COVID-19 and Lockdown : The Divergent Trajectory of Inter-state Migrants in Kerala

By Tijo George, Mala Ramanathan and Udaya S Mishra | Jun 16, 2020

Recognising the role of inter-state migrants in sustaining the economic activities in the state, the State showed foresight in its efforts. While the State has not accorded the inter-state migrants the status of citizens, it duly planned for provisioning of their welfare. These efforts will certainly bring hope among the beleaguered inter-state migrants and serve as an exemplar for other states regarding the management of the human costs of the pandemic and the lockdown imposed on the citizenry.


The SARS-CoV‑2 (COVID-19) pandemic and the associated lockdown has rendered thousands of inter-state migrants in India unemployed. The state of Kerala depends heavily on its inter-state migrant workers (ISMWs) for its day-to-day economic activities whether it be large factories or small shops; hotels or construction sites. The state is fully cognizant of the fact that with its demographic profile of relatively higher proportion of elderly and greater outward migration of its working-age population over the globe, migrants are the only viable replacement for its workforce. The inter-state migrants’ preference for the state started in the 1990s and sustains due to multiple reasons – the major one being the wage difference that prevails in the state when compared to the other states in India.

The state-sponsored migrant welfare is not new and has not evolved during the SARS-CoV‑2 COVID-19 days. Kerala state has consciously recognised the role of inter-state migrants in its economy and they were first referred to as guest workers’ during the budget speech of Finance Minister Dr Thomas Isaac in 2019. The same Budget 2019 proposed a new housing program titled Apna Ghar’ for these migrants. It was the first state to initiate social security measures for inter-state migrant workers under the Inter-state migrant workers welfare scheme in 2010. This scheme provides for accident and medical care benefits for up to Rs 10,000/-; Rs 50,000/- in case of death; and educational allowance for children depending on the course and termination benefits of Rs 15,000/-. It also provides for the transportation of the deceased back to their homes in their native villages, should such an eventuality arise. All this is for a premium of Rs 30/-, renewable each year.

The state also has proposed an insurance scheme named Awaaz’ for inter-state migrants in the state in 2016 wherein, each migrant can claim medicines worth 15,000 every year and other accident/​disability insurance claim worth two lakh. The original Inter-state migrant welfare scheme of 2010 was amended in 2019 to include all inter-state migrants those who are not registered with the Inter-State Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme’ and Awaaz’ scheme. As per this revision, all inter-state migrants working in Kerala are entitled to hospital care benefits for Rs 50,000/- and insurance claims for death for Rs 2,00,000/-.

The children of migrants are encouraged to join government schools. Numerous projects have been implemented to bridge the gap between migrant children’s mother tongue and the medium of teaching. Roshni’ is one such program piloted in Ernakulam, a district accounting for the largest proportion of migrants in the state as per 2001 and 2011 Census of India. The state also tries to educate the migrants in Malayalam through a literacy program titled Changathi’ which uses a textbook titled Hamari Malayalam’.

Regardless of the systematic efforts at integrating inter-state migrants into the socio-economic milieu of the state, the floods of 2018 and 2019 in Kerala brought criticism with regard to the exclusion of migrants during these disasters. Most of them lost their jobs and returned to their home states. There were reports of inter-state migrants being discriminated against in relief camps where local populations refused to share camps with them. Even the call for evacuation issued by the government machinery did not reach the migrant workers and their families as the medium of communication was Malayalam.

Learning from its prior experience; recognising the role of migrants in the economy and the potential for their exclusion in relief provisioning made it possible for the state to be in forefront of its planning and provisioning for inter-state migrants need during the SARS-CoV‑2 pandemic.

Pre-lockdown phase

The Kerala government started its SARS-CoV‑2 measures soon after its citizens returned to Kerala from Wuhan, China. The state could successfully tide over the first and second wave of infections through its disease prevention and preventive strategies.

During the pre-lockdown period, the labour department had taken relevant measures to aid inter-state migrants’ health and safety. As per its order on March 18, the district labour officers were asked to report daily all measures taken to the Labour Commissionerate. The circular also asked its staff to conduct awareness campaigns among inter-state migrants with the help of organisations working closely with them. All districts were asked to identify areas where migrants were residing and collect at least one phone number with a WhatsApp connection. Any worker with symptoms would have to be taken care of by district labour field teams and the information had to be reported to the district administration.

The Health Department and Local Self Government Institutions (LSGIs) in Kerala were entrusted with many responsibilities with respect to SARS-CoV‑2 response. As per orders on March 13 and 20, 2020, LSGIs were instructed to conduct awareness campaigns among inter-state migrants with the help of Kudumbasree members on SARS-CoV‑2 and Break the chain’ campaign and were asked to report on a daily basis to the concerned directorate.

Based on experience and the general sense of anxiety induced by the onset of the pandemic, many inter-state migrants chose to leave the state just prior to the lockdown. A week before the lockdown trains from Kerala towards the North-eastern states and Chennai (boarding station for train towards northeast) witnessed heavy rush with desperate migrants deciding to leave for their home states.

Lockdown phase 1

On March 23, state-wide lockdown was declared till March 31, a day ahead of the nation-wide lockdown declared for a duration of 21 days. When the last running train – train number 15906, Vivek Express’ from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari chugged into Kanyakumari station on 25th March 2020 morning and the lockdown commenced; it left a significant proportion of inter-state migrants in Kerala without their lifeline to home. All non-essential commercial establishments and public transport services were halted leaving lakhs of migrants marooned in different states across the country. On March 24 after the lockdown declaration, the Labour Department of Kerala issued a circular giving guidelines for all those owning and working in private/​public sector, construction and other informal sectors regarding the managing of the lockdown situation. All inter-state migrants staying in camps needed to be provided with food and basic amenities and their sponsors/​contractors were required to inform this daily to district labour officers. The District labour officers were given the responsibility of inter-state migrants shelter, food and health care in coordination with the LSGIs, Health Department and district administration.

The orders to LSGIs on March 26 provided guidelines on setting up of community kitchen by Kudumbasree’(neighbourhood groups of women) and provision of food for migrants in labour camps and their place of stay. Another order on the same day, in continuation with the existing disease prevention activities, instructed the Labour Department to start separate labour camps for migrants anticipating their hardship during the lockdown. Soon after the national lockdown was declared, difficulties and hardship experienced by migrant workers surfaced in different parts of India. Inter-state migrants were found violating lockdown restrictions in big cities. Kerala also witnessed sporadic protest among migrants. A small town, Payyipad (Kottayam district and close to districts like Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta) where thousands of migrants congregated to protest on March 29, 2020 and violated lockdown rules. As per reports, issues raised by migrants were related to food supplied to them by the Community Kitchen, accommodation and also arrangement of means of transport to facilitate return to their respective states. The anxiety and fear due to SARS-CoV‑2 and its associated issues including loss of livelihood could have triggered the protest. The district collector and district police chief could resolve the protests which reportedly commenced at 11:00 am and resolved by 2.00 pm through peaceful negotiations assuring the migrants that the complaints regarding food and accommodation would be resolved at the earliest.

This seems to have prompted the state government to take extra care with regard to the inter-state migrants’ problems and welfare. The issue of contractors not supporting their employees and not providing for their food came to be recognized following the Payyipad incident. The State seems to have realised that it is active succour at the ground level that contributes to reassurance for the beleaguered inter-state migrants.

Learning by doing has been the key to innovative response in literate Kerala. Soon after the Payyipad issue, the government with the help of LSGIs and other NGOs not only ensured enough food supply, but also ensured adequate supplies of raw food items so that migrants could prepare food to their taste. This was later complemented by opening exclusive migrant community kitchen’ in Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district known as the largest migrant hub in the state. The necessary funds were provided from the state disaster management funds as SARS-CoV‑2 was declared as a notified disaster by the state disaster management authority. The State installed recreational measures like television, carrom boards, chess, mobile recharge in labour camps which again helped them to manage time in the labour camps. The State also managed to set up call centres working 247 in almost all possible languages that the inter-state migrants could understand. Even the official GoK application launched on March 12, 2020, has multilingual options to aid its inter-state migrants.

As per the report provided by the Government of India in the Supreme Court of India in the first week of April 2020, a total of 22,567 relief camps/​shelter home were run all over India. Of these, 15,541(68.8%) were in Kerala and among 6,31,119 people living in relief camps/​shelters a total of 3,02,016 (47.9%) were in Kerala. This is indicative of the attention to inter-state migrants in the state of Kerala and its preparedness to provide care for them during the lockdown. The convergence and inter-sectoral coordination between different departments – LSGIs, Health department, local district administrations and labour department worked well together in mitigation of inter-state migrant distress and overall health promotion and prevention of disease transmission.

Lockdown phase 2 and 3

On April 15, the lockdown was extended till May 3. During this period, the nation witnessed a series of agitations by migrants in Mumbai, Delhi and Surat demanding transport facilities to reach their respective home states. Kerala government was able to hold its inter-state migrants without additional effort. Barring a protest towards the end of April requesting for transport facility towards their home state in Malappuram district, this phase was relatively event free with respect to inter-state migrant workers’ protests in Kerala.

On May 1, the Home Ministry notified the third phase of lockdown starting from May 4 to 17. As per this notification, the whole nation was categorised into zones of Red, Orange and Green, with specific guidelines for relaxation of lockdown in each category. Containment Zones were also notified in the red and orange zones. It was big relief for migrants stranded in different parts of the country when the Indian Railways decided to run the Shramik Special Trains’ for migrants on World Labour Day, May 1, as per instructions from the Home Ministry. The trains were run upon request from the host states and NOC issued by them. The first Shramik train service in the nation was between Lingampalli in Telegana to Haiti in Jharkhand. Kerala’s first Shramik’ train service was from Aluva (close to the most concentrated migrant cluster in Kerala, Perumbavoor) to Bhubaneshwar carrying 1140 migrants from the state. More trains were scheduled and started journeys carrying inter-state migrants to their respective home states in the first week of May.

The lessons of Payyipad were learnt well in literate Kerala and can be seen from the recent reports of a remote panchayat in Kasargod Adoor, providing for its migrant (entertainers) who were left in the state due to the sudden announcement of lockdown. About 14 – 16 odd members of 3 families are being looked after by local panchayats that provide food rations and electricity supply to their tents – instead of cooked food from the community kitchen. As per the report, when the Delampady Panchayat President was asked about separate food provisioning for the migrants and why not from the well-running community kitchen, he said they are not used to Kerala food’. Such developed sensitivities based on prior experiences have helped the state to hold its migrant workers together during the crisis situation.

Recognising the role of inter-state migrants in sustaining the economic activities in the state, the State showed foresight in its efforts. While the State has not accorded the inter-state migrants the status of citizens (witness the labelling as guests’ and the implied exclusion), it duly planned for provisioning of their welfare. These efforts will certainly bring hope among the beleaguered inter-state migrants and serve as an exemplar for other states regarding the management of the human costs of the pandemic and the lockdown imposed on the citizenry.

Source: com​mons​.wiki​me​dia​.org

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Dr Benoy Peter, Executive Director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development for his comments on the position of inter-state migrants vis-a-vis the political economy of the state. The opinions expressed in the commentary are entirely those of the authors and do not represent those of their affiliated institutions.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/​s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Azim Premji University or Foundation.


Tijo George, PhD student, Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies (AMCHSS), Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST), Thiruvananthapuram

Mala Ramanathan, Professor, Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies (AMCHSS), Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST), Thiruvananthapuram

Udaya S Mishra, Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram