Labour Issues

NITI Aayog's draft national policy on migrant workers: A narrow vision document

Print edition : March 26, 2021

Migrant workers and their families leaving Mumbai on March 28, 2020, four days after the government imposed a lockdown. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

A migrant worker in New Delhi, a May 2020 picture. The draft policy lacks details on a safety net with regard to livelihood, shelter, food and health. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

The NITI Aayog draft national policy on migrant workers opts for a rights-based framework instead of a handout approach in addressing the concerns of migrant workers. But analysts seek a more holistic, broader and futuristic policy.

It took a nationwide lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic to recognise the plight of an invisible workforce that contributes in no small measure to the nation’s economy. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown on March 24, about 26 lakh migrant workers who provide cheap labour to India’s industry and services were abruptly left with nowhere to go and no one to help. Photographs captured thousands of men, women and children working in cities walking hundreds of kilometres on highways towards their villages. Their plight was made worse by employers not paying salaries or using the police to prevent them from leaving their workplaces.

Eventually, trains were organised, but the callousness with which the migrants were treated brought out the glaring fact that this workforce is not just neglected but unempowered too. Suddenly, the issues of the migrant worker on whom even the smallest business depends—a waiter, a construction labourer, an oil-rig worker, a roadside hawker, a grocery store helper—became the focus of public attention.

In response to the migrant workers’ concerns, NITI Aayog, the Central government’s policy think tank, has drawn up a draft national policy on migrant labour. Its single most important feature, says an economist who advises the Central government, is that it lays down institutional mechanisms to coordinate between Central Ministries, State governments and local departments to implement programmes for migrants.

The draft policy initiates discussions on the creation of a database of workers, particularly those in the informal economy, an increase in minimum wages, and employment creation in the rural belt in order to stem migration. Other issues addressed include measures to deal with workplace accidents, registration of grievances and provision of adequate shelter. However, a major negative factor, says the economist, is the lack of details on a safety net with regard to livelihood, shelter, food and health. “This is desperately needed, especially after the lockdown crisis.”

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R.B. Bhagat, head of the Department of Migration and Urban Studies at the International Institute of Population Studies, Mumbai, says: “Admittedly, the Central government is attempting to create a comprehensive policy, but the strength lies in the detail. That is what will make a difference in a policy on migrants. For instance, portability of voting rights, State-specific labour laws and issues with rental housing are serious concerns which have no mention in the draft. It is a narrow vision document. The need is a holistic, broader and futuristic policy.”

According to Sunil Dhanji, a labour contractor in Ahmedabad, India has policies and laws with regard to labour, but it is the migrant part of labour that has to be addressed over here. He says: “A pathetic reflection of our callousness was when the lockdown lifted and people wanted their workers back to restart businesses. The same company that did not pay salaries or organise train tickets was sending chartered flights to Bihar to bring back labour. If you saw the flights from October to December 2020, I would say 80 per cent were filled with migrant labour returning from home.”

Dhanji says though NITI Aayog’s efforts are welcome because it finally asks Ministries to take responsibility, it lacks detail and depth. “It has to be State-driven with coordinated efforts from the Centre. That is where the failing is. Migrant labour invariably slips through the cracks,” he says. “Perhaps the only sector that has a safety net for migrant labour is construction due to The Building and other Construction Workers Act, 1996.”

Two approaches

The draft national migrant labour policy rejects a handout approach, opting instead for a rights-based framework. The goal, it says, “should not be to provide temporary or permanent economic or social aids”, which is “a rather limited approach”. The policy says “migration should be acknowledged as an integral part of development and government policies should not hinder but seek to facilitate internal migration”.

The draft essentially describes two approaches to policy design: focus on cash transfers, special quotas and reservation; enhancement of the agency and capability of the community to remove aspects that come in the way of an individual’s own natural ability to thrive.

Perhaps the most relevant feature of the draft policy is the requirement of several Ministries to work in tandem. The Ministry of Labour and Employment is proposed to be the nodal Ministry for implementation of policies. A special unit within this Ministry would manage migration resource centres in high-migration zones, a national labour helpline, link worker households to government schemes, and create inter-State migration management bodies.

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The policy suggests that the Ministries of Panchayati Raj, Rural Development, Housing and Urban Affairs, and Tribal Affairs use migration data to help set up the migration resource centres. Additionally, the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship should focus on skill building at these centres, the document says.

The draft’s recommendations include asking source States (such as Bihar and Odisha) to raise minimum wages in order to bring major shifts in the livelihood of tribal people which “may result in stemming migration to some extent”. Another proposal is to build a central database to help employers fill the gap between demand and supply and ensure maximum benefit of social welfare schemes. Additionally, the draft policy asks the Ministries concerned with labour and the Census office to be consistent with the definitions of sub-populations, capture seasonal and circular migrant data, and incorporate migrant-specific variables in existing surveys.

According to a social worker involved among construction labour, the draft policy has addressed the issue of education, a much-needed requirement among migrant labour. It proposes that the Ministry of Education take measures under the Right to Education Act, 2009, to mainstream migrant children’s education, map migrant children, and provide local-language teachers in migrant destinations. The draft policy also seeks the intervention of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in addressing issues regarding night shelters, short-stay homes, and seasonal accommodation for migrants in cities. Grievance handling cells have also been proposed; the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the Ministry of Labour have been asked to set up cells that will fast-track legal responses for trafficking, minimum wage violations, workplace abuses and accidentsamong migrant workers.

Earlier efforts

In January 2017, a Working Group on Migration of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation released a report which recommended a comprehensive law for the migrant worker that would form the legal basis to evolve a structure for social protection. The draft policy takes into account this report saying that its recommendations were in line with a 2007 report by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector under the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises.

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The 2017 report argued that the Inter State Migrant Workers Act, 1979, which was designed to protect labourers from exploitation by contractors by safeguarding their right to non-discriminatory wages, travel and displacement allowances, and suitable working conditions, had several limitations. The law covers only labourers brought by a contractor and not independent migrants. The report questioned this approach given the size of the country’s unorganised sector.

Says R.B. Bhagat: “Attempts such as the 2017 report have been made in the past, but we believe it is not viewed from the rights perspective. Perhaps the new draft with its emphasis on the rights-based approach will take cognisance of citizenship and human rights, which appears missing.”

Policy paper by experts

A paper titled “Internal Migration in India: Integrating Migration with Development and Urbanisation Policies” by S. Irudaya Rajan, Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala, and R.B. Bhagat, published in February 2021, gives a much more realistic impression of the migrant crisis. The authors begin by saying that “internal migration is an important and pervasive feature of the Indian economy and society”.

The paper says: “A number of urban policies have been undertaken over the decades to ensure that increasingly large urban centres turn into engines of growth. The contribution of urban centres to India’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to rise from 47 per cent in 1980-81 to an expected 75 per cent in 2030, provided that urban infrastructure development keeps pace with its potential.”

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A few schemes such as the Smart Cities Mission and the Atal Mission for Urban Rejuvenation and Transformation (AMRUT), launched in 2015, are said to be holistic urban renewal programmes. However, research has noted how migrants have been excluded from most benefits in cities, including access to social security programmes, with many living in cramped slums. Migrants are also not adequately reflected in statistics. For instance, migration data as a part of employment and unemployment data were last collected by the National Sample Survey in 2007-08, says the paper.

The latest data is the 2011 Census which indicates that almost 46 per cent of India’s urban population are migrants. The Economic Survey (2017) estimated that an average of 5-6 million Indians migrated annually between 2001 and 2011, leading to an inter-State migrant population of “about 60 million” and an inter-district migrant population “as high as 80 million”. Therefore, the authors believe it is critical to address this invisible population.

With regard to the labour laws, the paper says migrant workers have been governed by various labour laws with no focus on migration status such as the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970; the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996; and the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008. In 2020, different labour laws were amalgamated into four labour codes, but with little concern for migrant workers. Because many establishments are excluded, and also because many labour migrants are not registered, the benefits of labour laws do not reach most migrant workers, the authors say.

Also read: Migrants face more obstacles in India than in any other Asian country

Rajan and Bhagat say it is important to ensure access to health care through portable insurance systems and easy access to public health care systems at destination. Their recommendations include the provision of temporary or rental-based housing culminating in ownership in urban contexts. This would pave the way for migrants to acquire an identity, encouraging them to avail themselves of the right to vote and participate in local development. “Urbanisation and rural empowerment policies at national and sub-national levels need to harmonise,” says the paper.

According to the authors, skills and education programmes must be set up to upskill migrant workers to better their conditions in terms of both work and wages. Programmes to provide education for migrant children will also engender more long-term and robust migration to urban centres. Financial inclusion is critical for migrants to get access to formal channels of banking and credit systems, to not only increase their assets but also ensure legal channels for migrant remittance transfers. Says the paper: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that these measures are of the utmost importance. The tragic scenes of migrant workers walking India’s roads on their way home could have been avoided if basic safety nets had been in place.”

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