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Migrant workers walking along NH24 near New Delhi earlier this month.  (Photo: Hindustan Times)
Migrant workers walking along NH24 near New Delhi earlier this month. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

Why India’s migrants deserve a better deal

  • Roughly 100 million migrant workers are directly responsible for 10% of the GDP. Why are they still so invisible?
  • There has been an unwillingness to collect better data on circular migrants and understand how they affect the economy. This is shocking for a country that runs on migrant labour

BRIGHTON/LONDON : Images of stranded migrants and their long arduous journeys back home will remain seared in our collective memories of the covid-19 pandemic in India. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), an estimated 122 million people lost their jobs in April alone and three-quarters of these were small traders and wage labourers.

No doubt circular migrants formed a significant proportion of those affected. While earlier government responses seemed to offer little or nothing, the government appears to have woken up somewhat to the unfolding human tragedy, announcing a 3,500 crore food support programme for migrants last week. Exactly how the government will implement the programme is not clear, obsessed as it is with establishing identity and registration when most circular migrants lack these documents.

Equally crucial is the lack of critical data on circular migrants in terms of who they are, where they work, how they are recruited, and what their vulnerabilities are to shocks such as covid-19. Governments in India clearly have no systematic understanding of their existence and had not anticipated the scale of the migrant exodus. The crisis should spur the government to collect better data and work closely with other stakeholders who have their ear to the ground.

Because, in the face of a pandemic, it is sound economics to offer India’s migrants a better social safety fallback. Interstate migrants, in particular, are unlikely to return unless they are guaranteed protection.

Just over a decade ago, my colleague and I released an estimate of 100 million circular migrants in India by extrapolating industry estimates. The purpose of this exercise was to convey the significance of circular migration to India’s economy at a time when official statistics had been criticized for consistently underestimating numbers and there was also little discussion of migrants’ economic contribution.

We collated a number of empirical studies which indicated that the major sub-sectors using migrant labour are textiles, construction, stone quarries and mines, brick-kilns, small-scale industry (diamond cutting, leather accessories, etc.), crop transplanting, sugarcane cutting, rickshaw-pulling, fish and prawn processing, salt panning, domestic work, security services, sex work, small hotels and roadside restaurants/tea shops and street vending. Our calculations based on these estimates indicated that the economic contribution of migrants was around 10% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP).

In a later study, we showed that internal remittances in India totalled $7.485 billion in 2007-08, highlighting the poverty and inequality reducing potential of internal migration as the money flows directly to families in poorer parts of the country.

Yet, there has been an unwillingness to collect better data on circular migrants and understand how they are incorporated into the economy. This is a shocking state of affairs in a country that runs on migrant labour, but it is symptomatic of the marginalization of migrants who are drawn predominantly from poor and socially disadvantaged communities. The question before us now is: Will covid-19 result in at least some positive change?

Who are India’s migrants?

Living and working conditions of an average Indian migrant, despite their substantial numbers, often fall well below the standards of decent work and there is little political commitment to improving them. Formal contracts are non-existent and working and living conditions are determined by contractors rather than the welfare state.

Few workers are aware of their rights as migrants and workers, never mind as citizens of India. Migrants are the perfect flexible workforce.

According to the Census of 2011, there were 139 million interstate migrants (who moved for all manner of reasons ranging from education to marriage, not just employment). The data reconfirm the dominance of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well as other Hindi-speaking states as main source states, while Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana absorbed half of the migrants. (See map.)

The migrant hotspots
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The migrant hotspots

However, there is still a major gap in that these data simply do not or cannot count circular migrants (who move short-term mainly for employment-related reasons) because of complex subcontracting practices and placement by recruitment agents such as dalals and thekedars, where migrant workers never appear on the books of employers. Data on circular migration of women for work are particularly weak because they are often in less visible forms of work or occupations such as household maids.

Even in some districts which record the highest migration rates in the country, the number of interstate female migrants is suspiciously low. Take the case of South Delhi, which, according to the census, has 1.1 million interstate migrants but only around 27,000 female migrants who stated their main reason for migration as work/employment. This is most certainly an underestimate.

According to the International Labour Organization, there are between 20 and 90 million domestic workers in India and many are migrants. Women’s work is often unrecognized, and even more so if one is a migrant (another reason for the underestimation of women’s circular migration is the failure to go beyond the primary reason for movement, which is marriage, and recognize that many work after marriage).

The long-term effects

Helping migrants who are in debt and weakened by starvation is vital not only because it is a moral duty, but also because a failure to do so will spell disaster for the country as a whole. We know that when the poor become poorer, there can be serious long-term impacts on economic growth. Studies have shown that one of the main mechanisms through which inequality affects growth and development is by limiting educational opportunities for children from poorer backgrounds, reducing their prospects for social mobility and breaking out of caste-based occupations.

With remittances no longer flowing to rural areas, for the time being, the poor will struggle to invest in education and other ways of enhancing their children’s life chances.

The government has made a fundamental miscalculation in the way it has treated migrants. Already, there are indications that migrants have lost faith in urban administrations and employers as they continue to leave in hordes despite the economy starting to reopen slowly. For example, reports from 11 May estimate that 200,000 migrants had crossed the Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra border on foot the previous day alone.

Had employers done more to retain their workers immediately after the lockdown started, they would have been well placed for a sound recovery in the post-covid period. Indeed, the experience of the 2008 economic downturn showed that those industries that retained their workers were quicker to recover. But not all industries have the capacity to keep their workers as many operate on very tight profit margins and support from the government has come all too late.

It is unlikely that those migrants who survive this calamity will forget what happened to them during the pandemic and they are unlikely to return to places far away from home unless there are accessible insurance mechanisms in place for circular migrants in the informal economy. Again, this means that the Centre will need to relax its stance on establishing proof of identity and residence as well as registration for schemes.

With faraway places being perceived as highly risky, we are more likely to see an increase in intrastate migration and a drop in long-distance interstate migration, a trend that has already been picked up by the census.

The way ahead

In the absence of reliable, nationally representative statistics on circular migrants, the government will need to rely on industry, NGO and academic estimates of migrant numbers and work with them to provide relief efficiently to minimize suffering. The immediate need is for a minimally bureaucratic response to the current migration crisis that is not constrained by proof of citizenship or domicile status.

The government should adopt a rapid universal benefits approach so that everyone has the right to support for basic needs of food and shelter regardless of their documentation status.

The involvement of NGOs is also important to instil a sense of trust and confidence in relief efforts as faith in government welfare programmes is at an all-time low. Already, the 20 trillion stimulus package has been nicknamed “tera zero" for the 13 noughts but the meaning is evident.

In the medium-term, there is a need to improve understanding of migrant men, women and children’s lived experiences of inclusion/exclusion, and the reasons for their migration which are highly varied. For example, many adolescent girls leave rural areas to earn an independent income and have more control over their life course with regards to marriage and childbearing. Domestic work is one of the most accessible forms of work for women and girls from poorer backgrounds without formal educational qualifications. It holds the potential to reduce poverty through the remittances they send. But the policy rhetoric about their migration usually portrays them as victims without recognizing their agency and the poverty-reducing impacts of their migration. While there is plenty of rich ethnographic research on such issues, the evidence is not informing policy which fails to differentiate between the vastly different experiences of different groups of migrants.

In conclusion, circular migration must be given the recognition that has long been overdue, both in terms of understanding its patterns but also the huge role it plays in the country’s development.

Priya Deshingkar is a professor of migration and development at the University of Sussex and the author of Circular Migration and Multilocational Livelihood Strategies in Rural India, published by Oxford University Press.

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