Towards Building Solidarity for Migrant Workers | In Conversation with Harsh Mander, Director, Centre for Equity Studies 

Building Institutions | May 27, 2020


  • 100M migrant workers in India, an integral part of the economy, live on the fringes of cities, without basic political and legal rights, service provision and social protection
  • One-third of waged workers in India are paid less than the national minimum wage
  • 90% of 3000 construction workers surveyed during the COVID-19 crisis had no savings to feed their families beyond one week of lockdown

When the COVID-19 lockdown was announced as an important public health measure, the government and private sector were both underprepared to address even basic needs of migrant workers. This caused one of the largest migration movement of people since the India-Pakistan partition with labourers making their journeys home, spanning large distances on foot. As we scramble to deal with ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a dual crisis of rehabilitating their lives and ensuring a decent livelihood for migrant workers emerged for India.


On a late Tuesday afternoon, Dasra had a chance to speak face-to-face with Harsh Mander over an hour-long video call in what is considered the new normal, between his busy day advising and providing insights on the ongoing migrant crisis to many others as a thought leader on the subject. An advocate for compassion – Harsh Mander has been an important voice and leading practitioner on migrant workers even before the COVID-19 crisis hit the world.  

He is an author, columnist, researcher, teacher and social activist who works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, as well as homeless persons and street children. Harsh is the cofounder and director of the Centre for Equity Studies, a think-tank based in New Delhi that is engaged in research and advocacy on issues of social justice. In the past, he has served as Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food Campaign and was a member of the National Advisory Council of the Government of India. He is also an Advisory Board member of the international grant-making network founded by George Soros, Open Society Foundations. 

Speaking to us on the lived realities of migrant workers and implications of the current crisis – his perspective cannot be ignored – and is a call to action to help build solidarity towards Indias most vulnerable. Weve exiled the poor from our conscience and our consciousness-these words by Harsh Mander will remain with us as we do our part in tackling this crisis. 

Excerpts from our interview with him are noted below.

Could you shed some light on the reasons for the ongoing migrant crisis? 

This migrant crisis stems from the extreme unaddressed endemic rural distress that has been in our country. According to the Socio-Economic Caste Census, about 57% of the households had no land holdings at the time of independence. The survey gave us a window into the extent of distress in our country. There is a difference between rural and urban poverty. Rural poverty is marked with extreme hunger and other distress. However, the city offers some opportunities, low value work as rag picking and other casual daily wage work that has no entry barriers. Even though hunger is not completely absent from the cities, it is just a heartbeat away. The most important difference between rural and urban poor is the attitude of the state. Unlike rural poor, the urban poor do not have any rights. They are illegitimate citizens of the cities and have been surviving without any support from the state. The state either demolishes their dwellings, or blocks their access and in rare cases, relocates them to other areas.    

The ongoing crisis has brought forth scenes of mass hunger that were completely unheard in the city. Urban poor is socially atomized, whereas in the village there is a sense of community. In times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, when much of the systems gets ruptured, the environment becomes very lonely and brutal for these workers. Moreover, even access to basic needs like toilets is monetized in the cities, unlike the rural areas. Therefore, with nothing to fall back on in the urban areas, these migrants have mustered the courage to embark on their journeys back home.

What according to you are the gender implications of the migrant workers crisis?

Migration is of many types so such level of generalization will not be fair. However, with regard to circular migration, it is primarily it is men who migrate to urban areas in their early teenage due to lack of opportunities back home. The migration could therefore be gendered in a way that it is usually the single male migrant from poor families who take on the burden of earning from an early age. These migrant workers are like hunters and gatherers of work, they have no fixed locations. This makes them extremely vulnerable as they have no roots. It is a very hard and lonely life for them. There is small proportion of migrant workers are involved in fixed work, and are slightly better, being able afford to having their family in the city.

Usually, the women stay back in their native villages and are tasked with household work or a caregiver duty towards children and elders. However, there are a small number of single women who move to cities. There are variety of reasons for their migration – it could be due to extreme domestic violence. Occasionally one finds elderly womenmigrating to cities in such cases, this category is extremely vulnerable, as they usually have no ties back at home.

What can civil society do in order to bring back the cause of migrant workers in the consciousness of the middle classes? 

It is important that we address this crisis surrounding migrant workers in solidarity focusing on their rights, while considering them as our own – through a sense of fraternity. They have to be seen as citizens of our country and hold equal rights – such a thought needs to be inculcated. Young people need to resolve that they will not look away from their issues so we can build a just and caring society. 

What can the state do to support migrant workers?

We need equal rights for migrant workers, and not charity. Our assessment suggests that it would take about 3% of our GDP to transfer INR 7000 to every household and provide for universal Public Distribution System (PDS). But it is the spectacular failure of state that there is no record available of migrant workers, let alone rights. There are legislations that call for registration of inter-state migrants, but nobody cares for it. Only about 17% of migrant workers have an identifiable employer so holding the employers responsible for the workers during this period will not work. Also, the social security responsibility till now in our country has been in form of a contributory fund. There is need for universal framework of social security that has a wider net to capture workers who dont have such facilities. Additionally, portability of rights in terms of ration cards, voting, maternity and healthcare benefits irrespective of the tenure or domicile status is required. 

How can philanthropists contribute in helping migrant workers? 

There has been a steep decline in the number of jobs since 2004 and even those ones which were added are on the basis of continuous elimination of regular employment. We have more precarious and informalized work arrangements. Philanthropists could pitch in to ensure workers have some sort of job security along with healthcare, maternity and pension benefits.

Philanthropists could also play a critical role on the education front. Having a high-quality common school system where children of urban poor can get access to the same level of education as children of the rich would be a great step in addressing some of the inequalities. Other than that, improving our public healthcare infrastructure and system could be an area that requires philanthropic support.

Could you share some best practices from the non-profit sector that have proved impactful in improving the lives of migrant workers? 

There are examples of work being done by organizations like Aajeevika Bureau and practitioners like Baba Adhav for urban poor. For instance, Baba Adhavs work with the head loaders in Pune, establishes that it is economically feasible and imminently achievable to ensure a minimum threshold of social rights for informal workers. His approach to get systematic registration record for informal workers in Pune, in collaboration with industry and Government is a great case study.

However, we have to recognize that it is the fundamental duty of the state to ensure these rights and provisions can be made available to migrant workers.


Despite the many answers that enriched our understanding on the ongoing crisis surrounding migrant laborers, at the end of our conversation with Harsh Mander, we were left with questions on the different values that define a good society. 

Does a good society always require trade-offs between quintessential values like equity, fraternity – sense of community, efficiency, and liberty? How do we create a good society where there are adequate resources for all?

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