The new reality

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

WOMEN IN BIHAR, who generally remained indoors, have taken to agricultural work because of large-scale migration of the men in their families. Here, a recent scene in Araria district.-RANJEET KUMAR

WOMEN IN BIHAR, who generally remained indoors, have taken to agricultural work because of large-scale migration of the men in their families. Here, a recent scene in Araria district.-RANJEET KUMAR

Among the many criteria of "otherness" that contribute to social discrimination in India, migration has recently emerged as a prominent one.

MANY recent and emerging social, political and economic conflicts in India are centred on the issue of migration. Social tension and instability in Assam themselves related to perceptions of difference that are generated by past migration found uneasy and disturbing reflection in the rapid spread of rumours that affected migrants from the north-eastern region currently living in other parts of India. Some political parties openly seek to incite local residents or natives against migrants, whether in Mumbai or in Hyderabad or in the border districts of West Bengal. Among the many criteria of otherness that contribute to the complex and hierarchical systems of stratification and social discrimination in India, migration has recently emerged as a prominent one.

Yet, if official statistics are to be believed, there is relatively little migration in India. According to the most recent National Sample Survey specifically devoted to migration, which was carried out in 2007-08, less than 30 per cent of the people in India were migrants, and much of this was due to social reasons such as marriage. The proportion of migrants was higher in urban areas (35 per cent) than in rural areas (26 per cent), and the male migration rate was far lower than the female one, in both rural and urban areas. In rural areas, nearly 48 per cent of the females were migrants as against 5 per cent of the males; and in urban areas, the male migration rate was nearly 26 per cent, compared with the female migration rate of 46 per cent.

Marriage dominated as the cause of migration for women, with 91 per cent of rural women and 61 per cent of urban women migrating for this reason. This was also reflected in the geographical nature of the movement: nearly 90 per cent of rural and 80 per cent of urban women moved within the State of origin. By contrast, male movement was more diverse. Rural males were almost evenly spread within and outside the State of origin, while only around one-third of urban males moved outside the State. For men, the most important factor in migration was employment, with 29 per cent of rural male migrants and 56 per cent of urban male migrants moving for this reason.

Interestingly, this survey also found migration to be associated positively with income and social status. Overall, the migration rate was found to be the lowest for the bottom 10 per cent of the population in terms of expenditure class in both rural and urban areas. There is evidence of an increasing trend in the rate of migration as the level of living improves, with the migration rate highest for the richest 10 per cent of the population. In rural areas, the migration rate was lowest among the Scheduled Tribes and highest for others, the category that includes non-Scheduled Castes and non-OBC (Other Backward Classes) Hindus. In urban areas, migration was lowest for OBCs. All over India, the migration rate is the lowest for non-literates and highest for those with the educational qualification graduate and above.

Circular migration

If this dents the image of migrants as predominantly coming from poor, marginalised and dispossessed categories of the population, it is not only the prior perceptions that may be at fault. One major problem is that our official statistics do not capture the full extent of migration, particularly short-term migration. The Census of India (whose data for 2011 on the incidence of migration have still not been published) looks at permanent migration, defined as movement that is not of a temporary nature. The National Sample Surveys are slightly less restrictive, considering migrants to be those whose last usual place of residence is different from the current one, in terms of residing continuously for six months or more. Both of these definitions exclude temporary migration, especially the seasonal or circular migration for work that is so evident across India. The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) does try to fill this gap to some extent by including a category of short-term migrants in the survey. These are people who have stayed away from the village/town for a period of one month or more but less than six months during the last 365 days for employment or in search of employment.

However, the 2007-08 survey finds surprisingly sparse evidence of such short-term migration, with the ratio of short-term migrants to population being only 1.7 per cent in rural areas (3 per cent for males and 1 per cent for females) and almost negligible (well below 1 per cent) in urban areas. This contradicts quite sharply the evidence from several microsurveys and village studies, as well as the impressionistic accounts of journalists who do actually study realities on the ground in both rural and urban areas.

Blindness of policymakers

What explains such a large discrepancy between perceptions and the official data on migration? A large part of it relates to the lack of more detailed and sensitive investigation of this issue on the part of both the Census Office and the NSSO. Thus, Priya Deshingkar and Shaheen Akter (in Migration and human development in India, UNDP HDR Research Paper 2009) have noted that (despite the NSSOs attempts) official statistics tend to underestimate short-term movements. So they underestimate, or even miss altogether, seasonal and circular migration, which, many recent village studies suggest, still accounts for the bulk of work-related migratory movement.

Since a lot of such migration is very short term in nature, sometimes lasting even less than a month, much of the work performed by migrants in construction activity, in plantations and other large agricultural holdings, in brick kilns and other small enterprises, is simply not captured.

Similarly, womens migration is not adequately captured because official surveys ask for only one reason to be stated for migration. For women the primary reason is usually marriage, so the secondary reason (most probably the aim of finding work at the destination) does not even get mentioned. For obvious reasons, official data do not capture migration streams that are illegal or border on illegality. These include trafficking for work and various forms of child labour.

These features may go some way towards explaining why official data suggest that the incidence of migration is skewed towards better-off, better-educated and less socially marginalised groups. It is precisely the others (poorer groups that are also more socially discriminated against) who are more likely to be involved in short-term and circular migration or irregular movements that are at the border of illegality.

Village studies conducted in the past few years in different parts of India suggest that some of the migration in recent years has been because of pull factors, particularly the dramatic increase in construction, which emerged as the most dynamic activity in terms of employment generation in the past decade. However, this cannot explain the bulk of the migration because this activity is increasingly dominated by male workers and also because the rate of employment generation in construction is slowing.

In fact, a very substantial part of internal migration, both permanent and short-term, is distress-led. It has been driven by the lack of rural employment generation, the economic difficulties of cultivation and also the inadequate employment opportunities in towns, which persist despite the rapid rate of aggregate gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Uneven rates of economic expansion across regions and between some cities and towns and other areas have accentuated this tendency. In some areas where the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) has been and continues to be implemented successfully, there has been some slowdown in the rate of distress migration. But in most parts of the country this is still the dominant form.

Much of the field evidence, in contrast to official estimates, provides a rather different picture of migration and its significance for the Indian economy. Case studies and survey evidence indicate that all the major sectors of the economy agriculture, industry and services employ significant numbers of migrant workers. In terms of productive activities, there are some sectors that are disproportionately dependent upon migrant workers: textiles and garments, construction, stone quarries and mines, brick kilns, diamond cutting and jewellery, leather products, crop transplanting and harvesting (including cutting sugarcane) and plantations and food processing (including fish and prawn processing). In the service sector, domestic work (which is unfortunately one of the fastest growing forms of regular work for urban women) is dominated by migrant workers. In addition, security services, transport, small hotels and roadside restaurants and tea shops and street vending, all have large numbers of migrant workers involved.

This suggests that much of the Indian growth story has actually been powered by such migrant workers, who have contributed to production expansion and effectively subsidised the growth of the formal sector by providing their cheap labour. Yet, partly because the official data are lacking in this respect and partly because of the attitude of policymakers and the media, the enormous contribution of these workers goes largely unrecognised. Even worse, because much of public policy is migration blind and does not value the sacrifices made by and the productive contributions of migrant workers, their condition is made even more fragile and difficult than it needs to be.

As it happens, despite a few high-profile counter-examples, and also despite the impressions that could be created by a cursory review of the official statistics, most migrant workers in India today are poor and with few of the resources or social networks that can smoothen what is usually a harrowing and painful process. In fact, most public interventions and regulations effectively make the process even more difficult and traumatic.

Left out of public schemes

The implications are severe for all migrants and their families, but they could be most damaging for the children. Not only do migrant children have to experience continuing flux and insecurity, but they also typically deal with very harsh material conditions lack of adequate nutrition and sanitation and little access to local public health and education facilities. They are often drawn into the workforce at a very early age and in very unsavoury conditions. Despite the worthy intentions explicitly stated in the Right to Education Act, our schooling system is devoid of the flexibility that would allow children of migrant households access to quality education.

This relates to the broader problem that our public service provision is entirely residence-based, which means that all the important facilities the public distribution system for food, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), public health care, public education, and so on require proof of residence in the area where the service is being provided. As a result, migrant workers 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 ration shops since they do not have cards valid for that place. They are unable to place their children in local government schools or even to access the local anganwadi centres for their legally recognised requirements. They are ignored by public schemes and programmes, including those related to such public health issues as immunisation drives. The idea that a unique identity will somehow solve this problem is meaningless as long as the guidelines for provision remain based on local residence.

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

When families are left behind by migrant workers, especially women, there are other concerns. 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. Issues such as 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 on the families and on community life. But these outcomes are ignored by policymakers and local officialdom, who pay no attention to the special difficulties of such families.

Other consequences

Among the other consequences are other forms of loss of basic citizens rights even the right to vote. It has been noted that elections in India often take place during the lean season in agriculture, a period when many people from poor rural households are forced to travel in search of work as part of household survival strategies. Being away from home can lead to exclusion from voters lists or to being away when the voting takes place. This is also true for local elections and in any case, migration, even of the short-term variety, makes it much harder to participate in gram sabhas or other public bodies that might provide some political voice.

Given the significance of migration for the population, and the contribution it makes to the economy, it is surprising that policymakers have not shown greater interest in and sensitivity to the entire process. This is not just unfortunate in itself it also provides less capacity on the part of Central and State governments to cope with the social upheavals that such a process is increasingly associated with.

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