Lessons from the migrant worker mess

The much-maligned migrant worker lubricates the wheels of the Indian economy. We know his value when he is not available; then the machine grinds to a halt.

Estimates vary but their numbers could be up to 120 million, more than the population of all but 13 countries. Periodically, the migrant goes back home. That is the day his or her value is recognised. The only question the employer then asks is, “How soon can you come back?”

When the country was locked down to fight the virus, supplies of newspapers, milk, vegetables, groceries and medicines were ensured. Virtual schools and work from home policies gave a semblance of continuity. With additional free provisions and money transfers for the poor, the state seemed to take care of everything.


Yet, the migrant, without a below poverty line (BPL) card, or any other ID showing his workplace address, remained invisible to the state.

India is not alone in this blindness. Singapore is considered the development model for Southeast Asia and even China. When the virus travelled from Wuhan to Singapore, the migrant workers, living twelve to a room, with dozens sharing a toilet, suddenly became visible as the scapegoats.

While the state forgot the migrants, the “poor” employers expressed their inability to pay wages without work and work was impossible during the lockdown. The master sat on his wealth, while the worker stared at his dwindling savings.

When the lockdown was extended beyond April 14, the dam burst. As migrant workers trekked and crowded rail stations, the state woke up to their presence. Assurances of food were held out but the trust had been breached. Finally, the state agreed to run trains and buses for their repatriation.

The master, complacent so far, suddenly woke up from his stupor. The state had allowed him to run his industry, but the lubricant was gone. The master pleaded with the workers to stay on; he asked the old question, “How soon can you come back?” There was no answer. Many returning migrants repeated to the press the harsh words used by employers when asked for monetary help to tide over the lockdown. They vowed never to return.


It is easy to be wise in hindsight. Yet, the government could have visualised that the migrants will be stuck without income and will go away. The state could have allowed the industries to run, while other institutions, markets, and offices were locked down. While shutting off passenger transport, goods movement could have been permitted to keep the supply chains open.

The workers could have lived in tents on the industries’ premises, enjoying better social distancing and healthier meals instead of existing cheek-by-jowl in slums, whiling away the days sitting idle and surviving on one meal a day.

The state governments would have avoided the “no production, no taxes” conundrum, with enough tax revenue. But all that is hindsight.

It is clear that the economy is sick and is likely to get sicker if course correction is not done immediately. The questions are simple: How to prevent the remaining migrants from fleeing and how to bring back those who have gone away? The migrants have only one goal: To feed their families through their labour, even far away from home for a wage which often is not enough to buy a cup of coffee at one of the popular international franchisees.

Workers in the legal loop have been allowed provident fund advance but migrants are deprived of it due to the collusion of our inspectors with the employers. Can the state give them an advance for survival for a month if they report to work within a prescribed period? Can the employer pay for their fare from home?

Punjab farmers used to form reception committees for seasonal agriculture labourers at railway stations. The banners promised, among other perks, free liquor! To be back in business, the industrialist has to take a leaf out of the Punjab farmer’s book.


The much-criticised US president Donald Trump allowed goods transport to run during the lockdown; he held a reception for the truckers at the White House, calling them “the absolute life-blood” of the economy.

The US did not shut down industries. When some meat plants closed down due to the virus, Trump used the Defence Production Act to reopen them. He directed supplies to six companies, including carmaker General Motors, to shift to making ventilators and N95 masks!

This is not the first time that a virus has come out of the wet markets of China, and probably not the last time either. These wet markets, where faecal matter and body fluids mingle with meat, are open again. Next time, we should close borders much earlier but not shut down our industries and goods transport.

Production, consumption, and the resultant multipliers are the life-blood of the economy. Come what may, the economy should not be allowed to bleed dry.

Published in Hindustan Times (May 20, 2022)

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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