Is migration a harbinger of social equality in rural India?

Deprived social groups are using migration to improve their socio-economic status in the rural economy

Access to land is an important determinant of incomes in rural India, and deprived social groups such as Dalits are often at a disadvantage due to poor land ownership. Photo: Mint
Access to land is an important determinant of incomes in rural India, and deprived social groups such as Dalits are often at a disadvantage due to poor land ownership. Photo: Mint

In June, news website IndiaSpend did a story based on a survey of migrant workers in Ghatkopar, a Mumbai suburb. The findings were intriguing, to say the least. Within four months of migrating, each of the surveyed families had managed to earn enough to lift them out of poverty and even repay their loans. The survey, however, looked at a small sample of just 60 families. Does migration hold the same promise for the average Indian rural worker? An Economic and Political Weekly paper by Amrita Datta at the Institute for Human Development (IHD) shows that migration might be helping those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder—the most being in Bihar.

The paper uses a primary database of 904 households in 12 representative villages spread across seven districts in Bihar. Data was collected by the IHD from a survey conducted in 1998-2000 and a second round in 2011 from the same households in both rounds and covered households from different castes and socio-economic backgrounds. The paper separates other backward classes (OBCs) into two parts. OBC I are agricultural labourers, who have the lowest levels of income, while OBC II caste mostly dominates the peasant classes.

The findings are important because Bihar has the highest migration rates in the country, as was shown by a National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report based on 2007-08 data. Experts say that it is unlikely that the figures would have changed much.

Access to land is an important determinant of incomes in rural India, and deprived social groups such as Dalits are often at a disadvantage due to poor land ownership. Traditionally, workers from this social group have been forced to work as wage labourers and making themselves vulnerable to being exploited from the local landlord. This group seems to be resorting to migration to escape the exploitation ridden village economy. Datta’s paper shows that remittance had the highest share in incomes of Schedule Caste/Schedule Tribe (SC/ST) and Muslim households. The high share of remittance earnings needs to be seen in the context of the fact that SC/ST and Muslim households have experienced the highest increase in share of households which has at least one migrant. In class terms, agricultural labourer households reported the highest increase in share of households with at least one migrant.

Deciding to work outside the village is something that is happening in other parts of the country too. A field research conducted in Khanpur village of Meerut district in UP, the results of which were highlighted in the paper “Agrarian Transformation and the New Rurality in Western Uttar Pradesh” by Satendra Kumar in the EPW, said that young Dalit men prefer working outside the village even when they choose to live in the village. “The supply of rural labour to the expanding non-farm urban service sector and the flow of urban aspirations to the rural world have rapidly increased over the years,” the paper stated.

Does migration help in economic terms? The answer is a big yes. Datta’s paper shows that on an average, households with migrant members earned approximately over Rs.73000 in 2011, as compared to an income of Rs.62,235 in case of households without migrant members.

The paper also tells us something important. Between migration and welfare schemes such as the MGNREGA, an overwhelming majority opts for the former. Income from casual labour in government programmes including MGNREGA and Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF) formed less than 1% of total income across all caste groups in 2011, except for the SC/ STs where it constituted a slightly higher but still paltry 1.9% of income. “Several departments in the state are not functioning properly and the results may have been reflected in government programmes such as MGNREGA. It has only been since 2005 that the state of Bihar has started functioning,” said Shaibal Gupta, Founder Member Secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) in Patna, Bihar.

Are these gains without any significant costs? The IndiaSpend story reported that migrant households have to suffer a significant deterioration in quality of their lives when they migrate. Often one associates the cost of migration to be associated with lack of proper dwelling for the worker and his/her family. This need not be true for all migrant workers. In fact, a comparison of average housing amenities in rural India and urban slums shows that the latter might be better off than the former.

Caution should be observed in taking these figures on face value. A Mint story on the plight of migrant workers, who had come to Delhi from drought-hit Bundelkhand, showed abysmal living conditions for them. Similarly, most construction workers, an important sector where migrant workers are employed, often live on construction sites which lack in most basic facilities. There are also other costs.

“Houses in slum areas are often poorly located and congested which leads to several diseases. Migrants often do not have access to proper health facilities which leads them to lose their jobs or end up with life-threatening illnesses,” said Dr Benoy Peter, Executive Director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, Kerala.

According to Praveen Jha, Professor of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, in terms of cash-in-hand, migrants certainly have better situations, but they are faced with new challenges in terms of shelter, water, etc.

What is more important is the opportunities for a migrant worker are crucially dependent on performance of sectors such as construction. From agricultural destinations such as Punjab, more people are now migrating for urban informal jobs. “Migration has shifted from rural to urban areas, and earlier streams of Kolkata, Assam and rural Punjab and Haryana have moved towards urban Punjab and Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat, and in particular, the four southern states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka,” Datta said.

Any downturn in labour demand could immensely increase hardships. Gupta told this author that in Bihar’s Gopalganj district, job vacancies in Saudi Arabia are announced publicly with the beating of a drum. This is for the benefit of those seeking better jobs and better pay outside of their village. The perils of recession in Gulf countries adversely affecting remittance based economies are well known. While migration is definitely helping people seek new opportunities, it cannot be a substitute for a generating quality employment in more stable sectors.