As the stranded migrant workers long for home, state governments across the country have been forced into action. The Centre recently directed state governments to provide food and shelter to all migrant workers found walking back to their home states, and arrange for them to board the Shramik Special trains that started plying from May 1 regardless of arrangements or funds.

The recent issue of charging migrant workers for transport has garnered widespread criticism. In response to the mounting pressure, many states have now vowed to provide free transport via Shramik Special trains to ferry all those wishing to return to their home states.

As per recent reports, until Wednesday, 633 trains left from Gujarat, carrying 9.18 lakh migrant workers. However, the Deccan Herald reported that the Gujarat state government has refused to provide assistance in the form of travel allowances to 22.5 lakh unregistered migrant workers, in an alleged violation of labour laws.

According to Deccan Herald, the state government filed a report in the high court on May 22 in response to various litigations, in which it states that only 7,512 registered workers were found after a one-and-a-half month survey to identify workers requiring assistance to return home.

According to the news report, the Gujarat government stated, "Based on the available data, there are around 22.5 lacs, migrant workers, across the state. Most of them have come on their own and provisions for payment of travelling allowance and displacement allowance as required by Sections 14 and 15 of the Interstate Migrant Workers Act, 1979 is not applicable to them."

Over the past few weeks, sporadic reports of violence have also emerged from the state as migrant workers resorted to vandalising vehicles, blocking highways, pelting stones and clashing with the police, demanding to be sent back home.

Meanwhile, the Karnataka state government has received heavy criticism regarding its treatment of the migrant crisis, especially when the state decided to cancel Shramik Special trains. This decision was made once real estate firms and builders expressed their concerns regarding loss of labour to Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa.

Undeterred in their resolve to return home, migrant workers began undertaking the long journeys on foot. As pressure mounted, the state government decided to resume train services.

However, with home states refusing to bear the costs of transporting migrant workers back home, Karnataka too, was unwilling to foot the bills. As such, migrant workers were being forced to pay out of pocket for the train tickets. On May 20, Indian Express reported that a divisional bench, headed by Karnataka Chief Justice Abhay Sreeniva Oka, asked the state government to “clarify the legality” of its refusal to pay the train fares of workers.

“The state government must state before the court whether it wants to deviate from the stand taken by the Government of India on the issue of bearing the fare of the railways and whether it really wants to take a stand that a migrant worker who has no income and is not in a position to pay railway fare will not be allowed to travel by Shramik special trains to his home state,” Indian Express reported the high court bench order as stating.

Post several requests from labour unions and the opposition, in a welcome move, the Karnataka CM tweeted on May 22 that the government will be paying for the tickets of all migrant workers till May 31.

However, the woes of those stranded in the state are far from over. A recent Times of India report highlighted how migrant workers are being denied ration kits in Karnataka by MLAs and elected representatives, who “hijacked” these kits to please their voter bank. TOI cites senior IAS officers who confirmed that hundreds of migrant workers have been denied kits as MLAs and representatives gave kits to voters from their respective constituencies.

Earlier in the month, Union Home Minister Amit Shah sent a letter to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, alleging that the state government was not allowing special trains to enter the state.

“Migrants from West Bengal are also eager to reach home. Central govt is facilitating but we are not getting expected support from W.B. State Government, which is not allowing the trains to reach W.B. This is injustice with W.B. migrant labourers. This will create further hardship for them,” the letter reportedly stated.

Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal had also lashed out at West Bengal CM, stating that if the state did not accept its migrants, there could be several more cases of migrant workers walking home with their families. He further claimed that West Bengal has only allowed seven Shramik Special trains to enter the state even as Uttar Pradesh had allowed 400.

Recently, CM Mamata Banerjee announced that the state government would bear the complete cost of transporting migrant workers from other states to West Bengal. However, most workers upon reaching home are faced with not only the loss of livelihood due to the COVID-19 crisis, but also with the loss of property due to Cyclone Amphan.

In view of the cyclone that has devastated several regions of the state, CM Banerjee has asked the Railway Ministry to hold all Shramik Special trains destined for the state till May 26.

In Maharashtra, a study conducted by the group Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) brought to light a “consistently poor” access to relief measures, including government rations. 96% of those who reached out to the network did not have access to government rations while around 69% would have run out of rations in a day, the study states.

Meanwhile, around 2.45 lakh migrant workers have reportedly left from various locations in Maharashtra by train. The New Indian Express reported state government records estimating the number of stranded workers in the state to be around 10 lakhs. However, unofficial estimates claim the number of migrants leaving Mumbai alone to be around 25-30 lakhs.

As per the report, the state government has unofficially asked the police to not stop tempos, trucks and autos ferrying migrant workers, even if they do not have travel permission.

“Every day, more than 2000 trucks, 1000 tempos, 500 auto and taxis crammed with migrant workers are leaving Mumbai. Some of them are going on motorcycles and a few are also walking. The numbers could be between 25 to 30 lakh,” New Indian Express reported a Shiv Sena minister as saying.

Recently, hundreds of migrant workers in Sendhwa town at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra staged a demonstration, demanding food and transport services to return home.

“People here are travelling with month-old babies. The Maharashtra government sent us till here, but the MP government is extending no help to us. We have been here since last night, hungry and thirsty,” Sailesh Tripathi, a resident of Madhya Pradesh who works in Pune told NDTV.

According to PTI, till May 22, over five lakh migrant workers had been brought back to their home state of Madhya Pradesh, mostly by buses. The state government has reportedly also been transporting migrant workers from other states to the Madhya Pradesh-Uttar Pradesh border.

With a large number of migrant workers returning home to Bihar, the state government, fearing a spread of COVID-19, has stated that those returning from moderate-to-high risk cities in seven states will be placed in quarantine facilities.

The order by the Disaster Management Department of Bihar, stated that migrant workers returning from Delhi, Ghaziabad, Faridabad, Noida, Gurugram, Kolkata, Surat, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru will be quarantined in centres for 14 days.

People returning from places other than the specified cities would be required to follow home quarantine if they do not show any symptoms.

Bihar has also reportedly undertaken a first-of-its-kind skills survey of the migrant workers returning to the state. As per recent reports, the state government is preparing a database of skilled and unskilled labourers so as to create employment opportunities for them.

The Shramik Special trains have reportedly ferried over 31 lakh migrant workers since they first began plying on May 1, exceeding the initial projection of 24 lakh.

However, migrant workers travelling back home to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh on these trains have reported major delays and unhygienic conditions. They even complained about being served rotten food and a lack of water facilities.

Migrant workers on a train from Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh to Bihar reportedly blocked railway tracks and chanted slogans against Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as their train was held up for over 10 hours.

"The train came here last night at 11 pm and is standing here since. We have got no food for two days. We were forced to pay Rs 1,500 each for this journey," Dhiren Rai, one of those on-board told NDTV.

A number of such instances have surfaced, including one in Unnao, where migrant workers returning to Bihar from Bengaluru smashed window panes at a platform when the train made an unscheduled stop, complaining of lack of food and water arrangements, reported NDTV.

While other states have faced a growing resentment, with reports of protests and violent incidents emerging frequently, Kerala has been lauded for its systematic approach to tackling the COVID-19 crisis. However, Kerala too faced migrant protests back in March. Since the protests erupted, the state government put into effect a plan to ensure the migrant workers in the state are taken care of.

Of the estimated total of 4.10 lakh migrant workers in the state, over 40,000 have reportedly returned to their home states. Recently T P Ramakrishnan, Labour Minister of the state said, “Kerala does not want migrant workers to go back. Those who want to go home can do so. If those who had returned to their states come back to Kerala, the government would offer them all facilities for taking up jobs.”

Reports at the end of April revealed that Kerala has been providing a host of facilities for its “guest workers”—including television, recharge for mobile phones and even indoor games such as carrom. They even made announcements and distributed pamphlets in various regional languages to create awareness of the health risks posed by COVID-19.

"The basic needs of the workers like drinking water and cooking facilities have been ensured. Those who prefer to have food like chapathi and sabji are given that. Milk is supplied to the camps through state-run Milma. Along with that, food from community kitchens has also been provided to the workers. Besides, if they wish to prepare their own food, the required items are supplied to them," a senior Labour Department official told PTI.

Today, the state has the highest number of relief camps for migrant workers, numbering close to 20,000.

As such, the response of state governments to the migrant crisis has been varied, with pressure from civil society members, activists and the opposition often acting as a significant catalyst.