Blog Series Part 2: Economic Impact of Covid 19: Migrant Labourers in India by Nandini Sen and colleagues

Men walking through salt mines

The effects of Covid-19 have been considerable and far-reaching. In this four part blog series, Nandini Sen, Anusua Singh Roy, Jayanta Bhattacharya, and Subrata Shankar Bagchi explore the impacts of Covid-19 within an Indian context. The first piece outlines the methodology of their research, the second focuses on Covid-19’s impact on India’s informal economy, the third examines the relationship between the pandemic and gender-based violence, and the final piece takes a closer look at the mental health challenges postgraduate students face in this current climate.

In the context of the global pandemic of coronavirus, India’s migrant workers are facing the crisis of joblessness and homelessness within a dynamic influenced by population density, ‘policy-blindness’, ‘social nausea’,[1] and economic issues. This piece addresses the economic impact on migrant workers from the unorganised sectors in India after the Prime Minister giving only four hours’ notice in the first instance, imposed two phases of lockdowns in March 2020 and again in April 2020. The number of India’s internal migrants were estimated at a staggering 453.6 million [2] [3] as per the last census. This includes those who are employed in the informal sector, which constitute at least 80% of India’s workforce,[4] and those working as casual and cross-border labourers, accounting for one-third of all workers at the national level.[5] Such individuals represent a considerable volume of the workforce and it is imperative for the Government to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

The lockdown prompted a wave of mass migration across India, unlike anything seen since the Partition in 1947, as people began walking for hundreds of miles.[6] It resulted in people fearing the hunger more than the disease itself. The New York Times [7] reports the story of Pappu (32), who sees himself as doubly misfortunate, being vulnerable both to the disease and to acute hunger. Most migrants, having limited access to money or assets, little awareness of health and welfare services, or a solid understanding of their rights, face a sharp loss of equilibrium in their lives.[8] This is further reflected in the data on Covid-19 deaths that are not directly associated with the virus infection, but with the draconian actions of the lockdown – such as ‘suicide, due to lockdown, lathicharge, hunger, during migration etc.’.[9] A plot of non-virus deaths vs Covid-19 deaths [10] based on data collected from reliable news sources reveals a bleak testimony of the aftermath of the lockdown on vulnerable migrant workers. It shows a sharp rise in non-virus-related cumulative deaths from 27 March, with cumulative deaths not due to the virus remaining higher than that due to the virus for a span of about 2 weeks.

Uncertainty in the lives of workers, entrenched by hunger, and poverty set the scene for a rapid unfolding of the biggest migration ‘in India’s modern history’.[11] A stark illustration of how such workers are marginalised by government policy is provided. Although a financial aid package worth $22 billion was announced by the Government, it represents only 1% of India’s GDP,[12] far less than European countries whose economic responses to alleviate the Covid-19 crisis amount to more than 20% of their GDP.[13] In the country’s capital, New Delhi, the state government declared food relief measures for those who were ‘registered as beneficiaries under the food security law’, covering around 7.2 million (40%) of its population, and resulting in the potential exclusion of ‘millions of vulnerable families who are not on the Public Distribution System’ including a ‘large number of urban poor and migrants’.[14]

Leading economists Jean Dreze [15]and Jayati Ghosh [16] describe the lockdown as a disaster, and argue that the Government must take better care of its people. Ghosh further says, ‘We have never had a situation where the government has simultaneously shut down both supply and demand, with no planning, no safety net and not even allowing the people to prepare’. Massive logistical and imminent starvation challenges have been created for thousands of migrant workers in India whose lives were torn apart in response to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic UN report, 2 and 15 April 2020.[17] ‘With the money we have with us we cannot sustain ourselves more than two days and there is no sign of relief from government’, says Ram Singh, a ragpicker. Singh, along with others walking long distances testify they have lost their dignity in this crisis.[18]

The question remains, will food, wages, shelter, safety, medical empathy of migrant workers remain in limbo? Trade unions and social networks may need to collaborate in solidarity with migrant workers.


[1] A. Kumar, ‘Reading Ambedkar in the Time of Covid-19’, (2020) Economic and Political Weekly, 55(1), p. 34.

[2] A. Kundu and P. C. Mohanan, ‘Internal migration in India: a very moving story‘, (The Economic Times, 11 April 2017).

[3] S. Bansal, ‘45.36 crore Indians are internal migrants‘, The Hindu (2 December 2016)

[4]Informal economy in South Asia‘, (International Labour Organization)

[5] Ministry of Labour & Employment, ‘Report on Fifth Annual Employment – Unemployment Survey (2015-16). Volume 1‘, (2016) Government of India. 

[6]Coronavirus: India defiant as millions struggle under lockdown‘, (BBC News, 28 March 2020)

Coronavirus lockdown sparks mass migration in India‘, (BBC News, 30 March 2020)

H. Ellis-Petersen, ‘India racked by greatest exodus since partition due to coronavirus‘, The Guardian, 30 March 2020.

[7] M. Ali-Habib and S. Yasir, ‘India’s Coronavirus Lockdown Leaves Vast Numbers Stranded and Hungry‘, The New York Times, 29 March 2020.

[8] K. Wickramage and others, ‘Missing: Where Are the Migrants in Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Plans?’, (2018) Health and Human Rights Journal, 20(1), 251-258.

[9]Media Reports based on Non Virus Deaths‘, (DataMeet)

[10]Non Virus Deaths‘, (Thejesh GN)

[11] M. Ali-Habib and S. Yasir, ‘India’s Coronavirus Lockdown Leaves Vast Numbers Stranded and Hungry‘, The New York Times, 29 March 2020.

[12]India coronavirus: $22bn bailout announced for the poor‘, (BBC News, 27 March 2020)

[13] S. Amaro, ‘Germany is vastly outspending other countries with its coronavirus stimulus‘, (CNBC, 20 April 2020)

[14] A. Yadav, ‘India: Hunger and uncertainty under Delhi’s coronavirus lockdown‘, (Al Jazeera, 19 April 2020)

[15] J. Dreze, ‘Migrant workers treated badly, more needs to be done to help them now‘, (India Today, 14 April 2020)

[16] K. Thapar, ‘Coronavirus Lockdown has Already Done More Damage to Economy than Demonetisation‘, (The Wire, 24 March 2020)

[17] S. Datta, ‘India: Migrant workers’ plight prompts UN call for ‘domestic solidarity’ in coronavirus battle‘, (UN News, 2 April 2020)

[18] H. Ellis-Peterson,'”I just want to go home”: the desperate millions hit by Modi’s brutal lockdown‘, The Guardian, 4 April 2020.


Nandini SenNandini Sen is an anthropologist and has done her PhD at University of Frankfurt. She is a visiting research scholar at School of Social Sciences, Heriot Watt University. Her academic article Women and Gender in Rabindranath Tagore’s Short Stories from Anthropological Perspectives Challenging Kinship and Marriage is published in Anthropological Journal of European Culture in November 2016. Her book, South Asian Urban Marginalisation: A Waste-Picker Community in Calcutta, India., Routledge/Taylor and Francis (2018) has fetched both fame and critical reviews by academic colleagues and academics.


Dr Anusua Singh Roy


Dr Anusua Singh Roy is a Postdoctoral research fellow, Statistician at the School of Health Sciences at Queen Margaret University. Research interests include the use of national data sets in longitudinal, cross-sectional and survival probabilistic modelling to address health related and participation outcomes in children with disabilities and individuals with severe mental illness.



Subrata Shankar Bagchi



Subrata Shankar Bagchi is the Chair Professor in Anthropology at University of Calcutta and researcher on various socio-cultural issues in India.



Jayanta Bhattacharya


Jayanta Bhattacharya by training a physician, did his PhD on history of medicine. He has widely published in the field of alternative medicine. He is a medical activist from India. He is the reviewer of the Bulletin of the WHO, Graduate Journal of Social Science, Social History of Medicine, Indian Journal of History of Science, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics and others.



Image by Hiltesh Choudhary on Unsplash.