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India’s pandemic exodus was a biological disaster and stranded migrant workers should be classified as internally displaced

The migrant worker crisis was a disaster waiting to happen. Manoej Paatee/Shutterstock

India’s pandemic exodus was a biological disaster and stranded migrant workers should be classified as internally displaced

The migrant worker crisis was a disaster waiting to happen. Manoej Paatee/Shutterstock

India’s pandemic exodus was a biological disaster and stranded migrant workers should be classified as internally displaced

The migrant worker crisis was a disaster waiting to happen. Manoej Paatee/Shutterstock

India’s pandemic exodus was a biological disaster and stranded migrant workers should be classified as internally displaced

The migrant worker crisis was a disaster waiting to happen. Manoej Paatee/Shutterstock

Shortly after the announcement of a lockdown, it was reasonably anticipated that the closure of business would detrimentally affect the social and economic conditions of millions of daily wage workers in the country.

Malavika Rao, Graduate Institute – Institut de hautes études internationales et du développement (IHEID)

On March 24, 2020, the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. In the past year, various state governments have intermittently continued to impose lockdown restrictions when the numbers of cases have risen, most recently during the severe second wave.

Shortly after the announcement of a lockdown, it was reasonably anticipated that the closure of business would detrimentally affect the social and economic conditions of millions of daily wage workers in the country. However, the sudden flight of millions of migrant workers from cities to their villages posed an unprecedented humanitarian challenge that grabbed the world’s attention. The media extensively reported on the conditions of migrant workers, who were stranded around the country without food or shelter, struggling to survive and return to their villages.

The national and state governments, civil society groups and the Indian Railways scrambled to arrange for their safe return and to provide basic amenities to the group.

India could have avoided this exodus or at least mitigated its severity with a closer look at the pattern of movement of migrant workers and a better understanding of COVID-19 as a biological disaster.

A migrant worker in ordinary circumstances voluntarily moves to a place in search of work. In India there are 139 million migrant workers who move from villages to cities each year to work in construction, manufacturing, hospitality, textiles, domestic work and industry. Here, the motivation to move from villages to cities is voluntary – internal migrants move to secure a better livelihood. When a migrant worker returns to her village upon the completion of employment, the decision to do so is voluntary as well.

But the movement of migrant workers because of the lockdown was neither voluntary nor for the betterment of livelihoods. Migrant workers were seen marooned along their journey back in places that were neither their place of work nor their homes, where they could receive any food or shelter.

This pattern is not one of voluntary migration but, as I have argued in a recent paper, one of internal displacement.

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