Survey of migrant workers

Understanding migration

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Migrant workers travelling home on a goods truck pass through Bhubaneswar on May 21. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

Migrant workers walking home pass through Vijayawada on May 19. Photo: V. RAJU

Migrant families from Uttar Pradesh about to board a bus in Madurai to reach the railway station, on May 18. Photo: R. ASHOK

When governments and their plans are found to be blatantly wanting in addressing reverse migration, exercises such as the Ekta Parishad’s survey of migrant workers throughout India can be useful to work out creative long-lasting solutions.

“For me, India begins and ends in its villages.”

—Mahatma Gandhi.

“... the old Indian social structure which has so powerfully influenced our people... was based on three concepts: the autonomous village community, caste and the joint family system.”

—Jawaharlal Nehru.

“The Hindu village is the working plant of the Hindu social order. One can see there the Hindu social order in operation in full swing.”

—Bhimrao Ambedkar.

THE three towering leaders of the freedom movement differed in their ideas of the village and, by extension, about what constituted progress. “While for Gandhi the village was a site of authenticity, for Nehru it was a site of backwardness and for Ambedkar the village was the site of oppression,” wrote Surinder S. Jodhka in his 2002 article “Nation and Village” in Economic and Political Weekly. Of the three, only Ambedkar had some first-hand experience of village life during his childhood. But all of them essentially belonged to towns, had been to foreign lands for study or work and had families that were mobile. They also agreed that the status quo of the village needed to change for India to have any semblance of progress.

Right from the beginning of the 20th century, rural-to-urban migration started growing because of varied factors including fragmentation and subdivision of land and greater job opportunities in urban areas. It gathered momentum after Independence and has risen to torrential levels since the implementation of economic liberalisation policies began in the 1990s. The crippling and long-standing rural distress caused by these policies fuelled this trend over the past three decades.

The current exodus of migrant workers desperately trying to get back to their native places during the lockdown has, however, added an altogether new dimension to the phenomenon of internal migration in India. It has become, at the same time, an abject illustration of the inhuman impact of the policies of globalisation and economic liberalisation on the marginalised sections faced with a life-threatening pandemic. The reverse migration reflects their utter helplessness as they try to go back to their impoverished village homes in the hope that this will save them from death by starvation.

In this unfolding tragedy, what stands out starkly is the casual indifference with which the Union government and many State governments have addressed this extraordinary situation. As migrants continue to make long journeys home largely on their own, the official machinery does not seem to have even a count of the people on the move. Nor is there any concerted effort to get this ascertained. Informal estimates, based on inadequate data, have rated this reverse migration as a bigger exodus in the subcontinent than even the mass migration of approximately 17 million people caused by Partition. According to the World Bank, the lockdown has impacted livelihoods of nearly 40 million internal migrants. Around 50,000-60,000 people moved from urban centres to rural areas of origin in the span of a few days, according to the report “COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens”. “Lockdowns, loss of employment, and social distancing prompted a chaotic and painful process of mass return for internal migrants in India and many countries in Latin America. Thus, the COVID-19 containment measures might have contributed to spreading the epidemic,” said the World Bank.

The Census of 2011 counted 450 million internal migrants, of whom 78 million, or 15.6 per cent, were rural-to-urban migrants. More than half, 55 per cent, of those who moved from rural to urban areas were women. Inter- and intra-State migrant workers were mostly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and West Bengal and constituted about 130 million. If the lockdown displaced even a fraction of this 130 million, it is still a huge number. The issue should have been high on the list of priorities of the Union and State governments. However, the incompetence of governments and local administrations exacerbated the already difficult situation of migrant workers.

Hardly 17 per cent of local administrations responded to the needs of migrant workers across various States. Companies employing migrant labour did not measure up either, with only 28 per cent of them supporting their workers. None of the State governments had any system in place to enumerate the number of migrant labourers working in other States. Consequently, the majority of State governments took more than a month to even get started on addressing the migrants’ issue. For instance, the majority of migrant workers from Jharkhand who were stuck in Madhya Pradesh were totally dependent on the mercy of local municipalities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for food during the lockdown. Similarly, in the absence of reliable information, migrant workers from Bengal stuck in Maharashtra were clueless about what the Bengal government was doing for them.

Ramesh Sharma is the national convener of the Ekta Parishad, an NGO with a sustained and decades-long focus on the rural sector, especially at the level of agrarian reforms, land distribution and the livelihood concerns of agricultural workers and migrant labour. He said: “The failure of inter-coordination among States showed the absence of any information regarding migrant workers.” He called it a “gross weakness”.

During the lockdown period, the Ekta Parishad created a “Migration Map of India” with the help of its more than thousand activists across the country. They reached out to migrant workers not only in the cities but also in far-flung places like Ladakh, the Pakistan border, Arunachal Pradesh and remote districts within States. Away from the media glare, they came across migrants from Assam’s Tinsukia stuck in industries of Bengaluru, Khammam (Telangana) and Idukki (Kerala). The Ekta Parishad is in the process of putting together a comprehensive report based on the survey. The organisation shared vignettes of this report in the making with Frontline. These highlight some of the key issues that are felt on the ground by the migrant worker, even as the exodus continues apace.

Pitiful wages

A key finding is how pitiful the wages paid to the workers are. As highlighted by some case studies, this makes them unable to create any savings to meet an extraordinary, life-changing situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Kanti Bai Sahariya, a tribal woman from Madhya Pradesh’s Sheopur, migrated to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan along with 22 others of her village for the harvesting of the cumin (jeera) crop. Their earnings were less than the minimum wages specified for un/semi-skilled labour. Budhram of Gariaband in Chhattisgarh had migrated to Basti in Uttar Pradesh to work at a brick kiln. He earned Rs.400 for making 1,000 bricks. Worse, 15 to 20 per cent of the wages were taken away by the agent who found him the work.

While the authorities have no mechanisms to address such outrageous mismatch between wage and labour, the current Union government and even the parliamentary committees seem to be proactively and prospectively protecting the employer during situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consider this. In 2019, Parliament passed The Wage Code, which consolidated the provisions of four labour laws and universalised the provisions for minimum wages and timely payment of wages for all workers in India. Seven months later, the parliamentary panel on Labour headed by Bhartruhari Mahtab of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) submitted a report to the Lok Sabha, which said: “ case of natural calamities like earthquake, flood, super cyclone, etc., which often result in closure of establishments for a considerably longer period without the employer’s fault, payment of wages to the workers until the re-establishment of the industry may be unjustifiable.”

Mahtab said that industries had the lockdown forced on them and could not be compelled to pay wages for the lockdown period.

Ramesh Sharma observed that the Wage Code meant nothing for workers without any wage security. “What does it mean for Chappan Singh Lodhi, a Dalit industrial labourer from Damoh [Madhya Pradesh] who lost his wages against work done for a Pune-based Industry? Lodhi, along with 32 industrial labourers, under lockdown in an industrial slum of Pune, hadn’t heard about the ‘Wage Code’. It also means nothing for Suraj, a tribal industrial labourer from Dhanbad [Jharkhand], along with his 21 friends under lockdown in MIDC [Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation] Ahmednagar,” he said.

The current exodus has four main categories of migrant workers on the move—those who work in the agricultural, construction and industrial sectors and those engaged in services. The Ekta Parishad survey found that 95 per cent of the migrant workers wanted to go back home despite the insecurity of financial loss and state of unemployment. An overwhelming 86 per cent of those away from home were uncertain about their livelihoods. Only 5 per cent of them wanted to stay back in their place of work. “There is certainly a tectonic shift in the psychology of the migrants. Despite knowing that they are returning home empty-handed and have no means of earning a livelihood, they want to go back. In my conversations with them, I asked them why. Economic security is the third or fourth expectation of a person. The first two expectations are linked to psychological issues and social security. Several of the migrants said that if they must die, they would rather die at home than in the cities,” Sharma told Frontline.

Mental health

Around 68 per cent of the migrant labourers surveyed by the Ekta Parishad were psychologically depressed and would need support in a post-lockdown situation. A 30-year-old man belonging to the Baiga tribe walked for four days from Sagar district in Madhya Pradesh to neighbouring Sidhi with 21 other farm labourers. He was quarantined in a government school in his village. He sought permission to go to the bathroom and was later found to be hanging from a tree. He had committed suicide.

Drawing parallels with tsunami survivors, Sharma said that half of them had been affected by psychological disorder. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has standard protocols for psychological first aid for communities emerging from a crisis situation. Not a single State, perhaps with the exception of Kerala, had observed any of this with regard to returning migrants, Sharma said. “Providing rations is like firefighting. A pandemic is not an opportunity, I am sorry. It is a time to introspect about the fault lines of institutional failure. People are in serious distress, and I keep telling the government as well as NGOs that they need to go beyond simply providing rations, which is important no doubt. We need to start work on phase two of relief operations, which includes psychological support,” he said.

Along with mental health needs, physical distress faced by migrant workers also requires urgent attention. Approximately 44 per cent of the migrant women and children surveyed by the Ekta Parishad were found to be in bad health.

A large chunk of the migratory population, over 50 per cent, is landless and poor. Since they had no means of survival in the villages, they had chosen to migrate. Now that they are returning home, it is time to intensify efforts at land reforms and strengthen community resources, as the Ekta Parishad survey stresses. The organisation has worked for long with communities on land rights. Sharma said: “The biggest issue in trying to strengthen small-scale agriculture is that of water. Wherever we have built water-harvesting structures, migration has halved.” He added that villages showed huge discrepancies in access to resources and opportunities. While some communities—the upper and dominant castes—owned and manipulated both resources and opportunities, others—the lower castes, tribes and marginalised communities—had neither resources nor opportunities.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) had been effective in arresting distress migration to a certain extent by providing employment for 100 days near the rural residence of a person. But after the BJP came to power at the Centre, the scheme, which had been launched by the United Progressive Alliance government, was run down. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mocked the scheme as a “living monument of Congress-led UPA's failures”. Last year, Rural Development Minister Narendra Singh Tomar indicated that the government was not in favour of “continuing with MGNREGA forever” as it was for the poor and the government wanted to eradicate poverty from India. Yet in 2017, replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Rural Development Ram Kripal Yadav had admitted that “studies indicated direct and positive impact of MGNREGA in reduction of distress migration by providing work closer to home and decent working conditions”.

In what seems like a welcome change of heart, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has allocated an additional Rs.40,000 crore to the MGNREGA as part of the economic package to address the COVID-19 crisis.

Sharma said that if Modi’s vision of “aatmanirbharta” (self-reliance) had to be achieved, economic decentralisation was as important as political decentralisation. “An aatmanirbhar Bharat [self-reliant India] cannot be built without an aatmanirbhar Bharatiya [self-reliant Indian],” he said, adding that the problem was a woeful lack of understanding, both in the media and in the government, of the lives and preferences of migrant workers.

Patterns of migration

The Migration Map created by the Ekta Parishad is a great place to start to understand the patterns of migration, the compulsions that fuel it, and the solutions that can be worked out. The details thrown up by the survey could help governments to come up with clear-cut and nuanced approaches. For instance, Manipur had the maximum intra-State migration owing to high poverty levels and a population largely dependent on agriculture. The two States where women migrate more than men are Manipur and Odisha (specifically, Sundergarh in Odisha). The women travel to metros to work as domestic workers. “Looking at them we may think they are Nepali, but actually they are Manipuri. The other place from where a lot of women migrate to work as domestic labour is Jharkhand,” Sharma said.

The Ekta Parishad survey highlights an interesting migratory pattern in Assam’s tea gardens. The tea gardens have permanent migrant workers—the Santhals from Jharkhand—while local workers go to south Indian States for work. (North-eastern migrants prefer going to south India.)

For Biharis, Punjab is the first choice. For a worker from Uttar Pradesh, it is Delhi or Mumbai. A worker from rural Bihar prefers going to rural Maharashtra or Gujarat. Similarly, a migrant from Madhya Pradesh prefers the rural parts of Gujarat or Maharashtra.

When governments and their plans are found to be blatantly wanting in addressing the reverse migration that is happening, exercises like the ones taken up by the Ekta Parishad can be useful to work out creative long-lasting solutions.

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