitigated.


With the announcement of the lockdown, the signal had been given. The Covid-19 crisis sparked a fresh round of primitive accumulation. The government adopted a law-and-order approach, epitomized by its invocation of the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act (a.k.a. the “Plague Act”) of 1897 and the Disaster Management Act of 2005. At a time when labour felt the chill of impending doom, the government dreamt of using the crisis to effect far-reaching changes in the socio-economic order. “Never let a crisis go to waste” seems to have been its mantra.

As was evident in the ad hoc nature of the governmental plan to meet the situation,  supply-side economics proved disastrous for migrant workers. Conversely, the opposition parties’ demand for demand-side economics, i.e., Keynesianism (often in the form of direct cash transfers to the bank accounts of the poor), was also unlikely to meet migrants’ needs, since many of them, as precarious “informal workers,” could not be reached through such programs.

Lockdown, silence, fear of Covid-19 death, the overall immobilization of society – using all these, the government worked hard to push through a range of reforms. Labour deregulation. Privatization of education, public health, and other public resources. The imposition of restrictive monetary policies. The substitution of the GST (Goods and Services Tax) with provisions requiring states to take out loans from the Reserve Bank. All of these were steps supposedly designed to reinvigorate the economy. All were drawn from the neoliberal playbook.

Alongside these measures, the government pushed agricultural reform bills through Parliament, designed in part to open up the country’s agriculture to foreign trade. The legislation aimed at expanding contract farming, allowing freedom to export food grains without restrictions, and the withdrawal of the designation of “essential commodity” from pulses (dried beans), onions and other vegetables, thereby opening up these essential items to the operations of multinational food-processing companies and other big traders of food items. The withdrawal of price controls relating to essential food commodities was especially devastating. Many of these measures were staunchly resisted and, in this instance, the Modi government was forced to backtrack on some of them.

All in all, the Covid-19 crisis produced severe disruptions in the  lives of labourers and in the processes of labour. It offered rulers, on the other hand, an opportunity to push neoliberal policies even further. In this context, questions of economy became a matter of life-and-death for millions of petty producers, as well as the multitudes of migrant labourers indispensable for India’s economy. The metamorphosis of economic questions into those of life itself had never been as glaringly evident.

A fresh round of primitive accumulation – wrenching people from their traditional support systems in ancestral lands, families, traditions, while simultaneously intensifying their repression at the hands of the state – was underway. The chaotic evolution that came to be labelled the “migrant crisis” was one that some in the ruling  class used as an opportunity to accelerate India’s neoliberal capitalist revolution.

In the short term, despite the successfully-resisted agrarian reforms, India’s neoliberal order has not fundamentally been shaken. It is clear that organised labour, traditionally unresponsive to questions of migrant labour,  failed in its task of resisting the Social Darwinism and neo-Malthusian population management policies implicit in the government’s actions.

“Food relief near R. G. Kar Medical College & Hospital during Corona crisis in Kolkata, West Bengal, India.” Image by Indrajit Das. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the longer term, however, the question must be: how do we visualize migrant workers in the wake of this public health crisis? How should we rethink the role of trade unions?  What of the future promise of workers’ cooperatives, mutual aid societies, local credit and savings banks, and solidarity associations?

And, most fundamentally, how can we who dream of a more egalitarian India conceptualize the relationship between workers and peasants ­– one exemplified by the contradictory figure of the migrant worker, many of whom are both at one and the same time? How might we imagine the revival of the rural economy through strengthening rural activities, animal husbandry, fish cultivation, flower cultivations, and other non-food crop farming activities? And how might we envisage a collective struggle, a “people’s war,” to reach any such alternatives to the neoliberal order?[6]

The pandemic has taught many harsh lessons. One of its most important may be that the fates of workers and peasants in India are organically linked.[7] And migrant workers, exemplars of these blended fates and invisible no more, may yet be those who can transform these lessons into movements capable of challenging a neoliberal order plainly disinterested in their welfare – or even, we have learned in the past two years, even their survival.[8]  

[1] Stranded Workers Action Network, 21 Days and Counting: Covid-19 Lockdown, Migrant Workers, and the Inadequacy of Welfare Measures in India, 15 April 2020; To Leave or not to Leave? Lockdown, Migrant Workers, and their Journeys Home, 5 June 2020, both at Link to source. See also a valuable report by Aajeevika Bureau, Unlocking the Urban: Reimagining Migrant Lives in Cities Post Covid-19 (New Delhi: Friedrich-Ebert-Siftung, April 2020), Link to source.

[2] Government of India, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Labour Bureau, Chandigarh, Employment in Informal Sector and Conditions of Informal Employment, Volume 4 (2013-14, 2015), 21,paragraph 2.29.

[3] Some estimates put the total number of migrant workers to 10 crores (Anandabazar Patrika, 14 May 2020, 5), equivalent to 100 million in western terms. Trade unions also have worked with roughly the same numbers.

[4] See “Un-locking the Urban: Reimagining Migrant Lives in Cities Post Covid-19.”

[5] Christophe Jaffrelot and Utsav Shah, “Keeping Poor Safe in Lockdown is State Responsibility, not an Act of Charity,” The Indian Express, 30 March 2020, Link to source.

[6] See Ranabir Samaddar, A Pandemic and the Politics of Life (Lucknow: Women Unlimited, 2021).

[7] See Sukhpal Singh, “Making Markets Work for Farmers During and After the Lockdown,” The Indian Week, 5 May 2020, Link to source.

[8] This note draws on the two reports I edited in the wake of the migrant crisis in India in 2020, “The Borders of an Epidemic” and “The Burdens of an Epidemic.” The reports were subsequently used for writing my book published in the second year of the pandemic, A Pandemic and the Politics of Life. Some of the arguments were put forward in my article, “Labour’s Burden of the Epidemic Covid-19 and Internal Migrant Workers: The Case of India,” Migrant Worlds 1 (2021); Link to source. I acknowledge my debt to the publishers and collaborators in this work.