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Prayagraj: Migrants wait to board buses to reach their native places after arriving via special train, during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, in Prayagraj, Tuesday, May 26, 2020. (PTI Photo) (PTI)
Prayagraj: Migrants wait to board buses to reach their native places after arriving via special train, during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, in Prayagraj, Tuesday, May 26, 2020. (PTI Photo) (PTI)

Why India’s ‘migrants’ walked back home

More than a story of the Great Indian Dream, the story of short-term migrants is one of desperation. Without the social capital of well-established long-term migrants, they found it hard to stay put in India's big cities

For the past two months, if the government has often seemed like it was surprised by the number of migrants on the road, it might just be true. Official estimates undercount short-term migrants who are the most vulnerable, and differ significantly from more stable long-term migrants.

The main source of officially used data on migration in India comes from the 2011 Census, which found that 455 million Indians, or over one-third of the population could be classified as “migrants". The Census defines a migrant as a person who is at a different place from his or her “usual place residence" at the time of the Census enumeration. However, the vast majority of these “migrants" are women who have moved out of their village or town to get married. Economic migrants make up less than a tenth of all migrants at just over 45 million.

If the government was expecting that India has just 45 million economic migrants, the number walking on roads, highways, and train tracks would have caught it off guard. When Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced support for stranded migrants, she said that their number had been estimated at 80 million, already nearly twice the Census estimates for economic migrants. The 2016-17 Economic Survey estimated that the total migrant workforce could have been over 100 million in 2016.

Why were they returning home and not waiting out the lockdown in big cities, some commentators asked.This exposed not just the lack of understanding over just how precarious the lives of these migrants were but also the fact that the big cities were not actually “home". Left out of Census estimates is the circular or seasonal migrant, who might go to a city to work for a period of time and then return home or go to a new place. The Census asks people in a village or town if their “usual place of residence" - somewhere they have lived for over six months - is different from where they are now. Hence it misses all those people who undertook a migration but then returned.

The precise scale of such circular or short-term migration has not been well measured. The India Human Development Survey (IHDS)-a large-scale nationally representative household survey conducted jointly by the University of Maryland and the National Council for Applied Economic Research- asked households if any family member had gone to another city or town in the preceding five years for work for a period of at least ten days. The 2011-12 IHDS found that 4% of rural males of working age had taken part in such short-term migration (separate from long-term migration) in the five years before the survey, though even this was likely to be an under-estimate.

What is better documented is that circular or short-term migrants are the most vulnerable. Short-term migrants are considerably worse off than long-term migrants; they are in cities not so much to make a better life for themselves than they are to survive.

Research by Sonalde Desai and Esha Chatterjee of the University of Maryland has found that long‐term migrants come from both wealthy and poor states but short-term migrants are mostly located in poorer states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh.

Long‐term migrants are more likely to be educated, come from upper income groups, and are forward caste. In contrast, short-term migrants are less educated, tend to be dalits or adivasis and come from the poorer sections of the society, Desai and Chatterjee found. Of the households that reported at least one short-term migrant, 45 percent were either dalits or adivasis. In 85 percent of households which reported short-term migration, the household head was either illiterate or had only completed primary education.

More than a story of The Great Indian Dream, the story of short-term migration is one of desperation. They leave because there is no decent paid work in the village, the IHDS found. Long-term migrants are more likely to be from villages with higher wage rates whereas short-term migrants tend to be from villages with lower wage rates, Desai and Chatterjee found. Villages in which very little manual work is available also seem to show higher short-term migration, they found.

Unlike overall migration, which is far more intra-state than inter-state, short-term migrants are more likely to migrate between states, a 2018 World Bank working paper by Gaurav Nayyar and Kyoung Yang Kim of the Bank showed. This explains why so many of the journeys on foot were between states. The study showed that short-term migrants moved largely to urban areas and over longer distances than long-term migrants.

One-third of short-term migrants were employed in the construction sector, and contractors played an important role in arranging for work. Around half of all short-term migrants migrated with the help of a contractor, indicating that when work fell through, returning home would have been an unfamiliar journey for the migrant to plan by himself or herself.

Over 50 days after the government told the Supreme Court that there were no migrants walking any more, there are still migrants on the road. The government first missed the bus on estimating how many workers would have to go home by failing to understand short-term migration. It must make up for it now by first understanding the vulnerabilities these workers face, and then trying to lessen the economic hardship they are staring at.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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