Helping migrant workers in India during Covid-19

Posted on: 3 August 2020 by Dr Supriya Garikipati in August posts

Two girls preparing food packs
Two college friends making cooked meals for migrant workers

Dr Supriya Garikipati is Reader in Gender and Development in our Management School. The impact of Covid-19 on migrant workers in India has been devastating, with many struggling for basic supplies and forced to flee their homes. Here she tells us about how her research work and connections enabled her to mobilise support and make a real difference to the lives of vulnerable people during a time of extraordinary crisis.

"Lockdown has driven millions of migrant daily workers in India to destitution and hunger.

The image of hundreds of bedraggled men, women and children walking down a winding road, their meagre belongings perched on their heads, sends a shiver down my spine – it recounts horror stories of India’s partition my mother used to tell us as kids. A partition that killed over a million people. My mum was just seven when her family had to make that difficult journey from Lahore to Delhi with potassium cyanide knotted in my grandmother’s saree – their only insurance against rape and plunder. So, when such pictures of mass exodus started emerging from India during the COVID-19 lockdown – it was but natural that our entire household went into a mode of despair.  

Long queue of migrant workers

Migrant workers making long journeys by foot back to their villages

In the haste to close down the country against coronavirus, India’s 140 million migrants - most working as daily wage labourers in its vast informal economy - had been forgotten. On 24 March, India announced a sudden and complete lockdown, that also became one of the strictest in the world. Everything closed overnight. Job loss, destitution and hunger became the lot of the informal daily wage workers. Scenes of migrants and their families receiving food handouts started becoming commonplace. In the face of such desperation, several thousand migrants started walking hundreds of miles to get back to their villages, several losing their lives on the way. Government relief efforts were much delayed and even when they came, they were extremely inadequate and many were not eligible due to insufficient documentation.

Our despair knew an outlet though. I am a development economist and have worked on global challenges in India since 2003. Over the years, I have developed an extensive network of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that work directly with vulnerable communities. Half a day of phone calls with some of them was sufficient to understand the need for support and the willingness among grassroots organisations to come together for this cause. Another day of hectic planning led to an alliance with seven NGOs who had the capacity and were willing to support with staff and local travel. We started a Just Giving page and simultaneously started raising funds in India via partner NGOs.

We called ourselves ‘Migrant Warriors’ – cringey perhaps – but it became a war cry for us as we got busy with the logistics of the operation. The support we received has been overwhelming – housewives like Pushpa joined us – using their kitchens to produce hundreds of cooked meals every day. College kids were prepared to whizz around on their scooties, braving the curfew-like conditions, to deliver food. Churches and Gurudwaras joined our network, which greatly enhanced our reach. To make operations sustainable, very soon we shifted to distributing dry rations – creating our own version of food packs – not forgetting items like jaggery, oil, soap and re-usable sanitary pads. We found kindness where we least expected it. Several grocery shop owners gave us hundreds of packs of biscuits and chocolates for nothing. The very people we set out to support became our biggest strength – in them we found the ability to endure these long months.


Two girls with food donations

Children receiving food parcels donated by the 'Migrant Warriors'

Stories of deprivation, exploitation and unfreedom emerged at every turn. I share here those that left an inedible mark on us: a sex worker who had to accept food as payment; girls who simply bled into their clothes for lack of sanitary pads; a construction worker whose little daughter was forcibly detained as collateral by her employer; a little girl who had walked several miles to get to her rural home with no footwear, before we reached her with slippers. 

I am not sure who helped whom more. The patience, resilience and integrity that we learnt from these families will remain with us forever. When I feel frustrated in the queue outside Tesco, I remember the woman who had not eaten for days, patiently waiting her turn to pick up rations. I think about the resilience of people in the face of so much wrong that has happened; the smiling faces of the two sisters at the little kindness they had received, the integrity of Geeta, who insisted on cleaning community areas in exchange for a food pack. I feel humbled and proud at the same time for having the opportunity to serve such a brave people.

So far, we have raised around £10,000 and reached 6,863 migrants and their families. Additionally, several donors have come forward to support individual families with direct cash transfers or buy specific items like reusable sanitary pads. We may not be able to entirely avert the worst humanitarian disaster seen in post-independent India, but together we may be able to save some from the clutches of predatory money lenders and exploitative transactions.

Migrant workers

Migrant workers awaiting food handouts

Please visit our Just Giving page to make a contribution or email me to sponsor a family directly. My wonderful mother has offered to pick up JustGiving’s fee, so every penny we raise will be going to the cause."