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Walking Back Home: Plight of Migrant Workers Returning to Odisha

Amid the nationwide lockdown, the reverse migration of labourers presents innumerable and anguishing sagas of appalling agonies back in Odisha  

By Praveen K Singh

With around 80 new coronavirus cases have been reported on Saturday in Odisha, according to data released by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. This brings the total reported cases of coronavirus in Odisha to around 696 total cases. Among the total people infected as on date, 172 have recovered and 5 have died.

Odisha was one of the first states to have reported a surge in the number of migrant labourers turning positive on arrival with Ganjam district being the hotspot reporting as many 249 cases in the 10 days since May 5.

The state government has prepared over 1.72 lakh beds in 7,120 temporary medical centres in gram panchayats and urban local bodies. According to government estimates, with more than twofold the number expected to put a hem on after the end of lockdown, the government is worried about maintaining the protocol of social distancing, an important way to impede the spread of Covid19.

Earlier, about 6 lakh migrant workers of Odisha have registered with the state government portal for staying in official quarantine after they return back.


It has been observed that those migrant labourers who have returned back and are staying at the quarantine centres go back to their home and return back at quarantine centres the next morning.

Ostensibly worried with the situation, Asit Tripathy, Chief Secretary of Odisha Government issued an unyielding admonition to the ‘refractory’ quarantine centre inmates. He instructed “The returnees, who are creating nuisance and escaping from quarantine centres will be shifted and will be kept at quarantine centres away from their districts. If they violate the rules they may even face arrest. Their quarantine period will be extended and no incentive will be paid to them after the completion of quarantine period,” said Tripathy. He has also asked the local sarpanches, who have been invested with powers of District Collector by the government, to strictly supervise the quarantine conditions and take required action against the violators.


The national wide lockdown and the consequent shutdown of transport created a humanitarian crisis in many states among the panic stricken migrant workers, large number of them took to the highways and started walking hundreds and hundreds kilometers to their homes. This reverse movement of thousands of migrants was a challenge in front of the Central Government along with the State Government. In order to give relief to all of them and prevent infection from spreading, the Central Government directed State Governments to make arrangements for safe shelters and proper arrangements of foods for the migrants.

Later on, on the request of state governments, the Central Government started the railway service to ferry back migrants to their home states.

The Supreme Court also ordered all concerned, that is the state government, public authorities and citizens, that they faithfully comply with directives, advisory and orders issued by the Central Government in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety. The court directed that the migrant labourer should be dealt with ‘in a humane manner’ and that ‘trained counsellors, community leaders and volunteers must be engaged along with the police to supervise the welfare activities of migrants’.

A pandemic of this magnitude is characteristically frightening because it bares the limitations of public health. In India, nevertheless, COVID-19 has revealed the condition of the labour force. More than 100 million workers have reportedly lost employment.

According to an independent data, of the total workforce in the country, over 90 percent (about 455 million) is informal, which means they work without social and employment security. However, the disposition of data collection does not permit us to know the precise number of migrant workers in this consortium.


It is well documented that the migrant remains among the most vulnerable groups. In India as per the census, the level of urbanisation has increased manifold and stands at 31 percent in 2011, which resulted in demographic explosion and poverty-induced rural-urban migration. A large number of people from rural and backward areas have started to migrate to cities and developed states for better livelihood opportunities. This is reflected from rising number of inter-state migrants that increased from 42.3 million in 2001 to 56.3 million in 2011. From the total inter-state migrants, one-third (30.3 percent) i.e. 17.1 million were migrated for the economic purposes.

A conservative estimate of migrants in this informal workforce would be more than 100 million (some estimates suggest up to 140). The growing informalisation, particularly in occupations of urban centres based on migration, reflects the casualisation of labour. The current labour strategies of survival by walking and withdrawing can hardly be understood in terms of ‘temporary displacement.’


The disparity of power between capital and labour and the constraint of the state’s welfare mechanisms were all put into uncertainty when migrants walked on the highways and expressways of the flourishing new India.

These migrants principally engaged in casual wage jobs in informal sector—construction workers, street vendors, restaurant employees, delivery persons, rickshaw pullars, and so on — which is precarious and day- to- day work without any social protection in the event of abrupt cancellations that has happened with the lockdown.

Most of migrate come alone to destinations and visit to their native places several times in a year. They remain connected with their family and deeply rooted with native places. That is the reasons most of the migrants at the time of national wide lockdown eager to return to their native places or villages. But this is really unfortunate that why our cities looks so cruel to migrant who run urban life with their hard work and why only the state government is responsible for their well-being. While they are not only the economic driver of destinations places but also play a vital role in development and growth of industries, businesses, people and many others.


A large number of migrants have already reached to their villages, and millions of others who are currently in the shelter homes and many who decided to stay back in cities are desperately waiting for the end of lockdown period to move their native places. This time many labourers will not come back due to shock, which means that most of small and medium size companies/factories and other businesses may face the heat once the lockdown period is over. There would be a shortage of labour or contract skilled workers and households also find tough to run their daily work without the helpers/drivers/maids etc.  The production and profits of small/medium size factories or businesses will suffer due to shortage of labourers and other, contract skilled workers.

Because the scale of their production/business would get reduced and their wage bill will also be raised due to higher payment to retain the limited available labour-force.


In this process, the sources states will also have the burden of rising labour force with more unemployed or underemployed people. They need to create more job opportunity in rural areas particularly in non-farm activities with a gainful employment to those migrant who do not want to go back to the cities.

The pandemic-induced lockdown has not created this ‘crisis’ of labour. It has instead taken the lid off the idea of ‘usual times’ and exposed the structural forces of disruption that are part of the story of three decades of India’s economic growth: urbanisation, gendered patterns of work and migration and the emergence of the biometric state, all of which have been robustly promoted by corporates and the state.

While the predicament has disclosed the nuances of structural economic imbalance, the disaster itself has not manifested because of the cracks inherent to the relationship between capital and labour. The workers are not running off the cities because of complaints against work conditions, wage arrears, or any other work-related demands or grievances. To be more precise, an outwardly forced displacement has revealed, rather than shaped, an unfathomable structural crisis.

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