NRIs Matter, Mr Modi, But Please Address the Plight of Internal Migrant Workers Too

Migrant workers struggle hard to maintain the symbols of a modern, resurgent India. Yet, the same India treats them with an opportunistic indifference, extracting hard labour but denying them basic rights or social or legal protection.

Last month, the government of India celebrated the 14th “Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas”. Now a biennial affair observed to recognise the contributions of Non-Resident Indians and strengthen their bonds with their home country, the event had global “diaspora champions” as well as important ministers of the Indian cabinet in attendance. The proceedings were webcast live to Indian missions across the world; immediate policy reforms and extensive celebrations were promised for the upcoming year.

While Indian migrants abroad have emerged as a powerful community whose success, and capital, is aggressively courted and lauded, it is a matter of great irony that internal migrants, who directly contribute to India’s economy, remain on the fringes of public and policy attention.

In dire straits due to poverty and conflict, millions of Indians leave their rural homes each year in pursuit of a safer and dignified livelihood. Armed with little but faith and fortitude, they undertake perilous journeys to destinations near and far. Sometimes they build transient lives in cities – a few months at a time; sometimes in the more prosperous areas of the rural countryside that need their labour. They work on construction sites, clean utensils in restaurants, do domestic chores in households, carry hundreds of kilos on their bare backs in large market yards. Many of them toil hard in factories and farmlands, many are security guards, street hawkers and scrap collectors.

From Rajasthan to Ahmedabad, from Odisha to Surat, from UP to Mumbai, from Bihar to Delhi and Kolkata, they move in massive numbers. We don’t have accurate statistics on this, but informal estimates suggest that they number between 150 and 180 million, almost a tenth of India’s population.

Migrant workers struggle hard to maintain the symbols of a modern, resurgent India – the flyovers, skyscrapers, malls and metro systems; the India with high growth rates and a plethora of opportunities. Yet, they remain invisible. The same India treats them with an opportunistic indifference, extracting hard labour but denying them basic rights or social or legal protection.

What are the real costs that migrant workers pay to build the foundations for India’s celebrated growth? They lose access to basic public services as they change their place of residence. Not registered as bona fide residents in a city, rural migrant workers are not eligible to access the public distribution system (PDS) for food grains or fuel; they struggle hard to get their children enrolled in public schools and cannot easily avail of subsidised treatment in public hospitals. Opening a bank account in the city to transfer money to their families in the villages remains daunting as they are unable to produce proofs of identity or residence.

As outsiders, scattered across the peripheries of the wide urban canvas, migrants also become victims of unfair labour practices, wage deductions and fraudulence. Female labour migrants, especially in the domestic and construction work sectors are often sexually exploited in return for the offer of regular work. Caught in a long chain of contractors and middlemen, they find it hard to access the legal system in cities. Accidents and deaths are commonplace in the construction and industrial sectors, but migrants remain outside the ambit of social security measures. Stories abound on how migrants lead a precarious existence in cities, trapped between disenfranchisement within their nation-state and an uncertain livelihood.

Lack of government policy

To make matters worse, there is no documentation on the size of the migrant population at any level of administration, including the panchayats. Fraught with definitional and methodological issues, the National Sample Survey and Census – the two biggest data collection exercises in the country – are unable to accurately capture the numbers, thus leading to a large policy void on protecting and servicing an increasingly mobile rural population. The single piece of legislation that governs the movement of people across inter-state boundaries – the Inter-State Migrant Worker Act (1978) – is largely obsolete and inadequate to meet the protection needs of workers in an increasingly neo-liberal economic regime.

Sadly, the travails of migrant workers do not feature very high in the list of policy priorities of the current government either.

Recently, a series of labour reforms were announced by the Central government. Widely perceived as pro-industry and ironically titled “Shrameva Jayate”, the initiative exemplifies poor comprehension of the complexities surrounding the governance of a highly informal labour market and the tendency to come up with technocratic quick-fixes.

A case in point is the Universal Account Number (UAN), a facility that aims to enable portability of Provident Fund (PF) accounts. As per government records, more than Rs 26,000 crore is lying in inoperative EPF accounts, most of which belong to migrant construction and contract workers. While discussions are underway to bring more workers under the purview of the EPFO, there is an absolute vacuum of enabling machinery on the ground. Tens of thousands of migrant workers in the construction sector face PF deductions from their meager wages but have no knowledge of their PF account numbers, forget accessing them. An SMS facility that gives PF updates maybe useful for a salaried employee in the organised sector; it is difficult to imagine how it can replace the need for greater vigil on wage frauds in the informal economy, and a functional, active labour welfare machinery on the ground.

Clearly, the state needs to do better on labour governance and delivery of welfare provisions, especially in sight of this burgeoning and seemingly irreversible phenomenon of labour migration. Efforts to map the major seasonal migration corridors in the country will be a useful starting point. Capturing the numbers and occupational streams will help in designing and implementing targeted programs for migrants.

Construction workers in Kolkata. Credit: Eric Parker/Flickr 2.0

Construction workers in Kolkata. Credit: Eric Parker/Flickr 2.0

Civil society interventions have demonstrated that it is possible to provide solutions to the identity, education, health and cheap fuel needs of migrants in cities. Migration facilitation centres, which provide targeted livelihood services to migrant workers, have also been found to be highly impactful in several corridors. The state needs to study these solutions closely and mainstream migrant worker groups and their concerns in the current welfare schemes and initiatives. More importantly, the archaic framing of policy responses in rural and urban silos needs to change. We need an integrated state mechanism that will enable portability of entitlements across the country. Migrants need to be able to access basic entitlements in both villages and cities and across states. We need to ensure that workers don’t have to struggle anymore to buy their SIM cards, open bank accounts, and find decent housing in cities. They should be able to access state subsidies (such as PDS) and also benefit from government welfare schemes as they move to make the dreams of ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Make in India’ come alive.

The state also needs to consider extending federal legal protection to migrants. This will help provide a valid recourse for the massive exploitation that they face. Social security schemes for the informal sector workers, with a special focus on the needs of migrants must be designed to boost the morale and health of workers and consequently, of the economy.

The euphoria over Indian migrants abroad and the sheer indifference with which internal migrants are treated paint a picture of great contradictions that characterise the policy priorities of the government today. We must build sensitivities towards the increasing mobility of our rural populace and make their engagement with the City more rewarding, fair and humane. Can we start with including the 100 million MRIs – Migrant Resident Indians –  in the Pravasi Divas celebrations?

Divya Varma and Amrita Sharma work with the Center for Migration and Labour Solutions at Aajeevika Bureau, a specialised non-profit initiative that provides services, support and security to rural, seasonal migrant workers.