Move as millions, survive as one. That is the tag line of the epic, seven episode, Great Migrations, which debuted on National Geographic Television last month. The documentary “spans the globe as it documents the unbelievable journey that animals undertake to survive". The series was three years in the making, and tracks a variety of animals: sperm whales, red crabs, monarch butterflies, wildebeests, elephant seals, bald eagles, jellyfish, zebras, king penguins and more. It promises to be brilliant, so make sure you watch.

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Alas, nothing will be said about the migration of homo sapiens.

Internal migration in India is a mega-phenomenon. Nobody quite knows how large. Migrants are not required to register either at the place of origin or destination (some would say that’s a good thing). There is no standard source of data on migration. The Census of India and the National Sample Survey are the only two (incidental) sources of migration data in the country. The total population of India at the last census was over a billion. According to the census for 2001, 30% of the population, or 307 million, were migrants. Of these, nearly a third had migrated during the previous decade. And a decade has passed since.

Labour migration is a complex phenomenon. Economic and social impacts are often mixed and it is difficult to decouple net effects. Given the size, scale and impact of the issue, precious little research effort has gone into understanding this area in our country. One comprehensive and excellent report is the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) research paper entitled Migration and Human Development in India by Priya Deshingkar and Shaheen Akter (April 2009). Their most important insight is that rural-urban migration in India follows a seasonal, circular path. This so-called circular migration takes place because migrants find many barriers to settling in new urban locations, and because access to most government schemes is only available at their normal, rural locations.

Deshingkar and Akter suggest that adding up the numbers of circular migrants in various sectors, including textile, construction, transport, mining and quarrying, hotels and restaurants, domestic work, and street hawking, indicates that there were close to 100 million such migrants in India. That’s one-fifth of our labour force, and a little less than one-tenth of the overall population of the country.

This could have a transformative effect on the economy. In academic circles, there is widespread agreement now that rural-urban labour migration on an unprecedented scale played a vital role in achieving poverty reduction and economic development in villages in China. Rural poverty in China dropped dramatically from 30.7% in 1978 to 2.6% in 2005. According to Deshingkar and Akter, “recognition of the potentially positive impacts of migration on poverty reduction and local development has been slower to come in India. The underlying reason is a strong anti-migration policy position that is reinforced by researchers from a structuralist tradition who emphasize the negative impacts of migration".

Civil society is doing its bit to plug this gap in migrant support. Ajeevika Bureau, Samarthan and Adhikar are three among a handful of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focused specifically on the problem. Rajeev Khandelwal, chief executive of Ajeevika, tells me that they provide identity, skills, financial services, legal and other support at source for migrant labourers from Rajasthan and Gujarat. With due credit to the yeoman’s service from these NGOs, it is a mere drop in the ocean.

Real change will only come when the mindset of policymakers and politicians switches to accept that migration is a major demographic phenomenon, and that we should begin to focus on pro-migrant policies. An identity that travels with the migrant (such as the biometric Aadhaar), flexible delivery systems that allow migrants to access government programmes, and education and health services that are tailored for migrant workers and their children will go a long way. Granted that in a country where Centre-state subjects and relationships are complex, it will be a challenging task to design “remote" delivery of public services. A good beginning will be made if our policy principle becomes “citizen centric" not “address centric".

The animals highlighted in the National Geographic series follow an ancient instinct “coded" into their DNA. Human beings have no such memory to rely upon. Each generation must fend for itself. In its self-interest, “a sovereign, socialist, democratic republic" is obligated to give internal migrants a helping hand.

PS: Migration goes back several millennia in human history. In the Bible, God speaks to Abraham and says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1); and “then he led away into exile all Jerusalem and all the captains and all the mighty men of valor, ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained except the poorest people of the land" (2 Kings 24:14).

Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at