Inter-State Migration: Why Migrant Workers Must Be A Part Of India’s Development Story

by Swati Kamal - Oct 16, 2018 04:16 PM +05:30 IST
Inter-State Migration: Why Migrant Workers Must Be A Part Of India’s Development StoryMigrant workers at a construction site in front of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. (Daniel Berehulak/GettyImages) 
  • Times of unrest are here to stay and this important section of people cannot be left out of the development and welfare process anymore.

Two weeks ago, the targeting of migrant workers from north Indian states in Gujarat started off an exodus process. Sabarkantha and Mehsana were among the six districts which saw major violence, after the alleged rape of a toddler by a migrant worker. This resulted in migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh fleeing Gujarat – figures are anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000.

The exact reasons of the ‘uprising’ could be politically motivated, against the political regime, or a genuine grievance against jobs being lost to “outsiders”. Congress leader Alpesh Thakor claims that Gujarat has not been enforcing the law that requires 80 per cent of jobs be given to local people; it can be blamed on the trouble-catalyst social media.

What cannot be disputed, though, is the loss, trauma and inconvenience not just for migrant workers and their families, but also companies – pharmaceuticals, infrastructure, construction and others – that were dependent on this migrant workforce. After large numbers of workers left – 4,000 out of 15,000 in Sanand for instance – factories remained shut for a few days, even as owners tried their best to ensure order and safety and persuaded them to return. Police action, cases against perpetrators and their arrests, and state government’s interventions like providing security cover to industrial units, residential colonies, and confidence-building measures like community meetings helped. Though fear and uncertainty still pervades, those who stayed back have begun reporting for work. Those who left, are back in safe territory – their own land(s).

Accounts of workers reveal the trauma suffered: the fear as contractors told them to leave the state immediately, with their safety not guaranteed; some had to escape, as their contractors had held them captive fearing that they would leave. Now, back in safe territory but the question for them is – what next?

Just as these migrant workers’ future is a question mark, so is the fortune of Gujarat’s industry. The 10 million migrant workers in the state are the backbone of its industries, and the disruption had had industry associations bracing for 15-20-per cent cut in production.

Migrant workers are a crucial factor in economic growth, bringing with them either specific talent or willingness that was locally unavailable. Historically, workers have moved for work to economic centres and high-growth regions, and parochialism is largely alien to the basic Indian character. Yet, incidents of hostility to outsider populations have occurred in the past – for identity politics, or when hostile frenzy was whipped in the face of untoward incidents, or economic deprivation. Recall Maharashtra’s historical resistance to migrants; the anger towards north-eastern peoples in Karnataka, not too long ago, and also migrant workers fleeing Kerala last year.

That this kind of local ethnic protectionism and divisive politics, that led to the uprisings in Gujarat, will not occur again another time another place cannot be guaranteed. Yet, migration as a phenomenon is going strong as never before. The trends were so obvious that the Economic Survey 2017 had devoted a chapter to it, highlighting that migration was much larger than was understood.

Whereas the latest available data was from Census 2011, the survey took as proxy for work-related migrant flow the net annual flows of unreserved passenger travel. They zeroed-in on this class of travel because it “serves less affluent people, who are more likely to travel for work-related reasons”. This data added large numbers – and new dimensions – to estimates available from Census 2011.

The chart below from the survey showed the all-India net annual passenger flows for financial years starting 2011-12.

Inter-State Migration: Why Migrant Workers Must Be A Part Of India’s Development Story

It was found that net flows at the all-India level averaged around 9 million annually – meaning that labour mobility in India is much higher than previously estimated. The acceleration of migration now, compared to the early 2000s, was found to be much higher among females.

Growth since the 1990s was the major contributor, and the study found that internal migration had nearly doubled in the 2000s compared to the 1990s. Migration had also accelerated in the period 2011-2016, compared to 2001-2011. Crucially, the survey noted that “this acceleration has taken place in the backdrop of discouraging incentives such as domicile provisions for working in different states, lack of portability of benefits, legal and other entitlements upon relocation” – and suggested that these policy hurdles be overcome as an increasing rate of growth of migrants is predicted. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the top source states, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand; Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat were among the top host states.

Inter-State Migration: Why Migrant Workers Must Be A Part Of India’s Development Story

The table above reflects the no-brainer that less-affluent states show higher out-migration, and rich states and metro cities attract large migrant workers. The survey had also found that over time, there has been a shift towards the southern states. The survey celebrated the fact that “language was not found to be a barrier”.

From the table we also see that out-migration states like UP and Bihar also receive migrants – from even lesser-affluent areas. And, whereas most migration happens to nearby states, but Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra attract labour from far-off lands. Among the top attractive states, Gujarat also sends out to Tamil Nadu; Tamil Nadu sends to Andhra Pradesh; Maharashtra sends to Goa and Gujarat. Uttar Pradesh is the top sender state; Delhi is the top receiver state. All in all, migration is in vogue, a given, and a mainstay.

After all the give-and-take, the figure below captures the average net flows of states:

Inter-State Migration: Why Migrant Workers Must Be A Part Of India’s Development Story

Gross and net level flows were also calculated at district level. The net flows calculated using railway passenger traffic by the survey came close to the report by the Working Group on Migration (government of India, 2017). An important finding in the Economic Survey relates to something called the “gravity model”, a theoretical explanation of something common-sensical – that, as distance increases, net flow of migrants decreases, and that migration is highest in the adjacent states. District-level estimates – again, arrived at through the proxy of railway reservations – suggested that people-flows within states were four times the flows across borders, which means that distance usually has a negative effect.

This finding notwithstanding, a look at the top district-level flows, reveals that inter-state migrations dominate top positions:

Source: Economic Survey 2016-2017.
Source: Economic Survey 2016-2017.

We can safely conclude that given a choice, labour may not want to move far, but economic compulsions necessitate it – especially in UP and Bihar.

Why are these people ready to suffer lives of ignominy and sacrifice that any movement to an alien place is bound to bring – and that too, at an accelerating pace? The Economic Survey had concluded that this acceleration was to do with the “rewards” (higher prospective income and employment in the destination) being greater than the costs and risks that migration entails.

The phenomenon of urbanisation is the result of such migration. Yet, often, the economic gains are accompanied by lament and a longing to return: Many of those who had moved from their villages to Hyderabad say they were unhappy in the city, but staying in their native place(s) was not an option. Some even say that “the promised factories that would offer employment have not come up”.

It is obvious that any movement does bring in its wake havoc – by disrupting family life, in case the bread-winner moves, or uprooting people and alienating them from their culture, in case the entire family moves. Either way, the substance of society suffers.

It’s even worse for seasonal migrant workers. As this report on the World Economic Forum website by Krishnavatar Sharma, co-founder and director, Aajeevika Bureau elaborates, “seasonal migrants dominate the low-paying, hazardous and informal market jobs in key sectors such as construction, hotel, textile, manufacturing, transportation, services, domestic work etc. They lack access to better health services, which results in very poor occupational health. Since they cannot afford private hospitals, they often go back to their villages once they fall sick. This affects their employment opportunities, as well as the loss of wages.” Sharma, who has worked for many years on the issues related to seasonal migrant workers, says, Aajeevika is an agency that works to ensure security and dignity for migrant-labour communities.

The trouble with current migration is the lack of choices available in the home states – in which scenario, moving out is scarcely determined by the freedom to earn their living or freedom to move anywhere. There is no freedom, because they are fettered by their poverty. Unless for specialised skills, or roles across corporates or service-based organisations, these migrations may have not been taken place had the home states offered job opportunities.

In the present situation, chief ministers of UP and Bihar have condemned the mass migration, and tried to intervene. However, it is a matter to introspect: why do these workers need to migrate at all, that too for low-skills jobs, at paltry pay scales and abject living conditions? The reason is, migrant workers do not feature in the planners’ consciousness, and seasonal migrants are the worst affected, as they are not even properly accounted for. As Sharma points out, “to devise policies and provide services for seasonal migrant workers, the state needs to have a realistic statistical account of their number and an understanding of the nature of their mobility. Unfortunately, the Indian state fails on both accounts.” He says that recent field studies reveal that the bulk of migratory movements for work is accounted for by seasonal migration.

Any solutions to development must surely include such large numbers of people who currently live at below-decent standards. The approach must be multi-pronged: first, create employment choices within the state of origin – in light of the findings of the Economic Survey concurring with the gravity model; second, have standardised living conditions at a basic minimum denomination across states, for those who still choose to move out of their native states.

In this, the Smart Cities Mission can be an opportunity. It is about renewal and sustainability of a 100 cities across the country, necessitated largely by increasing urbanisation. Tilting the focus just a little, it can simultaneously be led by jobs creation and inclusive development. The out-migration states can step up efforts here, with labour considerations as backdrop, the end-goal being settling out-migrant workers with jobs. The central government could provide them necessary hand-holding and monitoring through the creation of a 'supra agency'. Right now, there are diverse kinds of projects across states, diverse people involved and projects moving at diverse speeds; this approach, of creating sustainable employment, may just give it extra purpose. This, obviously would entail expediting projects in top out-migration states and treating these states as priority.

The following are the smart cities in the top out-migration states; UP, with 10 cities, surely has huge potential for employment.

Inter-State Migration: Why Migrant Workers Must Be A Part Of India’s Development Story

In this context, a leaf can be taken out of the Chhattisgarh story, where work is progressing expeditiously on smart cities Raipur, Bilaspur and Atal Nagar in areas such as market redevelopment, rainwater harvesting, waste management, sewage works, non-motorised transport pathways etc. Twin objectives of speedy smartness and development, as well as a remedy for out-migration can be achieved this way.

Even redevelopment and upgrade of slums can achieve multiple objectives.

Improving livability across states is the other prong of taking care of this class of our population. As the Economic Survey also highlighted, “portability of food security benefits, healthcare, and a basic social security framework for the migrant are crucial”. It suggested first, an inter-state self-registration process and then inter-state coordination for implementation of schemes for migrant welfare. States must treat migrants as a prized commodity and vie with each other and outdo each other in attracting talent not already found within their population.

The employers and contractors must be made accountable and responsible, with the backing of statutory provisions. As it is, labour markets are unorganised and often workers suffer on accounts of wages, poor working conditions and abuse. Sharma of Aajeevika points out that “the existing legal machinery is not sensitive to the nature of legal disputes in the unorganized sector”. In the case of inter-state migrants, the problem is aggravated as “the political class ignores them because they don’t count as votes; due to their mobile nature, they don’t find place in the manifestos of trade unions”. Giving the example, specifically of Ahmedabad, the author says that “the contract labour system and a loose regulating state apparatus has only helped strengthen these unfair models and practices in the migrant job market”.

Aajeevika Bureau reportedly has devised innovative solutions for migrant workers in Ahmedabad, which includes ID proof and registration, legal education and counseling and mediation in disputes, and other measures related to healthcare and skills training. Many more such efforts are needed across states.

Apart from these efforts, governments in out-migration states must also take up measures related to formalisation – ID proof and registration, legal counseling and disputes solving, and improve the lot of this working class by investing in their healthcare and skills training.

The times of unrest are here to stay, and this important section of people cannot be left out of the development and welfare process anymore.

Swati Kamal is a columnist for Swarajya.

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