Why India needs IMD to be right about a good monsoon

Work-related seasonal migration is higher when rainfall is low and the construction sector, the largest employer of such labour, is witnessing a slowdown


Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Mumbai: The announcement of plentiful rains this year is likely to spell relief for those forced to migrate because of failing monsoons. A slowdown in the construction industry which employs most migrant labourers would likely have strained their ability to deal with another deficient year after rains fell short in 2014 and 2015.

A Mint analysis looked at India Meteorological Department (IMD) data on rainfall and compared it with seasonal migration patterns across rainfall sub-divisions based on Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) data.

Chart 1 shows that there is a negative co-relation between the amount of rain that regions receive and the proportion of the population that sees seasonal migration. The survey asks if people have migrated over the previous five years (2007-12). Simply put, the lower the average rainfall in a region over the period, the higher is the seasonal migration. This analysis is restricted to rural males in the age group of 15-64 years (working age population).

The result can simply be explained by the fact that agriculture is still the biggest employer of people, and irrigation is yet to reach around half of the country’s farms. Because of this, India has a fairly significant population which migrates for temporary employment.

According to IHDS data, an estimated 6.5 million (or 7%) out of the total 94 million agricultural labourers identified themselves as short-term migrants, defined as those who temporarily migrated to other villages/towns for work. Similarly, an estimated 7.5 million (or 9%) of 84 million construction workers identified themselves as short-term migrants. This is liable to be an under-estimation of the actual size of the migrant labour force in the construction sector, because much of the migration to the construction sector is of a more permanent nature. For example, this UNDP study pegs the migrant construction labour estimate at 40 million, which would amount to almost 50% of total construction workers (assuming the total number of construction workers is around 84 million, as suggested by IHDS).

“Short-term out-migrants have been estimated to number 12.6 million but recent micro-studies documenting large and increasing numbers of internal migrants suggest that the true figure is 30 million and rising,” says a 2007 study, Circular Migration in India, authored by Kate Bird and Priya Deshingkar Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a think tank.

Poor rains act as an impetus for this seasonal search for employment.

A 2014 paper, titled ‘Rainfall variability, food security and human mobility in the Janjgir-Champa district of Chhattisgarh state, India’, examined the issue. There was a single annual rice harvest in the research site which, if affected by erratic rainfall patterns, leaves marginal farmers and labourers with very few options. Authors Janakaraj Murali and Tamer Afifi noted that some looked to help from relatives or friends and the government to help deal with the situation.

“However, seasonal and permanent migrations are the most opted-for coping strategies in the study area,” it said.

India suffered back-to-back deficient monsoons in 2014 and 2015. The relationship between poor rains and migration would indicate a significant undocumented spike in migration over the last two years.

But there is a problem here.

Most of the seasonal migrants find work in the construction sector. It accounts for the largest single-sector source of employment for such labour. And construction has been going through a rough patch.

Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows that stalling levels in the construction sector have been climbing higher ever since the financial crisis of 2008. While it is not at its peak, it is far off its trough. The latest figures show that stalled construction and real estate projects are at 7.84% of the projects under implementation compared to 1.19% in March 2009 at the time of the global financial crisis.

The IMD’s forecast is thus a welcome relief.

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