The Exacerbation of Human Rights Issues And Challenges During Covid-19


“Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed and where individuals and nations are free” – by the 14th Dalai Lama

The right of an individual to live a life of his choice with dignity, without any discrimination or fear or oppression, forms the very foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Every individual is born vested with these human rights, and these are inalienable and non-negotiable throughout his lifetime.

The Colossal Migrant Labour Crisis

While our country is fighting an unprecedented pandemic, an area of concern that has emerged is the protection of human rights of citizens amidst this chaos. As the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 have been invoked and a lockdown enforced to mitigate the spread of the infection, this has resulted in severe restrictions on the right to move freely and to practice one’s occupation. A vulnerable section of people who have been particularly impacted are the migrant workers, who ended up being stranded miles away from their homes, mostly in bigger cities. The sheer magnitude of the problem became visible when thousands of migrants swarmed bus stands and railway stations, on the night of 24th of March, 2020, desperate to return to their native places. By an estimate, there are around 40 million to 120 million migrant workers across India. Many are daily wage earners with little to no savings to fend for themselves. According to a World Bank Report, the lockdown has impacted the livelihoods of over 40 million internal migrants in India. Although the Government issued directives, by the Ministry of Home Affairs and also by the Labour Ministry, directing employers to pay full wages and not to terminate the employment of workers, but the ground reality presented a different picture. Businesses facing financial pressures due to closed operations could not meet Government directives and many workers ended up losing their wages or their jobs. The loss of livelihood, impoverishment, lack of access to food, shelter or basic amenities, together with the uncertainty and fear about future prospects snowballed into a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” The poor, hapless migrant workers, who are the key contributors to economic development, have been in such a state of despair that many are unable to realise even the most basic human rights. Tens of thousands of migrant workers, many with their families carrying luggage and children on their shoulders, started to walk hundreds of miles across states back to their homes. They had no option but to set out on this arduous and unthinkable journey, as many had lost their work, many were refused payment by their contractors, landlords had coerced them to vacate their premises and they were left with no food or savings to sustain themselves in bigger cities. An estimated half a million migrants have had to walk on their feet back to their villages since the lockdown began. Even the Centre has concurred in replying to the Supreme Court while hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that over 5 to 6 lakh migrants have walked back to their native places.

Such a massive exodus has never been seen in this country since the 1947 India-Pakistan partition. Many of these migrants had to suffer unspeakable agony which no human being should ever be subjected to. A 23-year migrant died after walking 500 km from Maharashtra to reach his home in Tamil Nadu, another 40-year old worker passed away after walking 400 km from Uttar Pradesh back to his native Bihar. Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents, but many others have lost their lives due to physical exhaustion from walking long distances. According to the Save Life Foundation, atleast 30% of all road accident deaths since lockdown involved migrant workers trying to return home. In a tragic incident, 16 migrant workers who slept off on railway tracks due to exhaustion from walking to board a Shramik train, were run over by a good’s train in Aurangabad.

It is heart-wrenching to see such incidents happen in a 21st Century civilized society. The right to live a life with dignity is the most fundamental human right which is enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, which has been greatly embodied in our Constitution by the founding fathers, also states under Article 25(1) that, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment.”  When poor workers face basic existential and financial distress, it is incumbent on the State to provide them with food, basic amenities, medical facilities and shelter in hygienic conditions, so that they do not catch diseases. As much as a lockdown or other public restrictions are essential to contain the pandemic, it is also imperative for the Government to ensure that the poor and needy are not left in the lurch and that their human rights are protected. These welfare objectives are also enshrined in the Directive Principles of State Policy in our Constitution.

Response of the Government and the Judiciary to the Migrant Crisis

The Supreme Court has also taken cognizance of the migrant predicament. A Bench headed by CJI Sharad A. Bobde asked the authorities to understand the anxiety and fear of the migrants and to treat them with kindness. The Apex Court also directed the State Governments and Union Territory Administrations to engage volunteers along with police to supervise the welfare activities for the migrants. The Government has also been actively making provisions to ameliorate the crisis.Over 38000 shelter homes were allocated to accommodate homeless migrant workers and about 26000 food camps provided food to over 1 crore people across States and Union Territories, when the migrants were unable to return to their native places. Once the lockdown began to be eased out, the Railway Ministry started operating special trains called ‘Shramik Trains’ to ferry the migrants back to their home states. Nearly 4500 Shramik trains have ferried over 62 lakh migrants scattered across the country to their homes. The Finance Ministry also released a relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crores under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana that includes cash transfers, free food and withdrawals from provident funds. On 14th May, 2020, the Finance Ministry also promised free food grains to all migrants for two months, which has subsequently been extended to the month of November. Certainly, these are commendable initiatives, but there are concerns regarding their adequacy and implementation.

There is a sense of fear and panic among the workers, they do not know what the future holds for them. Understandably, they want to return to their familiar territory in their home states. Their anxiety was in a poignant display when thousands of migrant workers congregated in Surat and in Bandra, Mumbai, agitating to go back home which unfortunately took a violent turn. A PIL filed by activist Jagdeep Chhokar and Adv. Gaurav Jain had sought directions from the Supreme Court to the Centre for safe travel and transportation of the migrant workers. It has been contended that the fundamental rights of the migrant workers enshrined under Article 19(1)(d) – “right to move freely throughout the territory of India ” and Article 19(1)(e) – “right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India ” cannot be suspended indefinitely. Another interim application in a disposed PIL filed by Adv. Alakh Alok Shrivastava prayed to Supreme Court to question Centre as to how 16 migrants got killed in the Aurangabad train incident when Centre had claimed that no migrant worker was walking back home anymore.


There is no doubt that humanity is facing a once-in-a-century force majeure crisis. Nobody could predict nor could be entirely prepared to deal with this unknown enemy. Although the Government is actively monitoring, planning and executing measures to mitigate the crisis, a lot more needs to be done. There is no accurate estimate with the Government about the exact number of migrant workers, a shortcoming which may create impediments in reaching out the welfare benefits to each and every migrant who may be in need. Nevertheless, the introduction of ‘One Nation One Ration’ scheme will greatly help migrants to avail of benefits from any state. With the migrant workers now having abandoned the bigger cities in huge numbers, new challenges are emerging with respect to acquiring labour for restarting economic activities in the cities. In this scenario, the State Governments must ensure that no migrant labourer is held back in any state against his will, either in collusion with private industry or under the pretext of boosting economic activity, as this is a gross violation of his human rights and is tantamount to forced labour. There is also a proliferation of the pandemic from bigger cities to smaller towns and villages along with the flight of migrant labour, which if not controlled can have catastrophic consequences. It is the need of the hour to create employment or income-generating opportunities for these workers in their own home states, so that they can sustain themselves where they are, and also contribute to their state’s economic development. There is an anticipation of reverse migration of these workers in the future as the pandemic situation improves, but this must be driven by a desire for better economic opportunities and not a compulsion to return to work in larger cities due to financial crisis. A civilized society thrives on the human rights it guarantees to its people and the State must make every endeavour to safeguard them.


  • Nikunj Ohri, What India has released from its Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package for the poor, BloombergQuint (Apr. 13, 2020),
  • ET Online, FM Nirmala Sitharaman speech highlights: Second tranche has relief for migrant workers, small farmers and poor, The Economic Times (May 15, 2020),
  • Ashish Tripathi, Amid COVID-19 lockdown, PIL filed in SC to allow migrant workers return to native places, DeccanHerald (Apr.18, 2020),
  • Krishnadas Rajagopal, Coronavirus / Treat migrants humanely, Supreme Court tells officials, The Hindu (Mar.31, 2020),
  • Press Trust of India, Plea in SC for shelter, food, transportation to migrants in view of Aurangabad accident, HindustanTimes (May 9, 2020),
  • Press Trust of India, Lockdown in India impacted 40 million internal migrants: World Bank,

About author –

This article is authored by Sonali Sinha Naik,  she is a student of second year L.L.B. at GJ Advani Law College, Mumbai. She has been actively participating in various legal debates, quiz competitions etc. since beginning her stint in legal education. Recently, She topped her batch with a 100% score in the Press Laws Certification Course organized by her college and has also scored 100% marks in Intellectual Property Rights Quiz organized by Nari Gursahani Law College, Mumbai.

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