Context: The exodus of migrant workers from the cities following the announcement of the 21-day lockdown threw the spotlight on the vast number of Indians who live outside their home states.

Who are migrants?

  • The National Sample Survey (NSS) defines a ‘short-term’ migrant as one who stays away for up to 6 months during the last year, but many circular migrants spend most of the year working in cities, returning home for festivals, harvests, or to see family.

Uniqueness of the migrant labour in urban areas of India : Migrant labour in Indian cities are marked by three traits: 

  • Internal migration: These migrants come from within India, unlike international migrants who often dominate the study of migration. The inter-state migrant crisis after the lockdown was felt more by cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Surat is borne by the 2011 Census data.
  • Informality: They are low-income workers who are informally employed, meaning they lack formal contracts. Many migrant workers perform daily wage labor (such as beldars on construction sites), or are self-employed (for example street vendors). 
  • Circularity: Most of these migrants do not permanently relocate to the city due to expensive urban environments. They circulate between city and village several times a year, and remain deeply rooted within sending villages.
    • Internal migrants outnumber international migrants by a three to one ratio, and many internal migrants observe circular migration and are informally employed. 
    • Informal circular migrants are important populations in countries ranging from Bangladesh to Mozambique. 

Facts related to the  migrants:

  • The total number of internal migrants in India, as per the 2011 census, is 45.36 crore or 37% of the country’s population. This includes inter-state migrants as well as migrants within each state, while the recent exodus is largely due to the movement of inter-state migrants.
  • The annual net flows amount to about 1 per cent of the working age population. This figure is estimated to have exceeded 50 crore in 2016 — the Economic Survey pegged the size of the migrant workforce at roughly 20 per cent or over 10 crore in 2016.
    • National Sample Survey (NSS) collected specific data on migration in its 64th round, and found the all-India rate of ‘short-term migration’ is between 1 and 2 percent. This rate would roughly suggest a population of between 13 and 26 million short-term migrants.
    • India’s circular migrant population is substantial:  According to the national census of 2011, more than half of all rural residents live off the earnings they make through unskilled labor, many of whom are likely to do so in cities. 

State Wise share

  • Uttar Pradesh and Bihar account for the origin of 25 per cent and 14 per cent of the total inter-state migrants, followed by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, at 6 per cent and 5 per cent.
  • Relatively less developed states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have high net out-migration. Relatively more developed states take positive CMM values reflecting net immigration: Goa, Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

District to district migration

  • District-wise migration data in the Economic Survey for 2016-17 show that the highest influx of migrants within the country is seen in city-districts such as Gurugram, Delhi and Mumbai along with Gautam Buddh Nagar (Uttar Pradesh); Indore, Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh); Bangalore (Karnataka); Thiruvallur, Chennai, Kancheepuram, Erode, Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu).
  • As per the Report of the Working Group on Migration, 2017 under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, 17 districts account for the top 25% of India’s total male out-migration. Most  of these districts are in UP, six in Bihar and one in Odisha.

Data about the average economic status of circular migrants

  • As per the ‘Politics and Society Between Elections Survey’ from 2017-19 conducted by the CSDS, the monthly household income of 22?ily and weekly wagers is up to Rs 2,000; of 32%, between Rs 2,000 and 5,000; of 25%, between 5,000 and 10,000; of 13%, between Rs 10,000 and 20,000; and of 8%, more than Rs 20,000. 
  • The Report of the Working Group on Migration shows that the share of migrant workers is the highest in construction sector for females (67 per cent in urban areas, 73 per cent in rural areas), while highest number of male migrant workers are employed in public services (transport, postal, public administration services) and modern services (financial intermediation, real estate, renting, education, health) at 16 per cent each and 40 per cent each in rural and urban areas, respectively.

What is the significance of migrants

  • Significant share of our national GDP: Circular migrants are influential in the predominant forms of labor in industries ranging from construction, brick manufacturing, mining and quarrying, hotels and restaurants, and street vending. 
  • Circular urban migrants perform essential labour and provide services that many people want but are unwilling to provide themselves. 

Analysis of India’s migrant crisis: The Supreme Court recently observed that the exodus was caused by irrational panic triggered by misinformation but the following factors are more responsible for the migrant workers returning home since the lockdown was announced. 

  1. The abruptness of public policy: Currently the policies enacted by governments at various levels are swinging back and forth between these two strategies, preventing the chance of either being successful.
    1. Efforts to provide them with city-based identification documents to help them secure rental properties, PDS benefits, or redressal from mistreatment from urban employers are few and mostly spearheaded by civil society organizations. 
    2. The city authorities tend to view migrants through the lens of enforcement rather than accommodation. 
  2. Lack of data: the informal nature of employment makes it hard to collect reliable data even on the size of this population and its economic contributions. Many official data sources use definitions of migration that fail to capture the transient and itinerant patterns observed by circular migrants. 
    1. Further, the fact that these migrants live and work in informal conditions in cities, and circulate between village and city, makes them especially difficult to access through standard residence-based surveys.
  3. Ignoring contributions of migrant workers: Yet too often the work of migrant workers  is not received with gratitude by municipal authorities or more privileged urbanites. 
  4. Harassment and mistreatment: most migrant workers live in cramped rented rooms or must sleep on the footpath, lack documents to access benefits such as rations in the city, do not have family members in the city, and have few savings to draw upon. They also face considerable harassment from police and middle-class elites.
  5. Lack of clarity: Migrants are unsure about when work opportunities might actually resume in cities. There is no reason for them to stay in harsh conditions away from their families.
  6. The striking difference in how we treat international and internal migrants: Whether in times of crisis or normalcy, states respond to citizens who are economically powerful and politically organized. 
    1. Survey data indicates Indian-Americans have higher median household incomes than any other major ethnic group, including non-Hispanic whites. These diasporas are celebrated for their accomplishments and remittances. The power of these groups fueled significant efforts to expand their standing and political rights, including the establishment of new categories of citizenship (such as the Overseas Citizens of India).
    2. No systematic efforts to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of poor circular migrants. Further, there have been no efforts to think through how to expand their political rights in destination cities. 

Concerns due to the lockdown: 

  • Potential virus Spread as these workers return to their homes. For example, Ganjam in coastal Odisha has a lot of people working in Gujarat and there have been instances recorded in the past which includes AIDS transmission via Surat. 
  • Livelihoods threatened: If you add street vendors, another vulnerable community which is not captured by the worker data, that would mean that there are 12 to 18 million people who are residing in states other than that of their origin are facing loss of livelihoods

What could have been done to avert the migrant crisis due to the lockdown?

Given the lockdown order required everyone to stay at home for a prolonged period, it is especially important to consider those populations who are often forced to work far away from their homes. 

  • Prioritizing keeping migrants in place in destination cities, or helping them safely reach home: If the goal was to get migrants safely home, resources should be targeted to ensure safe and clean passage, and a feasible local quarantine strategy for migrants in their home regions. 
    • If the goal was to keep them in the city, resources should target keeping them healthy, housed, and fed (including by enabling them to pay our pause rent, and access PDS benefits in cities).
  • Maintaining data is important to identify the districts which should be on high alert for potential virus spread as these workers return to their homes.