Migration and public policy

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

Policymakers and the public should become more sensitive to the manifold implications of migration caused by economic distress and mitigate the trauma of migrants.

PROBABLY more than at any time in the past, the Indian economy is being fuelled by the movement of labour. This movement is not simply from villages to towns and cities, but within and across districts, States and even national borders. It is mostly short-term and often repeated, although destinations may change. And while it has already created huge changes in the lives and work patterns of ordinary Indians, these consequences are yet to be adequately recognised and addressed by public policy.

The ways in which this migration has contributed to macroeconomic stability are numerous. Remittances sent back to India by Indians working abroad (dominantly but not exclusively in oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf and West Asia) have generated current account surpluses and contributed more to the Indian balance of payments (BoPs) since the early 1990s than all forms of capital inflow put together. Internal migration has played a crucial role in allowing rural people to cope with the consequences of agrarian distress and the ravaged rural economy in many parts of India.

Large construction activities in many Indian cities, as well as other major public works, depend upon labour drawn from villages as far apart as Andhra Pradesh and eastern Bihar. Migrants from across the eastern borders of India fill many service sector occupations, and even formal industries rely on migrant workers to fill in the "casual labour" slots in their workforce. Large farmers in places as distant as Haryana and Maharashtra rely on seasonally migrant labour for cultivation.

Much of this is not new. But there are new features: the increasing incidence of women travelling - on their own or in groups - to find work; the greater willingness of many people to travel long distances for short-term work or even without the promise of any work; the sheer extent of mass migration from certain areas; the growing likelihood of finding evidence of some migration in almost every part of India.

Not all of this migration in recent years has been because of push factors. There is no doubt that the availability of work in West Asia and in other countries, as well as the growing demand for more skilled workers such as software engineers and teachers in the developed countries, have played a role in increasing cross-border migration. But a very substantial part, especially of internal migration, is distress-led, driven by the complete collapse of rural employment generation, the economic difficulties of cultivation and also the inadequate employment opportunities in towns.

This is why most migrant workers in India today are poor and with few of the resources or social networks that could smoothen what can be a traumatic and painful process. Yet public policy does little to alleviate this - in fact, most public interventions and regulations work effectively to make the process even more difficult and traumatic. Given the sheer extent and proliferation of short-term migration as a basic source of income in India today, the lack of public recognition of the many dislocations it can cause for the poor is remarkable.

CONSIDER the fate of a rural household in, say Mahbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, a place where mass migrations for work were historically common but have now reached epidemic proportions. A landless labourer who is unable to find work, either within the village or in neighbouring villages is forced to search further afield, in nearby or even distant towns, in other agricultural areas with different crop seasons.

If he or she is relatively lucky, there will be a link with a contractor who will arrange for group transport to the place of work. It may be gang work in a field for some activities such as harvesting, or work on a construction site, or some such work that requires a group of labourers for a certain fixed period. Of course, the journey will be arduous, the work will be demanding, the living conditions will probably be very meagre (in fact, the workers are often expected to make their own makeshift dwellings) without any amenities or facilities such as food being provided. In all likelihood, the workers will be exploited by the contractor even in monetary terms so that they receive very little income as savings from this entire exercise.

But this situation is still preferable to that in which the worker has to head out into uncharted territory on his or her own, or in small groups simply to look for work to ensure household survival. This more insecure type of movement is on the increase, the result of sheer desperation. There are many pitfalls here - the sheer difficulty of finding paid work in the first place, the possibility of being duped, the exposure to criminality of various sorts, and so on. The problem of dealing with such basics as housing and sanitation has been found to be particularly acute for such migrants, who can in extreme situations be reduced to simply living on the streets or in whatever shelters they can find.

WHAT is more, there are more women undertaking this type of insecure movement, with often dire consequences. Clearly, this kind of migration is fraught with hazards especially for women, who thereby expose themselves to the possibility of sexual exploitation and violence, in addition to other problems. There are many cases of women and even young girls being physically violated as they try to sleep in bus stands and similar places. Many of these go unreported, as the local police often do not bother too much to register alleged incidents in which the victims are poor people from other areas.

As migrants, these workers then do not have access to any of the public facilities for health care, since they are not resident in that area. They cannot buy their food requirements from the ration shops since they do not have ration cards valid for that place. If they have come with small children, they are unable to place them in local government schools, or even to access the local anganwadi for their legally recognised requirements. They are ignored by public schemes and programmes, including those related to such public health issues as immunisation drives.

And then there are the other sins of public omission and commission that directly affect such migrants. There are no public help centres, no information offices, no complaint cells where they can go to redress any grievances, whether these relate to non-payment of wages or terrible conditions of work or physical exploitation and violence. Rather, local officialdom in the destination typically views migrants as vagrants or nuisances, takes aggressive attitudes towards them and becomes another source of tribulation for the migrants.

The fate of the family left behind is another concern. When the adult male in the family goes in search of work and is away for several weeks or months, the rest of the family has to survive either on savings from earlier trips (which are typically inadequate) or on whatever can be earned by the remaining members. This can become a major problem when the family consists of the very old and the very young, with perhaps a pregnant or nursing mother, who cannot go out to work to ensure survival. Even dealing with various aspects of quotidian living that involve small journeys or relate to dealing with local officials can become difficult. And issues like the care of the old, the sick and the very young become especially complicated for such families.

The difficulties intensify when the adult women of the household become migrants, as is increasingly common. Not only do such women expose themselves personally to all kinds of hazards, they typically leave behind families with young children and older people who are thereby denied care. The social dislocations caused by such departures are huge, and can have major adverse consequences for the families and on community life. Families of such migrants and the migrants themselves are well aware of these negative possibilities, but typically say that they have no choice. But these outcomes are completely ignored by policymakers and local officialdom, who take no extra consideration of the special difficulties of such families.

To cap it all, migrants often end up being denied that most basic political right of Indian democracy, the right of expression through the ballot box. Being away from home can lead to exclusion from voters' lists, or being away when the voting is actually taking place. This was definitely true for a considerable section of the electorate in the general elections held last year, which took place during a lean agricultural season when many rural people were forced to migrate to seek work. But it can also happen for the State Assembly or panchayat elections. Certainly, it would inhibit active participation in gram sabhas, and generally reduce the political voice of such people.

Distress economic migration, of relatively short-term nature, is now a basic feature of social life in India. It contributes to macroeconomic stability even while imposing tremendous costs on those forced to undertake it. It is time for policymakers and the public became more sensitive to its manifold implications, and took whatever measures are necessary to ensure that something driven by distress did not create further trauma.

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