Migrant issues

The way forward on migrant issues

Print edition : May 22, 2020

Migrant workers from Maharashtra walking home, on the outskirts of Hyderabad on May 4. Photo: NOAH SEELAM/AFP

A Special train for Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, from Bhiwandi, Maharashtra, on May 3. Photo: PTI

Even as Kerala and Odisha have taken proactive measures for migrant welfare in the wake of the lockdown, a permanent solution to migrants’ problems may lie in the implementation of the report of the first-ever task force on migration that was submitted to the Centre in 2017.

INTER-STATE migrants, large numbers of whom have been stranded in their cities of work with little means of survival and no way to get back home, are among the worst affected in the nationwide lockdown imposed since March 24. Images of hundreds of them, stranded at various transit points such as bus stops and railway stations, and trying to make the journey back home on foot, have stirred the nation’s conscience. They have also, even if belatedly, raised questions on the responsibilities of States towards internal migrants who help sustain their economies and of the Centre in terms of the effects of its sudden, large-scale decisions on the lives and livelihoods of millions.

States such as Odisha, West Bengal and Bihar, which contribute a large share of migrant workers, have taken some measures to protect migrants in the destination States. Odisha’s model of intervention has been quite effective, with timely implementation made through the State Ministries of Labour, Education, Women and Child Welfare and Panchayati Raj institutions.

This also reveals the structure of the Indian federal system and its powers in ensuring citizens’ rights. The “sending” States are keen to protect their labour from exploitation. For instance, the Department of Non-Resident Keralite Affairs (NORKA) has provided call centre helplines for their migrants in most Indian cities, including Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. NORKA has also set up call centres for emigrants in the Gulf countries. Many sending States have enabled a help desk for their workers in the capital cities of “destination” States such as Mumbai and Delhi, other State capitals and industrial towns in other States. However, such facilities are limited to the volume of migration that is taking place from the sending to the destination States.

The general movement of labour is from the North and East India to the West and South. Some of the prominent labour-sending States are Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Odisha. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala serve as the key labour recipients. This is owing to the demographic divide between the South and North in terms of demographic dividend and transition. Moreover, the months from December-January to June-July are the time when seasonal migrants are in destination States, working in construction sites, brick kilns, and rice mills, among others.

The focus of this article is on the number of inter-State migrants as captured by Census 2011 and Economic Survey of India 2017, and the recommendations on the various issues of internal migration made by the working group on migration set up by the Union Ministry of Urban Affairs in 2015. It also details the various responses of the Centre and the States, and the road ahead, both in ensuring that large shocks such as the current one do not affect migrant lives and livelihoods and in preventing adversities in future.

Migrant population

India’s total population, as recorded in Census 2011, stands at 1.21 billion. Internal migrants in India number 454 million, or 37 per cent of the population. That said, internal migration remains grossly underestimated owing to empirical and conceptual difficulties in measurement.

India experienced rapid urbanisation between 2001 and 2011, with an estimated 31.8 per cent decadal growth. Migration, one of the components of India’s urban growth, is expected to increase in the foreseeable future. The number of internal migrants is expected to cross 550 million by 2021. Policies such as the National Smart Cities Mission have also contributed to this phenomenon. During 2001-2011, India saw an increase of 139 million to its migrant workforce. The internal migration almost doubled during 20 years—from 220 million in 1991 to 454 million in 2011.

Migration in India is primarily of two types: (a) long-term migration, resulting in the relocation of an individual or household; and (b) short-term or seasonal/circular migration, involving back-and-forth movement between a source and destination. According to National Sample Survey estimates, 28.3 per cent of workers in India are migrants. By this yardstick, India has approximately 175 million internal migrants who move for work in the informal sector and support the lifeline of many State economies.

For the first time in the history of the country, the Economic Survey of India 2017 stated that an average of nine million people migrated between States every year for either education or work. The Survey revealed that States such as Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat attracted large numbers of migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh. According to the Survey, internal migration rates dipped in Maharashtra and surged in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, reflecting the growing pull of southern States in India’s migration dynamics. The out-migration rate, or the rate at which people have moved out of their State, increased in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and dipped in Assam. The Survey reinforced the fact that the less affluent States have more out-migrants and the most affluent States are the largest recipients of inter-State migrants.

Between 2001 and 2011, migration to destinations within the State registered a higher growth rate compared with those headed to other States. The number of inter-State migrants grew at 55 per cent during 1991- 2001 and fell to just 33 per cent during 2001-2011. By contrast, the rate of growth of inter-district migrants increased from 30 per cent during 1991-2001 to 58 per cent during 2001-2011. Apart from moving within States, people also moved within districts. The growth in intra-district migration (movement within the same district) increased from 33 per cent between 1991-2001 to 45 per cent between 2001-2011. What emerged was a decline in inter-State migration and an increase in the inter-district migration within the State (Figure 1).

While the factors responsible for migration are many, as many as two-thirds of women who reported having migrated from their last place of residence cited marriage as the reason. Among men, work and business accounted for one-third of total migrations, which is also the single largest reason for migration. Inter-State migration is largely single male and female migration. Only certain categories of work cause migrants to move with their families and that is largely noticed in construction and brick-kiln industries (Figure 2).


The first ever task force on migration, the Working Group on Migration formed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and headed by Partha Mukhopadhyay from the Centre for Policy Research, was set up in end 2015. The panel in its report stated that the migrant population contributed substantially to economic growth and that it was necessary to secure their constitutional rights. The 18-member working group submitted its report in January 2017.

The report began by stating that in principle there was no reason for specific protection legislation for migrant workers, inter-State or otherwise, and that they should be integrated with all workers as part of a legislative approach with basic guarantees on wage and work conditions for all workers, as part of an overarching framework that covers regular and contractual work. Pending such a unified architecture, the working group made the following recommendations:

Social protection

States must (i) establish the Unorganised Workers Social Security Boards; (ii) institute simple and effective modes for workers to register, including self-registration processes, e.g., through mobile SMS; and (iii) ensure that the digitisation of registration records was leveraged to effectuate inter-State portability of protection and benefits.


Migrants should be provided with portable health care and basic social protection through a self-registration process delinked from employment status. The level of benefits could be supplemented by the worker or State governments with additional payments.

Food security

One of the major benefits that migrants, especially short-term migrants or migrants who move without their household, lose is access to the public distribution system (PDS). This is a major lacuna, given the rights conferred under the National Food Security Act 2013. The digitisation of beneficiary lists and/or in some instances their linkage with Aadhaar permits the two actions necessary for portability of PDS benefits, that is (a) the modification of the benefit to permit the delinking of individuals from households and (b) the portability of the benefit across the fair price shop system (or alternative methods, if used).


The rudiments of a portable architecture for the provision of healthcare are in place with the portability of RSBY (Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana) and ESI (Employees’ State Insurance). The focus can be on covering contract workers and even unorganised workers under ESI, and the proposed use of portability to provide the benefits under UWSSA (Unorganised Workers’ Social Security). However, there is still a large gap in implementation, the level of basic benefits and in the ability of the worker to improve these benefits with supplementary payments.

The working group also recommended that the Integrated Child Development Services–Anganwadi (ICDS-AW) and auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs)—be advised to expand their outreach to include migrant women and children in the scheme.


The working group also recommended that Ministry of Human Resource Development encourage States to include migrant children in the annual work plans of SSA (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan), such as under the Education Guarantee and Alternative and Innovative Education schemes.

This could include the establishment of residential facilities as well as providing support to a caregiver chosen by the family, as currently practised in some States. In doing so, it is imperative to ensure adequate child protection, basic services, and caregiver-to-child ratios.

Skilling and employment

The working group recommended that migrants have unrestricted access to skill programmes in urban areas; in cases where there are domicile restrictions, these need to be removed. The various Ministries of the Government of India need to ensure that skill programmes funded by the Union Budget support do not have domicile restrictions.

Financial inclusion

The working group recommended that the Ministry of Communications re-examine the Department of Posts’ electronic money order product, benchmark it to private (informal) providers in terms of cost and time for the delivery so that it could be a competitive option for migrant remittance transfers.

The Economic Survey of 2017 concluded that the above-mentioned measures would “vastly improve welfare gains of migration and ensure even greater integration of labour markets in India”.

A proper follow-up of the above points could have allowed the nation to be better prepared to take care of its migrant workers in times of a major crisis. As it turned out, the current scenario presents a contrary picture of failure to protect the nation’s most vulnerable population. However, there is evidence that certain States have adopted more effective measures with due consideration extended to their migrant populations.

States’ responses

In the present crisis, amidst the suspension of buses, trains and flights services, governments of major migrant-receiving States such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Gujarat, and Maharashtra have intervened to provide basic amenities such as shelter, rations and food for the stranded workers.

Among the State Governments, the Kerala model of humane treatment accorded to migrants, who are referred to as “guest workers”, has been widely appreciated. The Kerala government organised 15,541 relief camps for migrant workers, the highest in any State. Moreover, in Kerala, community kitchens are functioning at the panchayat level to ensure that no migrant worker goes hungry. Meanwhile, the State has also provided migrant workers night shelters, health care benefits, educational allowances for children, and financial support to transport the mortal remains in case of natural death.

As earlier mentioned, Odisha has been a model State in terms of protecting the migrant workers in the destination States. At all levels, the Odisha government has comprehensively framed this model by providing shelter and schooling for the children of migrant workers both at source and at select destination States to reduce the number of school dropouts. It has initiated measures against contractors and agents undertaking illegal activities.

The Odisha government has set up a migration support centre for workers from Odisha in Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu. Further, realising the need for immediate intervention at the local level, the Department of Labour and ESI have initiated the process and Memorandums of Understanding have been signed with the local associations of Odia people living in those States, to act as the first point of contact and support to Odia migrant workers. Accordingly, the managements of Utkal Association of Madras, Chennai; Orissa Cultural Association, Bengaluru; and Utkal Sanskrutika Samaj, Vishakhapatnam, have signed MoUs with the State Labour and ESI authorities.

The Odisha model also indicates the importance of networking between States to protect the migrant workers. This kind of safety net is completely absent in other migrant-sending States such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and States in the North-east.

On the flip side is the economic insecurity faced by the migrant workers as well as its impact on their family members in their States. Migrant workers financially support their dependents living in their States by remitting their earnings home. Therefore, in the absence of economic activity, these migrants are unable to feed their dependents who also need attention. It is evident that since the lockdown, migrants have been monetarily unproductive for prolonged periods and providing basic amenities is only a temporary solution to keep them from starvation. Moreover, the “charity approach” of dealing with the migration crisis has to be replaced by the “welfare approach”.

Hence, despite transferring meagre cash benefits to the bank accounts, the need of the hour is to frame comprehensive unemployment benefits to ensure economic security for distressed and stranded migrants. This measure will contribute much towards treating migrant workers with more respect and dignity.

Some migrant workers, who realised the danger of being stranded owing to the COVID-19 pandemic through the Janata curfew on March 22, tried to make the long journey home early. Migrant workers from Kerala who boarded the Alappuzha-Dhanbad (Bokaro) Express, with a travel time of 55 hours and 15 minutes with 94 halts, were de-trained at Chennai Central station; the railway authorities did not allow any train to move out of the Central station. Similarly, other trains proceeding to the migrant corridor routes were stopped, resulting in large numbers of migrant workers ending up in Chennai Central Station. Later, the Corporation of Chennai took them to community halls, marriage halls, and schools and provided them with shelter, medical examination and food. Likewise, there are countless migrant workers who are neither in their destination nor in their source States, but stranded at transit points such as Chennai Central station.

The road ahead

There were visuals in the media of migrant workers desperate to reach their home on foot, in bicycles and hiding in vehicles, in places such as Surat and Mumbai, where a large number of migrants staged protests, demanding to return to their home States. Meanwhile, the mass gathering of migrant workers, mostly working in informal and unorganised sectors, at Anand Vihar bus terminal in Delhi alerted the authorities to their plight. Subsequently, judicial intervention was sought at the Supreme Court of India. What was visible in these responses was haphazard planning when it came to the issues of internal migrants and how major decisions affected them far more adversely when compared withother classes of workers. Although the issues relating to the welfare of inter-State migrants were highlighted through the Economic Survey of India 2017 and the report of the working group on migration, little has been done by way of a follow-through. While certain States have taken proactive measures in ensuring migrant rights, there are miles to go before the social and economic safety net of India’s migrant workforce improves. This needs wider cooperation and collaboration between States. This nationwide lockdown has reiterated the fact that it is important to shore up federal structures within States and having them work in tandem with the Centre to work towards migrant safety and ensuring their rights, both at the source and the destination States.

The Smart Cities Mission, one of the most ambitious projects of the Central government, has attracted large numbers of migrant workers. The current migrant crisis has indicated how migrant workers are excluded from the safety nets of both receiving and sending States. Therefore, a fresh focus is required to protect this invisible workforce in Indian cities, by including them in the social, economic, and health security net.

To further safeguard the interest of the migrant workers, the Central government has enacted the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, which, inter alia, provides for payment of minimum wages, journey allowance, displacement allowance, residential accommodation, medical facilities, and protective clothing. However, the current crisis has demonstrated starkly the lack of proper implementation, and thus the ineffectiveness, of the Act. Most importantly, the lack of political will is the most serious hindrance to uphold migrant rights. Nevertheless, there is hope when both sending and receiving States make proactive interventions.

During an emergency such as this, if the sending States are equipped with the complete data of migrant workers, they will be able to negotiate better with the receiving States as to what is expected of them. Apart from the official data sharing, the government should replicate scientific sample surveys such as the Kerala Migration Survey in other States. Now that the migrants are moving far away from their States, the receiving State equally has to protect the migrants and their rights. The economic development of India depends on migrants who dominate the labour force in the construction and manufacturing sectors.

While their remittances aid the development of the source State, they also help propel the economy of the destination States. It is time to bring the migrant population in the social and economic map of India and for policymakers to include migrants in their decision-making. It is also time for the government to implement the recommendations of the working group on migration as a first step to ensuring migrants’ welfare.

S. Irudaya Rajan is Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. He led the Tamil Nadu Migration Survey and is a Member of the Kerala Government Expert Committee on COVID 19.

Bernard D’ Sami is Senior Fellow and Coordinator, Loyola Institute of Social Science Training and Research, Loyola College, Chennai.

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