Citizens and the Sovereign: Reflections on a long due Humanitarian Crisis

While the lockdown period nearly comes to an end with Unlock 5.0 will migrants be unlocked from their distresses to be considered as complete citizens of this country?


On 24th March 2020, Prime Minister Narender Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown that left the country’s citizens in immense distress. People were left with less than a 4-hour period to prepare for a complete shutdown which was originally said to last for 21 days. It was however the migrant’s workers as a community who were affected the most during the lockdown.

Many individuals, rights-based organizations, NGOs, student’s communities, and political parties tried their best to aid the migrants when the world witnessed its biggest humanitarian crisis.

Migrant Workers’ Solidarity Network (MWSN), is one such collective of activists, students, workers, and concerned citizens from across the country which reached-out to at least 45000 workers when crores of migrants were stranded without any proper access to employment, food, and transport facility to reach back their homes.

In an attempt to document the crisis and their own experience of organizing the relief operations, MSWN released on 7th November, a report titled ‘Citizens and the Soverign: Stories from the largest human exodus in India’s Contemporary History’.

The 76-page report by MWSN notes that the response of the state machinery including central and state governments, courts, and bureaucracy and judiciary to the migration crisis followed the ‘Ignore-Hide-Exploit’ model. India reported its first Corona Virus case on 30th January by which time Corona Virus had left even the most developed healthcare systems across the world devastated. However, with sheer ignorance, the governments initiated no measure. In fact, on 13th March, the Government of India had declared that it was not a public health emergency. In a complete U-turn of its stances, on 24th March, the Prime Minister finally woke up to declare a nation-wide lockdown giving a four-hour notice to 130+ Million Indians in his aggrandizing speech. The public health system and social security measures which had been neglected for decades, proved yet again why they are integral to the lives of the people.

Working-class left to die

On 29th March, the Home Ministry issued an order to state that the employers were supposed to pay the wages for the workers for the period of lockdown. However, the notice was half-hearted given that it did not state how the same would be implemented or the remedies that the workers could seek if the order was not followed. The order was also withdrawn in the month of May. This order was at best a superficial attempt to eye-wash the growing angst of the people.

The Supreme Court also did not come to the aid of the workers of our country as it wiped out any possibility of the implementation of the order when the association for private companies appealed against the orders.

While all means of transportation were closed down for the workers, the governments ran special airlines to bring-back the upper-class people who were stranded abroad. It was only by May that Railways started the Shramik Special Trains after many of them had walked back to their home walking thousands of miles. Even when the trains ran, the processes were tedious and were filled with a myriad number of issues. The Police brutalities only added more problems to the working classes. While the governments failed miserably to aid the workers, it did make the best use of the lockdown period to push anti-labor and other controversial laws without any public or parliamentary discussions. The lock-down being in progress meant that the working classes could not voice out their interests in policy matters with protests being curtailed and very less scope for organizing demonstrations and pushing their demands. Regressive measures that exploit the lives and labour of working classes including in the sector of labour-laws, agriculture, education, environmental protection is being pushed by the governments. The brunt of such policies will be borne by not the big corporate but by the toiling masses of this country.

Lockdown: An excuse to implement anti labour policies

Long-standing issues related to the migrant workers including the non-implementation of social security benefits for unorganized workers, non-registration of the migrant’s workers, non-provisioning of minimum wages, and non-implementation labour-laws need to be addressed at the earliest.  Alongside these, other demands of the migrant workers including the Right to Vote through Postal Ballots, portability of social security benefits, accessibility to judicial remedies alongside housing must be pushed forward to better the lives and livelihoods of the migrant workers.

MWSN in its report has noted that despite these difficult conditions, the migrant workers organized themselves claiming their rights and also voiced out their opinions through at least 158 protests across the country. The protests tried to bring attention to very crucial issues including food, wages, shelter facilities, and transport to reach back their homes. However, in most cases, the old yet powerful discourses controlled and backed by corporates, and the state painted them as ‘chaos’, ‘disturbances’, ‘skirmishes’, or ‘conflicts’ thereby de-legitimizing even the life and death issues of the workers.

The report also brings about the inhumane impact of the lockdown on the working masses of the country and the issues around it including the role of the state, civil society organizations and how was the lockdown implemented. Sumit, a trade-union activist, and MWSN volunteer has noted how lockdown has affected the industrial workers and the dilution of labour protection laws in the state of Rajasthan and Haryana.

In his interview, trade-unionist Mukul has noted how migrant workers in Uttarakhand had to battle with the Covid-19 Crisis. The stories of Imadadul, Rokeya Bibi and Hashim actually lets know how workers’ initiative and courage are part of the workers’ struggle for complete citizenship. Activist-Lawyer Shreela has also noted where Tamil Nadu did better than other states in handling the Covid-19 crisis yet failed the migrant workers. Sandipa and Alok in their part actually spill light on how the nature of urban planning itself is hiding an ever-growing informal sector within itself with the help of the case of Mohali, Chandigarh and Panchkula cities.

While migrant workers were in deep distress across the country, gas explosions in Assam and the Amphan Cyclone in West Bengal made it much difficult for workers in these areas. An insight on how environment interplayed with economic and health crisis creates long-term trouble for migrant workers is also provided. Swati and Bharath of Karnataka Janshakti have provided important insights into the growing cultural divide between migrants and locals in Karnataka and how the state handled the lockdown period. Samirul Islam has also noted why the lockdown is only a manifestation of the socio-political and economic fault lines which marks the overall life journey of the migrants in the country.

While the lockdown period nearly comes to an end with Unlock 5.0 will migrants be unlocked from their distresses to be considered as complete citizens of this country?

The full report can be accessed here:




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May 2024


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