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Though migration is expected to enhance consumption and lift families out of absolute poverty at the origin, it is not free from distress — distress due to unemployment or underemployment in agriculture, natural calamities, and input/output market imperfections. Internal migration can be driven by push and/or pull factors. In India, over the recent decades, agrarian distress (a push factor) and an increase in better-paying jobs in urban areas (a pull factor) have been drivers of internal migration. Data show that employment-seeking is the principal reason for migration in regions without conflict.


The costs of migration

However, at the destination, a migrant’s lack of skills presents a major hindrance in entering the labour market. Further, the modern formal urban sector has often not been able to absorb the large number of rural workers entering the urban labour market. This has led to the growth of the ‘urban informal’ economy, which is marked by high poverty and vulnerabilities. The ‘urban informal’ economy is wrongly understood in countries such as India as a transient phenomenon. It has, in fact, expanded over the years and accounts for the bulk of urban employment.

Most jobs in the urban informal sector pay poorly and involve self-employed workers who turn to petty production because of their inability to find wage labour. Then there are various forms of discrimination which do not allow migrants to graduate to better-paying jobs. Migrant workers earn only two-thirds of what is earned by non-migrant workers, according to 2014 data.

Further, they have to incur a large cost of migration which includes the ‘search cost’ and the hazard of being cheated. Often these costs escalate as they are outside the state-provided health care and education system; this forces them to borrow from employers in order to meet these expenses. And frequent borrowing forces them to sell assets towards repayment of their loans.

Employment opportunities, the levels of income earned, and the working conditions in destination areas are determined by the migrant’s household’s social location in his or her village. The division of the labour market by occupation, geography or industry (labour market segmentation), even within the urban informal labour market, confines migrants to the lower end. Often, such segmentation reinforces differences in social identity, and new forms of discrimination emerge in these sites.


The benefits of migration

Despite these issues, internal migration has resulted in the increased well being of households, especially for people with higher skills, social connections and assets. Migrants belonging to lower castes and tribes have also brought in enough income to improve the economic condition of their households in rural areas and lift them out of poverty.

Data show that a circular migrant’s earnings account for a higher proportion of household income among the lower castes and tribes. This has helped to improve the creditworthiness of the family members left behind — they can now obtain loans more easily.

Thus, there exists a need to scale-up interventions aimed at enhancing these benefits from circular or temporary migration. Interventions targeting short-term migrants also need to recognise the fact that short-term migration to urban areas and its role in improving rural livelihoods is an ongoing part of a long-term economic strategy of the households. Local interventions by NGOs and private entrepreneurs also need to consider cultural dimensions reinforced by caste hierarchies and social consequences while targeting migrants.


Why a national policy on Internal Migration?

  • Narrowly defined migrant-focussed interventions will not enhance the capabilities of migrants that could lead to increased earnings and an eventual exit from poverty.
  • Continued dynamic interventions over long periods of time would yield better results compared to single-point static interventions, especially in the context of seasonal migrants.
  • Local bodies and NGOs which bring about structural changes in local regions need to be provided more space.
  • There is a lack of focussed intervention aimed at migrants. Interventions aimed at enhanced skill development would enable easier entry into the labour market.
  • We also need independent interventions aimed specifically at addressing the needs of individual and household migrants because household migration necessitates access to infrastructure such as housing, sanitation and health care more than individual migration does.
  • Various interventions must complement each other.
  • As remittances from migrants are increasingly becoming the lifeline of rural households, improved financial infrastructure to enable the smooth flow of remittances and their effective use require more attention from India’s growing financial sector.

Less than 20% of urban migrants had prearranged jobs and nearly two-thirds managed to find jobs within a week of their entry into the city, as per a study made in Tamil Nadu. Access to information on employment availability through the National laws is the need of the hour. There is a need to address conditions of work, terms of employment and access to basic amenities. There is a need to distinguish between policy interventions aimed at “migrants for survival” and “migrants for employment”. The interventions should also look at the increase of the skill levels. Government interventions should be supported by market-led interventions such as microfinance initiatives. Policy interventions have to consider push factors, which vary across regions and understand the heterogeneity of migrants.


Responses to Migration

State Responses

The inflows of migrants from rural areas and small towns into big cities has contributed to urban congestion and housing shortages in cities across India. Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata in particular are all known for the proliferation of slums and pavement dwellings, and generally intense housing pressures. In addition, city residents often perceive that migrants increase the competition for jobs and compete for basic amenities and city services such as water and sanitation.

One of the policy conclusions that national policymakers have drawn from these outcomes is that the state should undertake efforts to prevent internal migration, through schemes such as rural employment programs. Such policy positions have persisted despite building evidence that migration can have positive outcomes for the poor. For example, remittances from migration are applied to health care or to repay debt. Despite increasing research along these lines, urban development projects often seek to keep migrants out, local authorities continue to treat migration as a problem, and migrants are often harassed by the police because they are considered to be closer to illegal residents rather than legal migrants. Migrants are particularly susceptible to police harassment—including violence and exhortation for bribes—because of their precarious position in the receiving society. Their basic needs, such as their access to housing, can depend on the cooperation of local police.

The Government of India’s Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act of 1979 was passed in order to address the unjust working conditions of migrant workers, including the necessity of gaining employment through middlemen contractors or agents who promise a monthly settlement of wages but do not pay when the times comes. The act lists the responsibilities of employers and contractors and the rights of workers to wages that are equal to those of the local employees, the right to return home periodically without losing wages, and the right to medical care and housing at the employment site. In practice, however, this act is overwhelmingly ignored by state governments. As such, it articulates ideal working conditions for interstate migrants, but lacking provisions for enforcement, it has not been used to create a better policy environment in practice.


Civil-Society Interventions

In a scenario where the responses from the state and market have not contributed much to the welfare of migrant workers, civil-society organizations have been able to come up with solutions that have helped enhance returns from migration. While historically NGOs have sided with the anti-migration sentiment, recent thinking and innovations in migration practice have helped transform work opportunities for migrants into more stable livelihood options.

Welfare Services and Social protection for Migrants. Aajeevika Bureau, a nongovernmental, nonprofit initiative was set up in 2005 in Udaipur, Rajasthan with the mandate of providing services, support, and security to rural, seasonal migrant workers. Aajeevika posits that rural-to-urban migration is an inevitable socioeconomic reality in transition economies such as India; hence the need is to provide services and solutions that can transform migration into a more rewarding opportunity. Aajeevika works through a network of walk-in resource centers that are functional at both the ends of the migration corridor. This linkage from source to destination is an important part of the organization’s operational strategy. Service provided to migrants include registration and photo ID cards; skills training and placement services for jobs at urban destinations; legal aid and literacy programs; organization of worker collectives at destination; assistance accessing banking and social security; and strengthening support systems for women and families affected by male migration.

Education for Children of Migrants. NGOs in high out-migration areas have designed and implemented initiatives such as seasonal hostels and residential-care centers to enable inclusion of children from migrant families in schools at both source and destination. Some noteworthy examples are Lokadrushti in western Odisha for children of brick-making workers, SETU in Gujarat for children of migrants working in salt pans, and Janarth in Maharashtra for children of sugar cane cutters.


Organizing Workers for Demanding Entitlements. NGOs such as PRAYAS Center for Labor Research and Action have adopted the rights-based strategy of unionizing migrant workers. They work with vulnerable occupation streams such as construction, brick-making, and cotton ginning. Through this model of unionization, PRAYAS was able to successfully reduce the number of child workers who were being trafficked to cotton seed farms from Rajasthan to Gujarat. The unions also enjoyed considerable success in negotiating wage increases for workers with employers and middlemen. PRAYAS’s work on child trafficking has also led to the creation of a joint task force by both source and destination governments to prevent child trafficking in the cotton pollination season.

Institutional Linkages with the Urban Labor Market. Organizations such as Labournet in Bangalore have initiated programs aimed at member registration, certified training, and placement; the system acts as an interface between employers and certified workers. Apart from providing work linkages, they also facilitate the workers’ access to social security and financial inclusion.

Access to Food Entitlements at Destination. Rationing Kruti Samiti, a network of civil-society organizations in Mumbai, is a successful initiative that has influenced government policy to enable migrant workers to accessing subsidized rations in urban destinations. The network was instrumental in the passing of a government resolution that acknowledges the issues faced by migrants in acquiring proofs of identity and residence, and proposes certain relaxations for both interstate and intrastate migrant workers. Disha, a leading organization in Nashik, used this government resolution to help seasonal migrants get temporary ration cards for a period of four months (extendable to 12 months) with relaxed documentary requirements.


The magnitude and variety of internal migration flows in India, as well as the distresses associated with them, are enormous. A basic overview of this complex phenomenon makes clear that in spite of the vast contributions of migrants to India’s economy, the social protections available to them still remain sparse.

While the state and market have failed in providing protections to these millions of internal migrants, civil-society interventions across various high migration pockets in India offer a number of successful, context-specific solutions that the government can adapt and build upon in order to protect this marginalized segment of workers. A concerted national strategy that ensures access to entitlements and basic work conditions will be essential in building a sustainable and equitable pathway to progress.





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