Independent Research and Policy Advocacy

Millions on the Move: Narratives of Labour Migrants in India – Part 1

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Why did I migrate? Because it’s a question of my survival, my family’s survival” – Mogji Meena, Limdi Village, Aaspur Block, Dungarpur District, Rajasthan

As headlines hit us daily of the severe drought conditions plaguing various parts of the country this summer, day to day survival is indeed the deepest crisis that a vast majority of our rural populace finds themselves in. Triggered by water scarcity, persistent drought conditions and a huge decline in agricultural incomes, rural to urban migration has become a pervasive reality in India today. From Bundelkhand to Delhi, from Marathwada, Karnataka and Andhra to Mumbai, they are moving in massive numbers – in search of opportunities for survival, secure livelihoods and a more dignified life.

Though the harsh drought conditions this year has brought some amount of public attention to seasonal migration from rural areas, this is by no means a new phenomenon. In the past few decades, seasonal, circular migration from the countryside to the more prosperous urban centers has in fact, emerged as a critical livelihood strategy for millions of rural poor in India. Growing impoverishment in the villages have been matched by increasing rates of urbanization and an unprecedented expansion of opportunities in the urban labour markets – these have jointly triggered an unprecedented movement of people across the country. Though there is a dearth of formal measures for assessing the large numbers underlying this phenomenon, unofficial estimates peg the number of internal migrants in the country at a staggering 150 million.

Over time, this movement has become more long distance with an increase in inter-state mobility. Analysis using NSS data, specifically in the rural-urban stream shows that the percentage of inter-state migrants has gone up from 19.6 per cent in 1999-00 to 25.2 in 2007-08[1]. While states such as UP, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Rajasthan, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand – with depressed economies and surplus manpower – are the primary suppliers of labour; Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, known for their robust and flourishing local economies are the prominent destinations for migrants. Construction sector is known to be the largest employer of migrant workers with 40 million migrants[2]. This is followed by domestic work (20 million), textile (11 million), brick kilns (10 million), transportation, mines & quarries and agriculture[3]. Within these sectors, seasonal migrants are mostly employed to man the tasks that the local labour have long vacated, ones that constitute the bottom end of the value chain and entail backbreaking labour and high risk.

Issues of Social and Political Exclusion

The contribution that the vast community of labour migrants makes to our economy is beyond doubt; yet their entry into urban labour markets is marked by endemic disadvantages. Devoid of critical skills, information and bargaining power, they get caught in exploitative labour arrangements that force them to work in low-end, low-value, hazardous work environments. Lack of identity and any form of social protection accentuates this problem. These hardships are magnified as and when state boundaries are crossed and the distance between the rural “source” and urban “destination” increases.

Establishing one’s identity is central to securing access to citizenship rights as well as public entitlements provisioned by the state. However, an early departure from the village often means that the migrant youth lack all verifiable proof of their identity. Being on the move, they also frequently get left out of the voter registration or Aadhar registration exercises in their villages. An inability to establish one’s identity in the city often becomes a cause of frequent harassment by police and other local authorities, who pick them up as easy suspects in case of a theft or a crime.

The highly mobile nature of their lives, coupled with the absence of documents to establish their identity and domicile in the city means that migrants are left out of the scope of government programmes and public entitlements from both the source and the destination. In the cities, they are unable to access PDS or subsidized health schemes at public hospitals. Further, for households that migrate with children, access to good quality education is a significant challenge[4]. Finally, a large number of migrants remain politically excluded because of their high mobility; they remain unable to cast their votes or participate in elections[5]. Fundamental citizenship issues arise, as the state machinery does not permit the portability of entitlements.

An elaborate chain of contractors and middlemen, who largely operate in the informal economy, mediates migration flows. There are no written contracts, no enforceable agreements regarding wages or other benefits, and no commitments regarding regular provision of work.

Migrants, completely dependent on the middlemen for information, end up working in jobs that demand hard and risky manual labor and are constantly subject to exploitation with little or no opportunity for legal recourse. Their work lives are characterized by exploitative practices such as manipulation in wage rates and work records, nonpayment or withholding of wages, long work hours, abysmal work conditions, verbal and physical abuse. Female workers, especially in the domestic and construction sectors, are often sexually exploited in return for the offer of regular work. Accidents and deaths at workplaces are also extremely common in the construction sector, which is aggravated by the absence of any kind of social protection. The worker never comes in touch with the principal employer; hence it is almost impossible to fix accountability for any of these violations.

While migrants struggle to access a secure and dignified livelihood in cities, the families they leave behind – the women, the elderly and the children, lead vulnerable lives, often finding it difficult to negotiate public life in the absence of men. Women bear triple burden of caring for children and elderly, managing the sparse land holdings along with household chores and keeping household finances afloat, frequently taking up wage labour work available in the vicinity. The families of migrants are known to lose access to government schemes both for lack of knowledge and inability to demand their entitlements effectively.

Unbanked and Financially Excluded

Despite the economic imperatives that drive migration, migrant workers essentially remain an unbanked population. Since migrants do not possess permissible proofs of identity and residence, they fail to satisfy the Know Your Customer (KYC) norms as stipulated by the Indian banking regulations. They are thus unable to open bank accounts in cities. This has implications on the savings and remittance behaviors of migrant workers.

In the absence of banking facilities, migrants lack suitable options for safe-keeping of their money. In order to avoid the risk of theft, they are forced to wait for long periods to settle their wages. This makes them vulnerable to cheating and non-payment of wages at the hands of contractors and middlemen. Sometimes, they are forced to avail safe-keeping services from local shopkeepers, who charge a fee for this service.

Many migrant workers resort to informal channels to send money home. In the case of short-distance migration, workers end up carrying money themselves, which poses a potential threat of mugging or personal injury. Long-distance migrants use courier systems or bus drivers who charge high service rates. The government run money order system involves long delays and leakages and is therefore sparsely used.

Inadequate State Response

Despite the compelling numbers and issues that underlie this phenomenon, the policies of the Indian state have failed in providing any form of legal or social protection to this vulnerable population. The single piece of legislation that governs the movement of people across inter-state boundaries – the Inter-State Migrant Worker Act (1978) – is largely obsolete and inadequate to meet the protection needs of workers in the current economic regime.

One of the serious constraints in framing an effective policy response to internal migration is the lack of credible and robust data on the incidence of seasonal migration. Census and NSS, which have a significant impact on policymaking, are unable to capture seasonal and circular migration. Research that is informed by macro estimates also tends to differ from the discourse emerging from micro studies[6] (see Kundu, 2009), which give a radically different picture of ever increasing labour mobility. The large variances and contradictions between macro and micro level data have created serious hurdles in the emergence of effective solutions in both policy and practice.

There is thus an imminent need for a comprehensive institutional response that is able to address the diverse needs of this vulnerable segment that remains on the fringes of public and policy attention – invisible, disempowered and disenfranchised.

[1] Srivastava R. 2011a. Internal Migration in India: An Overview of its Features, Trends and Policy Challenges, Paper presented at UNESCO-UNICEF National Workshop on Internal Migration and Human Development in India, 6th-7th December, 2011 ICSSR, New Delhi
[2] Deshingkar P. and Akter S. 2009, Migration and Human Development in India, Human Development Research Paper 2009/13
[3] Ibid.
[4] Smita 2007. Locked Homes Empty Schools: The Impact of Distress Seasonal Migration on their Rural Poor, Zuban, New Delhi
[5] Sharma A. Poonia S. Babar M. Singh V. Singh P. Jha L. K. 2011. Political Inclusion of Migrant Workers: Perceptions, Realities and Challenges, Paper presented at Political Inclusion Workshop and their Access to Basic Services, Lucknow 10th-11th March, 2011
[6] Kundu A. 2009 Exclusionary Urbanisation in Asia: A Macro Overview, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLIV, No. 48 pp. 48-58

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for this excellent post. What is the penetration of Aadhar among your client base? are there any barriers?

    1. Thanks Bindu! I would say that the penetration of Aadhar is quite high in terms of absolute numbers, at least in the Rajasthan- Gujarat migration corridor. The enrollment infrastructure is quite efficient; the service providers (such as e-mitras) are adequately incentivized to ensure enrollment. Public messaging efforts that brand Aadhar as the gateway to all public services has also contributed significantly to the high enrollment rates.

      But it needs to be emphasized that migrants still face challenges in getting themselves enrolled in the cities. They find it hard to produce local address proofs that the city-based enrollment agencies demand. Migrants still find it easier to get themselves enrolled in villages, for which they need to travel there foregoing their wages.

      Migrants from Rajathan travel back home frequently, due to which their enrollment rates are higher. At the same time, we find enrollment rates among long distance migrants- especially from UP and Bihar, relatively lower since they don’t go back home as frequently.

      But we are yet to see how these linkages are translating to real access to services.

  2. would you know which is the highest migrant employing sector? I understand that you have quoted 2009 HDR paper and this paper is using data from 2001 which is 15 years back from today. It would be really be of great help if you know what is the situation as of today?

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