Behind the exodus

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

AT THE BANGALORE City railway station in mid-August, people from the north-eastern region working in the city crowd into trains bound for their home States following rumours of threats against them.-K. MURALI KUMAR

AT THE BANGALORE City railway station in mid-August, people from the north-eastern region working in the city crowd into trains bound for their home States following rumours of threats against them.-K. MURALI KUMAR

The phenomenon of inter-State migration of labour comes to the fore in the wake of the incidents that followed the Assam violence.

IN a span of two months, July and August, the issue of migration and its manifold dimensions took over Indias social and political space so dramatically and violently that they encapsulated in one stroke the gamut of maladies faced by the country. From the assertion of deep-rooted ethnic and communal identities and hostilities to rumour-mongering aimed at creating social disharmony to panicky people fleeing in hordes, to allegations of anti-India machinations across the border, the events brought into focus, one after the other, different facets of the countrys troubled polity. The confused and often contradictory responses of State governments and the Centre aggravated the situation.

The starting point was the violence between Bodos and Muslims in Assam in early July. It resulted in the death of several people and grievous injuries to hundreds more and triggered the displacement of thousands from both communities. Soon, the problem took on another dimension when a series of mobile text and morphed MMS messages caused anger and fear in different parts of the country. In the southern and western parts of the country, people belonging to the north-eastern region sensed trouble and fled their places of domicile to their home States in what many observers called the largest terrorised movement of people inside the country since Independence.

The Union Home Ministry, after its own investigations, alleged that the provocative SMSes had originated from Pakistan. The forces of political Hindutva, ranging from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other components of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, as also the Maharashtra-based chauvinistic parties such as the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) jumped in to exploit this context. Many of them ended up branding all Muslims in Assam as illegal immigrants and called for their immediate ouster.

While these immediate and inflammatory matters captured media and other public spaces, the core reasons for migration and the impact it has on society and the economy found relatively low expression and attention in them. Longstanding observers of the different facets of migration, such as Professor Ravi Srivastava of Delhis Jawaharlal Nehru University, point out that the varied dimensions of the phenomenon need to be incorporated into the national debate on the issue.

The economist Dr Arvind Mohan of Lucknow University pointed to the track record of the responses of the political leadership of the country, be it in governments or in political parties, as one that can be categorised as glossing over or one-sided or vituperative or suggesting the obliteration of the other.

These positions have been generally dictated by considerations of immediate and short-term political gain. Unless the political leadership makes a conscious and forceful effort to get out of these trappings, the issue of migration will not be addressed objectively and effectively.

Said Srivastava: Migration is known to have diverse impacts on growth and development, on migrants and their households, and on the social and political life prevalent in the source and destination areas. These impacts are complex and run in different directions.

The big question is whether the political leadership has the inclination and the earnestness to comprehend and accept these diverse trends and impacts in order to evolve a calibrated approach. As things stand, the two big parties of the country, the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP, have displayed no such readiness. On the contrary, their approaches have been marked by promotion of short-term objectives and gains.

Analysing the approach of the two mainstream parties, Professor Sudhir Kumar Panwar, president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a collective of farmers, social activists and academics that addresses the concerns of the agrarian sector and seeks to make them part of the perspectives of think tanks and policymakers, pointed out that the short-sightedness of these parties was evident from their evasiveness on the central factor in migration.

Said Prof Panwar to Frontline:

Any objective assessment of contemporary migration would show that this is linked to increasing urbanisation triggered by the pursuit of neoliberal economic policies and globalisation. Consequently, it has linkages to the stagnation of agriculture and the agrarian economy. Neoliberal economic policies mandate low or no investment in agricultural and rural infrastructure, leading to mass movement of people across long distances in search of employment and livelihood. Even the 2011 Census data underscore this, recording a higher growth in urban population as compared to the rural population. This displacement from homestead and the social, cultural and economic alienation amidst new urban surroundings, along with the stress this creates in the receiving urban centres, add up to the creation and explosion of social tension. Factors ranging from racial discrimination to social ostracisation to sexual discrimination and harassment spurt in these situations.

But the reactions of the two mainstream parties to the current problems do not even make a passing reference to this larger picture. For the Congress, current problems are mainly the result of mischief-mongering of one group or the other. And the BJP attributes every wrong to illegal immigration of Bangladeshi Muslims to Assam or terrorising stratagems of Muslims in other parts of the country. Obviously, there is a need to go beyond these capsule formulas to address the manifold challenges posed by migration.

Seven reasons

The Census and the National Sample Survey (NSS) have enumerated the reasons for migration into seven broad classifications work and employment related, business, education, marriage, moved at birth, moved with family, and others. Both the enumerations also hold that only about 3 per cent of the Indian people have changed their Usual Place of Residence for employment-related reasons. But comparative analysis in the Census and the NSS has also shown that 32 per cent of all inter-State migrants during 1991 and 2001 migrated for the reason of work or employment. Several other studies have recorded that movement of household accounts for around 30 per cent of the inter-censal inter-State migrants.

An NSS assessment of 2007-08 estimated that 141 million workers, or 30.9 per cent of the Indian workforce, could be classified as migrants. This assessment did not count seasonal migrants. Pointing to these assessments, Srivastava said there was clear evidence that employment-related migration was growing, particularly in the urban areas. He added that the Census and the NSS undercount poorer migrants in the informal sector, and short-duration seasonal and circulatory migrants and that they require special focus, being among the most vulnerable sections of the working poor.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand have recorded high rates of labour migration over several decades. In recent years, there has been a significant rise in labour migration from the north-eastern States too.

According to a study conducted by the social activist Madhu Chandra, in the last months of 2011 migration from north-eastern India hit a peak. The number has increased 12 times in the last five years. The year 2005 saw 34,000 migrants and the number increased to 4,14,850 in 2010. If the current trend continues, 50,00,000 are expected to migrate in next five years. He said migrants from the north-eastern States faced greater threats in the form of racial discrimination and sexual violence, and the rising migration was only bound to add more and more cases of this genre. Migrants from Uttar Pradesh, who accounted for approximately 35 per cent of labour migrants in the country over the past one and a half decades, have also, time and again, faced discrimination and attacks in Maharashtra, the most preferred destination of the Uttar Pradesh migrant.

Labour migrants from Bihar had flocked to Punjab since the early 1990s, essentially as a response to the labour scarcity and the competition among farmers there to get effective agricultural labour during peak farming season. Here, too, the Bihari migrant labour was targeted for racial and social discrimination and physical attacks.

Field studies from different parts of India hold that there is a massive influx of labour from Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar into the booming construction industry across the country.

Referring to these trends, Srivastava pointed out that the recent period of rapid growth in India has increased the demand for both skilled and unskilled workers in the areas of concentrated growth and agglomeration. For over a decade and a half, elements of regional policy were abandoned and the state deliberately encouraged and supported a strategy of growth concentration, which, in turn, encouraged migration.

He added that at the aggregate level, labour migration feeds into the overall strategy of growth pursued by capital in India and it is difficult even to begin to visualise India's growth story without factoring in the labour of the tens of millions who circulate from State to State and within each State.

But to make this possible, these migrant workers lead unimaginably poor lives which lack dignity, and where they lack identity and entitlements. If as a country we want to achieve our professed developmental goals, we need to put together a migration policy which has pro-poor development, labour regulation, and universal entitlements as its cornerstone. But labour circulation and seasonal migration are also the ultimate form of labour flexibility, in which labour from one extreme part of the country can be made available to the other extreme part, at low costs, for long hours and under abominable conditions of work and existence. And as long as the government is committed to promoting labour market flexibility at all costs, I doubt whether it will do anything to institute any measure which might, in its view, increase the private or social cost of reproduction of labour, that is, unless it is pressed to the wall to do it. But this negligence is likely to have enormous social, political and economic consequences.

Undoubtedly, what we have seen in the two months since early July is the result of this negligence and the absence of a coherent and comprehensive approach to migration and related issues. By all indications, repetitions of these troubled times lie ahead of India as its principal political leadership pursues its so-called growth story.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment