Do migrant labourers in India have rights?

The free movement of labour within our country is important, but do we have policies that recognize this and support it?
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First Published: Mon, Feb 04 2013. 07 24 PM IST
A file photo of migrant workers at a construction site in Kochi. Photo/Sivaram V/Mint
A file photo of migrant workers at a construction site in Kochi. Photo/Sivaram V/Mint
The word migration invariably evokes images of distress.
For poor and primarily Dalit families from Lunkaransar tehsil in Rajasthan who migrated each year for a few months to irrigated areas in Sri Ganganagar district in the state and Abohar and Fazilka districts in Punjab—seasonal migration was a smart livelihood strategy. After the harvest of their single kharif crop with no agricultural work in their own villages, this seasonal trip to help harvest the wheat crop in irrigated areas further north, helped them bring back fodder and wheat which would last for about six months. The seasonal migration of labourers from southern Rajasthan to cotton fields in Gujarat or from parts of Orissa to Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are examples of similar smart strategies. If there is no agricultural work in your own fields, migrate to areas that require your labour. For families with no land or very little productive land, this migration morphs into a more permanent one.
While travelling through rural Punjab three years ago, I heard farmers complain bitterly about the poor pace of paddy transplantation. There was a huge shortage of labour since the steady supply of seasonal agricultural labour from Bihar had dwindled because of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the government’s flagship rural jobs scheme. This seemed fantastic. As luck could have it, I visited parts of Madhubani and Muzaffarpur districts in Bihar soon after and met families that had eschewed their annual and seasonal migration because of the availability of work in their own villages.
The successful implementation of MGNREGA in states with surplus labour and a high incidence of poverty could lead to a reduction in seasonal migration. However, if the root causes that prompt this migration—no land, inadequate or unproductive land or the absence of adequate employment and livelihood opportunities in villages—are not addressed, migration is inevitable. With changing aspirations, not just seasonal but permanent migration may be the only path to realizing the dreams of the poor.
Kajol is from West Bengal and lives in Gurgaon. She is a single parent with two children of her own. Her sister’s untimely death led to Kajol adopting her sister’s two children as well. Kajol works in several homes as a cook to bring up four children. If this isn’t hard enough, she just started working a few shifts a week in a guest house for some additional income. She has taken a loan and bought a piece of land in her village. Eventually, her brother will return back to the village to cultivate this land and take care of her mother. She rents a place in a slum—tucked away behind a market and away from Gurgaon’s fancy homes and apartments. It is unauthorized. She is not a resident of Haryana. She is not considered below the poverty line and cannot access the benefits from the public distribution system or other social security schemes.
We are surrounded by people like Kajol. People we encounter every day in our lives. Our cities will not function without them. Large farmers’ fields will remain barren without them. Yet they are invisible in the eyes of the state.
The free movement of labour within our country is important. Do we have policies that recognize this and support it? Can we ensure that as citizens they receive access to basic rights wherever they move in this country? Can we prevent them from being exploited? Is it possible to have a system of contracts between migrant labourers and their employers that provides safety and security to both parties? Can migrant labourers and families receive access to social security benefits irrespective of where they are in this country? Can their children receive access to schooling and benefits? Can they open bank accounts easily?
While H1B visas for tech workers headed to the US are important, surely recognizing and protecting labourers who migrate within this country is too.
V.K. Madhavan has worked in the not-for-profit sector for two decades and spent 15 years living and working in deserts and hills. He’s still on the fringe asking questions and looking for answers. He writes every fortnight.
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First Published: Mon, Feb 04 2013. 07 24 PM IST
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