When workers began to flee Indian cities in March during the Covid-19 induced lockdown, the country began to wonder exactly how many migrant workers there were, how many of them were daily wage earners, how many were in the informal economy.

In an unequal world, uncounted people are not just missing data. In a democracy, failing to enumerate the vulnerable is a method to disenfranchise them. Absence from state records means that the poor are omitted from welfare measures of the state.

This became amply clear on Monday, when the Union labour ministry told Parliament that more than 1 crore migrant workers and members of their families had returned to their home states from cities and town across India. But it said that it did not have data about the number of migrants who had died during their journeys so the “question does not arise” of compensation for them.

Data gaps

In Mumbai, for instance, it is clear that we do not know how many migrant workers serve the city daily. The initial estimate of migrant workers in Mumbai hovered between eight lakhs to 10 lakhs. In May, the Hindustan Times estimated that about 11.5 lakh workers had left the city. Curiously, a fortnight before, the Indian Express “unofficially” pegged the number as high...

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