Food, Housing, Health- limitations of post Covid-19 Migrant workers’ related policies

A close look at some of governments post pandemic policies for migrants reveals that key structural exclusions in the labour codes, the one nation, one ration card (ONORC) and PMAY schemes threaten serious exclusions

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Given the return of Covid-19 in China, and concerns of repeat of the situation we faced in 2020, it becomes important to understand what kind of legislative elements India has to deal with the pandemic related changes.

Migrant Workers are an essential element in the journey of India from an agriculture-dependent country to a manufacturing and service sector dependent country. Whether this transition is sustainable and viable is subject matter of an alternate debate. In a diversely populated country, however, worker migration is a by-product of the mode of development chosen and promoted without necessarily adequate deliberation, since the most impoverished (and often deliberately displaced) sections of the populace moves to “developing regions” to make a living. It is of course a different debate that this development is itself skewed, unsustainable when it comes to environment and climate change –therefore often not holistic – and disproportionately concentrated both geographically and sectorally.

India saw one of the most serious migrant worker crises during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, where migrant workers in different parts of the country were abandoned by government and simply could not find the means to travel to their hometowns and villages. They were forced by an unconcerned and apparently paralysed state machinery to simply walk hundreds, thousands of miles (kilometers)  to their homes. Since then, different programmes have been initiated by governments, geared to address the concerns of  migrant workers. The results of the implementation of these schemes is yet to be seen but this article provides a brief overview of these recent policies, aimed at protecting migrant workers. The scope of this article is limited to the themes of health, housing and food security for migrant workers.

New Labour Codes

Before going into the schemes as above, it is important to note that the new labour codes passed by the centre does have a major detrimental effect on the rights and livelihoods of migrant workers: this is because the chapter on interstate and migrant workers under the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 specifically (almost deviously it would seem) excludes any obligation on establishments that employ less than 10 workers. With 70% of the establishments in the country employing less than 6 people according to the Sixth Economic Census 2013-14, a majority of the establishments have been wilfully excluded from this act thereby snatching away, at the inception whatever protections that are enshrined in the act. In addition to this structural exclusion, the E-shram portal that has been launched by the government aims to record the data of the unorganised workers including migrant workers, construction workers. This measure, the government hopes will give it the required data to make preparations whenever required for the purpose of providing assistance, support and protection to migrant workers.

Food Security

One Nation One Ration Card

In a bid to extend the public distribution system to unorganised workers who are in different cities, the government had launched this scheme, even before the pandemic. This scheme allows workers, particularly migrant beneficiaries, to claim either full or in part food grains from any Fair Price Shop (FPS) in the country through existing ration cards coupled with biometric/Aadhaar authentication in a seamless manner. The system also allows their family members back home, if any, to claim the balance of food grains on the same ration card. The implementation of ONORC was initiated in August 2019.

A prima facie concern about this scheme –publicly expressed– is that the digitisation of the records means that for those who do not have the respective digitisation i.e, Aadhar card or a smartphone, stand excluded. The scheme is therefore, at its inception, exclusionary. A survey also found that the transactions in a different city or a state were being denied 4x (multiple-fold) more than at their registered centres. [1]

A recent study has also found out that not all ration shops are equally attractive (or accessible) to migrant workers. Only 8% of fair price shops conducted 80% of the transactions involving interstate migrants. This skewed reality exists much less for transactions in Delhi.[2]


In the health sector, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 necessitates that the contractor who is employing the interstate workmen to provide for the prescribed medical facilities to the workmen, free of charge. It is however a very volatile paradigm to rest the whole health of the inter-state migrant workmen on the contractor.

That is before the controversial Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020, the health and working conditions of the workplace i.e., the responsibility to maintain the working conditions and protect the health of the worker, is vested almost or entirely, on the contractor or the principal employer, another relatively volatile assumption or paradigm.[3]  Various disparities exist, both health and financial, migrant workers experience financial stress to meet the expenses of the healthcare burden. Although the access to health insurance increases the access to health care and decreases financial stress, the reach of the insurance schemes is very low.[4] A legal regime that places responsibility on one agency or one entity so that healthcare access can be streamlined is unrealistic. The basic responsibility of the State in this crucial sector, is conveniently avoided.

Since migrants go to new places within  an alien state, depending on the work they do, the importance of the infrastructure for them is not recognised as well. For example, there have been studies that flagged the lack of infrastructure for defecation and the consequent open air defecation leading to unhygienic living conditions and diseases. [5]


A survey in Ahmedabad and different construction workers who live on site has found that there are no places for decent living and sanitation, drinking water and other water sources. It was also found that open defecation exists and is prevalent in the sites.

The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PM-AY) has been promoted as India’s “biggest” housing policy initiative, with a goal to provide 20 million affordable housing both in urban and rural areas. Under the scheme, government-funded housing in the cities have been converted into Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHCs) under the PPP mode through concessionaires. This is also the first scheme where segregation amongst the urban poor and migrant workers (as different classes of population) has been made.

The affordable housing rental complex (AHRC) scheme acknowledges the needs of mobile workers who spend short periods of time in the city and do not seek permanent housing.

Model 1 of the scheme that relies on the retrofitting of vacant public housing, and will, arguably, add a mere 88,236 units of rental supply, nationwide. The demand for affordable and secure rental housing would likely be several lakhs in each metropolitan city in the country. To meet this, the ARHC would need to expand its ambit considerably. The provision of public land and fiscal incentives could entice developers to sign up for Model 2 of the scheme, which is currently totally unattractive for the private sector. Bringing small-scale housing entrepreneurs who are currently supplying informal rental housing into the scheme through tenure regularisation, financing support and technical assistance programmes is another way to expand the reach of ARHC.[6]


The section of migrant workers that is often overlooked by the state government since they do not form the electorate and therefore, the implementation of policies for migrant workers become hard. Therefore, firstly it is important to create coordination between state and central governments with respect to the implementation of any schemes.

An over emphasis on digitisation to enable availing of schemes is especially exclusionary in the current scenario.


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[1]Derrek Xavier, Addressing the gaps of the One Nation One Ration Card scheme

[2] Sarthak AgrawalArchana Agnihotri

Food Security for Interstate Migrants- An Empirical Analysis of the ONORC, Vol. 57, Issue No. 51, 17 Dec, 2022

[3] Section 60, Inter State Migrant Workers, Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020.

[4]Bhoi S R, Joshi S H, Joshi A (October 31, 2022) Out-of-Pocket Health Expenditure Among Migrant Workers in India: A Narrative Review. Cureus 14(10): e30948. doi:10.7759/cureus.30948

[5] Divya Balan, Health and Safety of Interstate Migrant Workers in India during Covid-19: Inadequacy of the Labour Laws

[6] Mukta Naik, India’s home rental programme for migrant workers needs more nuance and ambition,



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