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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | An inclusion model for migrants that draws upon data

The social and economic story of independent India has been intertwined with migration. India has the world’s largest emigrant population, several hundred million domestic migrants, and a large immigrant population. In the same way that Partition revealed the ugly side of a migration process that involved religious communities, the response to the pandemic has exposed the reality of urban-rural migration. Cleaved from their livelihood, bereft of money and devoid of adequate nutrition, these exhausted walkers have held a mirror to the soul of an upwardly mobile nation and marred its claim of inclusive growth.

The data on migration is fuzzy. India’s decennial census tracks international emigrants, intra-district, intra-state and inter-state migrants. The estimate for total domestic migrants from the 2011 census extrapolated to now is about 500 million people. The vast bulk of these migrations, nearly 340 million, are female migrations related to marriage. Inter-state migrations for employment-related reasons was about 13 million in 2011, but has dramatically increased to about 25 or 30 million now. Chinmay Tumbe, professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and author of a book with a sweeping canvas on Indian migration, validates this number using a sectoral approach as well as by comparing it with estimates from a few states like Gujarat and Kerala, which track them. Priya Deshingkar, professor at the University of Sussex, a pioneering scholar in Indian migration studies, suggested in a paper written 10 years ago that the official estimates were too low and that all interstate migration (including for marriage) could be about 2 to 2.5 times the official numbers. Anecdotal conversations suggest that today’s number could be materially larger than 25-30 million.

In the period since liberalization began in 1992, as average urban household income rose relative to rural incomes, mass migrations to urban areas began to accelerate. The primary source districts are mainly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Rajasthan. The principal destinations are in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Migrants work as construction workers, textile workers, domestic help, porters, bus conductors, rickshaw pullers, hawkers, assistants, plumbers, electricians, and so on. Migration began for both push and pull reasons. The push factors relate to climate change (agrarian distress, flooding, drought, cyclones, etc.), social-structure rigidity, indignities related to the rural/feudal caste system, and lack of employment opportunities. The pull factors relate mostly to income opportunity, relative freedom from caste discrimination, and the ability to build a nest-egg using remittances. Most of these migrations are “circular", meaning that migrant’s intent is to return to his or her place of origin, or at the very least live with one foot there and the other in the work destination. Deshingkar and others write of overwhelming evidence that internal migration can lead to positive changes in areas which send as well as receive migrants. It can mitigate poverty by helping increase income, savings and assets.

While we are still dealing with a logistics crisis, the country needs policy thinking on both inter-state and intra-state labour migrants. This is a job that requires collaboration between the Centre and the states, as well as between states.

Here are some suggestions:

Data: A non-political agency reporting to Parliament should be created to track all labour-related data in India with a focus on migrants. It has become clear in recent months that India’s data collection with respect to its labour market is abysmal. This agency should work with civil service organisations and academics in building longitudinal, cross-sectional and high-frequency data sets for policy formulation purposes.

Technology for services: There is widespread agreement among sociologists that the household is at the centre of any migration decision. Policy for migrant workers must, therefore, be focused on the household and its multi-locational presence. It is unrealistic to build upon the Centre’s “one nation one ration card" idea from scratch. The most effective way to deliver services would be to use the Aadhaar-based technology stack, after obtaining legislative sanction for this specific purpose. Since the stack stays off individual bio-metric identification, it will have to be adapted to add household clusters.

Employment structure: So long as certain social security benefits are accessible to migrant workers, both circular migrant workers and employers appear to prefer a flexible work format. Employers and governments should, thus, focus on creating the enabling urban infrastructure—affordable flexible rental housing, clean hygienic communities, portable affordable healthcare access and technology stack for delivery of in-kind and cash transfers—rather than on formalizing contracts between employers and migrant workers.

The long march home of these migrants has made these “citizens of nowhere" visible as a class to the rest of us. For India to sustain its success, we need inclusive interdependence between urban salaried workers and circular migrants.

P.S.: “You are a migrant when you are poor, an immigrant when you are less poor and an expat when you are rich," says Laila Lalami, an American-Morroccan writer.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at livemint.com/avisiblehand


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