In response to a question, the Ministry of Labour and Employment recently informed the Lok Sabha that as per the National Crime Records Bureau data, daily wage earners constituted the largest proportion, one-fourth, of those who died by suicide in India between 2019 and 2021, as reported in The Wire.
From 32,563 in 2019, the number of deaths by suicides by daily wage earners increased to 37,666 in 2020, the year of COVID-19 and the national lockdown. The rise in number continued to reach 42,004 in 2021. People, especially daily wage earners and migrants, are thus reeling from the post-COVID-19 impact as well.
Migrants walking during the lockdown was the defining image of the first wave of COVID-19.
Millions of migrants abandoned their temporary residences and belongings, along with their hopes and promises of a better future in an alien place, and started walking for their homes as a lockdown was announced with four hours’ notice. Some walked hundreds of miles, some even thousands of miles.
Braving the elements of nature, old, ill, pregnant and able-bodied people walked, along with their children, carrying whatever they could carry with them.
Hundreds of them perished during this journey. Those lucky ones who were able to reach their homes alive suffered police batons, and the indignities of travelling like animals, often being fleeced by the transporters.
One often hears India is a country of migrants but how many migrants exactly, no one knows, not even the government nor the experts. That they live in precarious conditions without much of a health and social support system was apparently not known to the people in power who announced lockdowns. Did they also not know that a significant number of them are daily wage earners and can eat and survive only if they earn every day? Migrants’ families comprise old people, women and children, some of whom require food, milk and medicines on a regular basis. In most cases, their landlords and employers did not take care of them.
Migrants’ trials at this time was an opportunity for policymakers to learn about migration and migrants and make policies and programmes for their wellbeing. But now it is safe to say that we as a society and country did not learn any lessons. The cut in MGNREGA allocation in this year’s Union Budget and the lack of any significant measure for migrant labourers point in the same direction.
We missed an opportunity to strengthen our data and information systems to have an accurate picture of the migration scenario in the country and states. Census 2011 says there were 450 million internal migrants in India at that time. The Economic Survey of 2017 says that there are 60 million inter-state migrants, with an average national flow of only 9 million.
The National Migrant Information System, a portal launched to capture the information of migrants travelling on special Shramik Trains from May 1 to June 3, 2020 and the Ministry of Railways reported that more than 6 million migrants travelled by trains. Another 4 million traveled in buses.
Migration tables from the Census 2011 were released only in 2019, eight years after the Census.
This paints a sorry state of affairs as far as migration statistics including numbers, demography, migration routes, etc. are concerned. With a rich history of the Census (which is now delayed), multitudes of national surveys, the fact that India is a leader in IT applications and considering the richness of subject expertise in the country, it needs to do better than this.
Migrants moving on foot should have been a big wake-up call for all, and appropriate systems should have been put in place for real-time migrant data capturing and sharing for policy development and programme planning.
The second lesson to be learned should have been what made these migrants flee the destination cities and places. The status of their health and well-being as well as living and working conditions should have been at the top of the to-do list of the policymakers. Appealing to the good side of employers and landlords to take care of migrants, ad-hoc and delayed provision of transportation to reach home with migrants paying from their own pockets, and providing ration and one-time cash transfers are not sustainable and effective policy and programmatic interventions.
Most migrants work in the informal sector, with no health and social security provisions. Their wages are not standardized and secure. Lack of affordable housing means they are forced to live in urban villages or slums. The lack of portability of state-specific benefits into another state renders them further vulnerable.
It is important to mention that migration will gain further momentum in days to come because of differential demographic transitions and unequal economic development and employment opportunities across states.
As per the population projections by National Commission on Population, 55%, 17 crores out of the total 31.1 crores population growth in India during 2011-2036, will occur in the five states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh Maharashtra, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh – all high out-migrating states. The north-central region will have a surplus young working-age population while the greying south will require young hands to keep its institutions running, maintain economic productivity and for taking care of the elderly while. There are already well-established migration routes between these regions. Demographic divergence will render further impetus to the migration. Kerala, for example, is already witnessing an increased in-migration.
The question to ask is: are we proactively planning for such a scenario? The Working Group on Migration (2017) set up by the Ministry of Urban Housing and Poverty alleviation examined the status of migrant workers in the country and submitted its report to the government in 2017. Action on the report is still awaited.
Migration could be a big game changer and a win-win situation for individuals, families, states (both sending and receiving) and the nation if collaborative planning is done by migration origin and destination states with the facilitation of the Union government.
There is a need to gain a deeper understanding of migration flows so that estimations and projections can be made regarding changing need for housing and infrastructure, health care and utilities, education and skills. States need to work together to provide portability of identity proof and entitlements, as well as build support systems for families left behind.
India urgently needs to take cognisance of the divergent demographic transition trends. Timely strategic action can develop human capacities to cater to future needs and build rights-based policies that work for migrants as well as locals. NITI Aayog should take the lead in this direction and constitute a High-Level Task Force to develop a white paper outlining current and future situations, policy regimes and mechanisms. The second step, based on the white paper, should be to set up a separate ministry or independent department for migrants with its own mandate, manpower and resources.
Devender Singh worked with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) from 2015-2021. Currently, he is a visiting Senior Fellow with the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Delhi.
Debasish Chowdhury is with Medicine Sans Frontiers (MSF).
Edited by Soumashree Sarkar.