Ideas

Why More Needs To Be Done For India’s Internal Migrants

An Indian woman works at a construction project in front of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Migration within India is significant, but it fails to draw attention.

    Migrants contribute notably to the economy of the place where they migrate to.

    Although some measures are already in place, the government should consider the needs of this section of the economy and design special assistance for them.

Ramkishan makes his living by pulling rickshaw in Delhi. He hails from Darbhanga, Bihar, and owns some land there, but due to abysmally low returns on agriculture, he had to seek employment in the big city. He still goes back to his town during the harvest season to tend to his crops. This is also the only time he gets to see his family.

This story is not of Ramkishan alone, but of many who migrate seasonally to metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. Most of them leave their families behind as the cost of living in cities can be high. While some of them may call on their families to live with them after they have pooled in sufficient resources, others spend their lives away from home.

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As urbanisation has grown in India, so have the economic prospects. On the other hand, we have a large share of the population (almost 70 per cent) that is still dependent on agriculture. With income from agriculture falling and being increasingly unreliable, the situation becomes ripe for massive outflow of labour.

What’s more, internal migration – movement within national boundaries – is far greater than movement beyond the shores, but it still receives far less attention from governments, researchers, and international organisations. According to the 2011 census, India’s total population is 1.21 billion, and of this, almost 326 million or 28.5 per cent of the people are internal migrants (NSSO 2007-08).

Percentage of internal migrants in select million-plus cities (Source: Census 2001) Percentage of internal migrants in select million-plus cities (Source: Census 2001)

According to the census, the level of urbanisation in India has jumped from 27.81 per cent in 2001 to 31.16 per cent 10 years later. This has been the result of poverty-induced rural-urban migration and the resultant demographic explosion. The Economic Survey of India 2017 estimated that almost nine million people had moved annually between 2011 and 2016. The survey also revealed the state-wise pattern, according to which Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were the biggest source states, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, and West Bengal. The biggest destination states were Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala. Such a movement has created a demographic divide among states, where the host states are increasingly under pressure to keep up with the needs of the incoming migrants while the source states suffer from outflow of human capital.

Contrary to popular belief, internal migrants contribute significantly to the economy of their destinations. The rising contribution of cities to India’s gross domestic product (GDP) would not be possible without migration and migrant workers. According to a study, domestic remittance market was almost $10 billion for year 2007-08. The same study suggests that with rising incomes, migrant remittances also encourage investment in human capital formation, particularly increased expenditure on health and, to some extent, on education at their origins.

In addition to economic benefits, migrants also take their skills and knowledge back with them, generally called ‘social remittances’. For example, migrants with greater exposure to formal relations between employer and employee at their destinations may reject poor employment conditions, low wages, and semi-feudal labour relationships and their origin, and provide improved knowledge and awareness about workers’ rights. Migration may provide an opportunity to escape caste divisions and restrictive social norms. Migrants may return with renewed social attitudes and act as a channel of knowledge.

There is no doubt that migration and inter-cultural dialogue between populations bring in new ideas, energy, and diversity to urban spaces, but at the same time, unplanned migration and urbanisation can also create serious development challenges. The problem is multiplied in cases where there is a high level of segregation between the migrants and the host community. This leads to a formation of ghettos that may suffer from material as well as cultural discrimination. Indian cities are ripe with such examples, where conflicts between the two have turned violent. A sense of rootlessness among a section of the city’s population creates social tension as well as psychological trauma.

Women migrants face double the discrimination, encountering problems as migrants and their specific vulnerability as victims of gender-based violence, and physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.

Seasonal migrants form a particularly vulnerable group. They make up the bulk of low-paying and hazardous informal jobs in key sectors such as transport, domestic work, construction, and manufacturing. A number of these workers also enter the workforce at a young age and so they never gain a technical skill, which hampers the possibility of upward mobility. They, thus, spend their lives in these poorly paid jobs doing hazardous work.

Lack of access to healthcare is another key problem. Yasmin, a domestic worker in the upscale colony of Greater Kailash, Delhi, has been suffering from kidney stones for months. She says, “I cannot afford to go to a private hospital due to their high fees, and government hospitals have a very long wait time. I have been going to AIIMS for a week, but still haven’t got an appointment. I have to miss work and, thus, income.”

Like her, a number of workers, especially those doing manual work, often fall sick and are denied quality healthcare. Many of them return to their villages and drop off the workforce.

Official records often underestimate seasonal movement as census data is collected only every 10 years, and the stock data is unable to capture short-term movements. If any policies are to be devised for these workers, the first step would be to overcome this challenge and have a realistic account of their number and pattern of movement.

Waking up to the challenge, both government and private sector have led some initiatives in the country. Some of the challenges faced by migrant labour and the initiatives to combat them have been highlighted below. Some of them may not target migrants exclusively, but they have been designed to benefit them and other informal labour.

1. Documentation and Identity

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Because of the lack of documentary evidence of local residence, migrants get denied access to some legal rights, social protection, and public services. The introduction of the Aadhaar card by the Modi government has, however, brought some optimism in this area. With a unique Aadhaar number, people have the ability to identify themselves anywhere in the country using their bio-metric data and access basic services such as bank accounts.

In addition, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the body responsible for issuing the Aadhaar card, has been trying to reach out to the poor and the marginalised. After discussion and stakeholder consultations, the UIDAI signed a Memorandum of Understanding on 29 July 2010 with the National Coalition of Organisations for the Security of Migrant Workers.

2. Political inclusion

According to the study ‘Political Inclusion of Seasonal Migrant Workers in India: Perceptions, Realities and Challenges’, migrants exercised limited political agency at their destinations and, as a result, remained more connected and aware of the political developments of their source locations. In the recent year, media has also highlighted how political leaders often exploit migrants as a pawn in divisive vote-bank politics. To counter this practice, it is important to include migrants politically and give them a right to their cities.

Cities like New Delhi, Visakhapatnam, and Coimbatore have taken some positive steps in that direction. Municipalities of these cities have declared citizen’s charters to recognise the rights of citizens and take responsibility for responding to their needs. The charters seek to provide pertinent information to citizens about services being delivered by the municipal corporation and create a system that will redress public grievances in a time-bound manner while making citizens aware of their rights and responsibilities.

3. Legal Aid

Because many of the migrant labourers are employed in the unorganised sector, they often face legal conflicts. However, in the absence of education and support, they become vulnerable to exploitation.

An innovative practice in this area can be seen in Udaipur, Rajasthan, where the non-governmental organisation Aajeevika Bureau has launched a phone-based helpline for workers called Labour Line. The helpline involves a dedicated phone line answered by a trained counsellor. It allows workers to reach out for counsel in case of problems about wages, retrenchment, or abuse. Since it was launched in August 2011, Labour Line has received over 700 phone calls from across the state. Such a high rate of calls clearly shows that there is a need for a fast-track dispute redressal system and forums for the workers in the unorganised sector.

Migrants especially face exclusion and vulnerability. While no specific law can be made to address migrants in particular, given the informal nature of their work, most of their problems fall under the purview of laws looking at informal labour. Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Act 1996 and Minimum Wages Act 1948 are two of the most important pieces of legislation in this regard. The BOCW Act regulates matters related to worker safety, health, and welfare. More than legislation, however, what is needed are outreach programmes by respective state governments to impart technical skills, aid them in legal matters, and assist them in resettling at their new destinations.

Some programmes are already running at a limited scale. For example, Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Allied Trusts runs a Migrant Support Programme in over eight states and reaches over 100,000 migrants. The programme aims to contribute to the social security and well-being of migrant families. Under the programme, migration resource centres are also set up to provide assistance to registration, issuance of photo identity, counselling, legal aid, and facilitating access to social services at destinations.

Such programmes exist in some areas and on a limited scale. The need of the hour is for the government to consider the needs of this section of the economy and design special assistance for them.

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