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  • Human Rights Research Center

Internal Migrants in India

July 11, 2024

In early May 2020, 16 internal migrants were killed on the outskirts of Aurangabad, India when a train ran over them. Following the Indian government’s announcement of a relaxation in the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, these 16 people had hoped to catch one of the special trains arranged by authorities back to their hometowns. They walked for 22 miles until they were exhausted and decided to rest on the tracks, assuming that the freight railway was closed due to the lockdown. Unfortunately, that was not the case. These 16 people were just a few among the hundreds of millions of migrant workers in the country.

As of 2024, India became the most populated nation in the world, with 1 in 7 humans on the planet identifying themselves as an Indian. Among these individuals, an estimated 600 million Indians are internal migrants. These migrants move across the country in search of employment, resources, and opportunities, forming a group larger than the populations of all but two countries on Earth, China, and India. Many of these workers are migrants within their own districts, accounting for more than 60% of the total migrant population, while inter-state migrants make up only 12%, which is lower compared to other developing countries such as Brazil or China. Many of these migrants are also seasonal or temporary workers, moving within their district based on trends in seasonal employment, most often in the agricultural and construction sectors. Many of these migrants hail largely, from the marginalised sections of Indian society. More than half are women, who migrate not only for work and employment, but also due to marriage and family obligations.

Migrants are an at-risk group, with difficulties in accessing health services, enforcing their legal rights, and obtaining their welfare. In general, they work in conditions with significant health risks and occupational hazards, often in dangerous environments. They are also frequently exposed to human rights violations and abusive conditions. One of the biggest problems faced by migrants when reaching their destination is proving their identity. The significant majority of the migrant population hails from rural areas, they are unable to gain identifying documents such as birth certificates in rural areas, where inadequate or non-existent healthcare facilities, government services, and social welfare systems make it difficult to obtain identifying documents such as birth certificates. The absence of proof of identity makes claiming social protection, government entitlements, and sponsored schemes and programmes difficult for migrants. They also face a lack of housing rights, political representation, education for children, and workers’ rights. As a result, they are exposed to dangerous working conditions with no recourse to justice.

The precarious situation of migrants leads to their denial of basic housing, exposure to abuse and occupational exploitation, and being forced to perform hazardous and/or insecure work. Children and women are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation. Children of migrants also face significant disruptions to their schooling and regular education, with further impact on their human capital.

These conditions perpetuate intergenerational poverty, further adding to the marginalisation of migrant populations, who are already seen as a “burden” on Indian society. Migrants are also a source of anger for the general population who believe that they depress wages and “steal” jobs from “natives”. However, migrants contribute significantly to the country’s GDP through India’s massive unorganised economic sector. This was prominently displayed when the Indian economy came to a grinding halt in the face of the reverse migration due to COVID-19. The discrimination and economic conditions faced by migrants force them into vast ghettos and slums in the major cities of India. These slums are also a source of jobs that are termed as “3-D jobs” (Dirty, Dangerous and Degrading), which leads to unhealthy and unsanitary living conditions. These jobs are often unattractive and taken up by migrants who are seen as exploitable.

The fear of migrants stealing jobs, the formation of slums, and the presence of migrants occupying jobs considered degrading (particularly in Indian society where ritual purity is religiously significant), has caused significant socio-political tensions. Political parties like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra gain support by fomenting ethnic violence against migrants from other states who speak different languages and are of differing ethnic backgrounds. However, as mentioned, most of the migrants in Maharashtra, like the rest of India, are internal migrants, as opposed to migrants from other states. Such political movements further increase the discrimination against migrant groups.

The socioeconomic conditions of migrants have led to the creation of deplorable and unhealthy living conditions. The slums and shantytowns where migrants reside often have no running water, drainage, electricity, or roads, with little to no support from the local or state governments. In fact, government officials often extort or take bribes from these communities. The lack of sanitation has caused the rise of infectious diseases, partly contributing to India becoming one of the world’s largest hotspots of tuberculosis and malaria. Malaria is also at high incidence in areas of work such as construction sites, due to the informal nature of the working conditions leading to formation of malarial endemic zones. Acute and chronic respiratory infections, diarrhoeal infections, and waterborne diseases are also extremely common. Childhood illnesses in particular are common, causing stunting and malnutrition.

Migrants also tend to be at a higher risk of non-communicable diseases such as cardiac conditions, chronic respiratory disorders, hypertension, and diabetes. The prevalence of habitual tobacco usage, alcoholism and illicit drug use significantly exacerbates non-communicable conditions among the population. Additionally, occupational hazards prevalent in fields such as construction, agriculture, mining, sanitation, and manufacturing—often without safety equipment, oversight, quality control or protection- contribute to non-communicable diseases. These hazards lead to occupational injuries like broken limbs, joint pains, spinal problems and acquired blindness. Mental health issues are also quite common among these migrants. Mental health by itself is a cultural taboo in broader Indian society, with people being uneducated about mental health conditions and prejudiced towards those suffering from them. The living and working conditions of migrants along with social exclusion, render them highly susceptible to mental or psychological disorders. Furthermore, the lack of medical facilities worsens this condition, with many migrants turning to self-medication through the use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

The sudden lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic greatly intensified the poor conditions of migrants and brought to light issues that were long-ignored by the Indian government. In the early months of 2020, the government of India had repeatedly reassured the general public that COVID-19 had not become an epidemic in the country, and that no lockdowns were planned on being implemented and assured the public that any rumours of a lockdown were false. However, in March 2020, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, announced a sudden, nationwide lockdown, with an extremely short notice of only 4 hours, with no prior warning. This surprise announcement caught the nation off-guard, prompting migrants to seek to return to their places of origin.

However, the migrants soon found that the Indian railways had shut down all its passenger operations for the next three weeks. Consequently, a mass exodus of migrants ensued, as they were left with no option but to embark on foot back to their homes. Unfortunately, the government had invoked the Disaster Management Act (2005), which gave authorities the right to convict a person for “obstruction of Central or State Governments”, and to confine and fine those who are deemed to be obstructing or failing to comply with the orders of the government. This put the already vulnerable migrant population at further risk of human rights abuses.

With most migrants reliant on daily wage employment, the lockdown caused many migrants to run out of resources just a few days into the weeks-long lockdown. While the central and state governments had mandated employers to pay full wages and salaries to employees, the informal and precarious employment status of migrants left them without assistance. Although assurances were given regarding uninterrupted food supply and the provision of rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS) many migrants did not possess ration cards or had cards applicable only in their places of origin. The government overlooked the fact that most migrant workers do not hold ration cards of the place where they were employed. Although the government eventually expanded the PDS to cover workers previously excluded from the system after 50 days, it was found over 70% of migrants did not receive any rations.

The homeward exodus gave rise to a litany of abuses. When migrants endeavoured to go back to their homes on foot, bicycles, or hitchhiking, they left on empty stomachs in the early days of the Indian summer season. Some succumbed to exhaustion or hunger, while others died in accidents, mirroring the fate of 16 individuals in Maharashtra. Desperation drove some to commit suicide. The police and paramilitary forces also took harsh measures against the migrants to enforce the lockdown, resorting to violence to get the migrants off the streets. As the Indian government grappled with the realisation that the pandemic would likely extend beyond their initial expectations, they began issuing orders to facilitate the return of migrants via buses or trains. The migrants were required to navigate complex bureaucratic procedures to obtain permission from the government to board these special transport services. Furthermore, migrants were also expected to pay exorbitant fees for arrangements, despite having lost their livelihoods and savings.

The economic depression caused by the pandemic and the lockdown gave the opportunity for the governments and corporations to further exploit the migrant population. When the central government allowed the resumption of some economic activities in late April, the mass reverse migration kept economic activity low. Citing a lack of human resources, many state governments began to amend their labour laws to extend working hours without provisions for extra pay.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a monumental disaster for the migrant population, and the Indian public as a whole, exposing the extreme inequalities present in Indian society. Despite fuelling the economic engine of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, the massive migrant population is subjected to inhumane conditions and unfair marginalisation. The problems faced by internal migrants are significant, but they are not insurmountable. Policy changes and a genuine commitment from the Indian government can improve the living standards of migrants and change the future of their community. India can only move forward as a nation when the lives of such a huge portion of its population, who have till now been ignored and marginalised, are changed for the better.



  • Bureaucratic: Relating to a system of controlling or managing a country, company, or organization that is operated by a large number of officials.

  • Degrading: causing people to feel that they have no value.

  • Exorbitant: Exorbitant prices, demands, etc. are much too large.

  • Exodus: The fact of a large number of people leaving a place or situation.

  • Foment: To cause trouble to develop.

  • Internal migrant: People who move voluntarily within a country are called internal migrants and move for several reasons, both formally and informally. If their movement is forced, they are referred to as internally displaced persons (IDP).

  • Malnutrition: Physical weakness and bad health caused by having too little food, or too little of the types of food necessary for good health.

  • Marginalise: To treat someone or something as if they are not important.

  • Migrant: A person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons.

  • Non-communicable: That which cannot be passed from one person to another.

  • Paramilitary: A paramilitary group is organized like an army but is not official and often not legal.

  • Precarious: In a dangerous state because of not being safe or not being held in place firmly.

  • Ritual purity: A state of ritual cleanliness, or a person's status in relation to the sacred, as defined by a religion.

  • Sexual exploitation: The abuse of a person's vulnerability, power, or trust for sexual purposes. It can include profiting monetarily, socially, or politically from the exploitation, or taking advantage of a victim's dependent state.

  • Shantytown: An area in or on the edge of a city, in which poor people live in small, very cheaply built houses.

  • Socioeconomic: Related to the differences between groups of people caused mainly by their financial situation.

  • Susceptible: Easily influenced or harmed by something.

  • Taboo: A subject, word, or action that is avoided for religious or social reasons.



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