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Debraj Bhattacharya
Tuesday , October 30, 2012 at 12 : 26

Who speaks for the migrant worker in India?


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Jagmohan Chaudhuri used to live in village Sandesh of Bhojpur District of Bihar. He was married to Bijanti Kunwar, and had five children. It was not possible for him to find enough income in his village to feed his family. So he contacted a contractor in a nearby village. The contractor agreed to get him a job and took him wherever he got a tender to work. Jagmohan did not want to leave his family behind and go to distant places to work but he did not have an option as the local economy was not providing him with enough means of sustenance. His work sometimes took him to Kerala, sometimes to Mumbai and he finally ended up in Jammu where he used to do unskilled manual work in the railway factories. The money that he used to send back home kept his family alive although his wife had to work as a manual labourer as well. While working in Jammu Jagmohan fell ill and was hospitalised. He felt acute pain in his stomach. However it was not possible to diagnose exactly what had happened to him and he died in the hospital. His colleagues ensured that his body reached home for the last rites. The contractor took no responsibility for his medical costs and the cost of transporting his body to the village.

Is this an isolated incident? Perhaps it is not. As India is witnessing uneven growth with some parts witnessing more economic development than others migration of poor people from different parts of rural India to various urban centres are increasing. Huge numbers of people are moving from poor rural areas where they cannot find enough source of livelihood to urban areas in search of work. Their situation is so desperate that they do not mind living under extreme hardship, working for long hours without any job security or social security benefits. Many like Jagmohan move around different project sites to find work. Union Government and state governments have so far turned a blind eye regarding their problems.

It is not even possible to make a proper estimation of their numbers as there is no national level data on migrants who move from rural to urban centres in search of work. Nonetheless we have some data from Census 2001 and National Sample Survey. The data on migration from 2011 Census is yet to be made public. According the Census of 2001, the latest Census data on migration available at the time of writing this report, 29.9 per cent of the populations of India are migrants according to their place of birth and 30.6 per cent are migrants according to their last place of residence. This migrant population is of different types - female migration is primarily due to marriage, while male migration is primarily for employment. Migration predominantly takes place within the same state but inter-state migration has also assumed a significant proportion (13.1 per cent).

A Report by the National Sample Survey Organisation of India, based on 2007-08 data has also noted that nearly 29 per cent of India's population consist of migrants. The Census of 2001 noted that between 1991 and 2001 about 98 million people have migrated inside India. Out of this 61 million have moved to rural areas whereas 36 million have moved to urban areas. Estimate for rural to urban migration is about 20 million while about 6 million have moved from urban to rural areas. According to the NSSO study, about 20 per cent of the total migrant population in India is rural to urban migrants. According to Census 2001 the states which have received the maximum number of migrants are Maharashtra (2.3 million net migrants), Delhi (1.7 million net migrants), Gujarat (0.68 million net migrants) and Haryana (0.67 million net migrants).

The states from which maximum number of people have migrated are Uttar Pradesh (- 2.6 million) and Bihar (- 1.7 million). Thus we can safely say that the number of persons who are migrating from rural India to urban India is substantial enough to deserve attention from policy makers.

Recently, I was part of a team headed by Professor S Narayan of Institute of Social Sciences, that looked into the problems in rural areas of three districts of Bihar which are compelling the rural poor to migrate to urban areas of other states (http://www.scribd.com/doc/106651846/WHY-I-LEFT-MY-VILLAGE-A-STUDY-ON-MIGRATION-FROM-RURAL-BIHAR-INDIA). The study team found that the overwhelming majority of the respondents were living as agricultural labourers and/or as marginal farmers. Fifty Eight per cent of the population lives below the official poverty line. Only 9 per cent lives in concrete houses and nearly 60 per cent lives in kutccha houses, i.e. houses made of mud, straw and tin. Sixty Five per cent of the households do not possess any cultivable land. Those who have land have then in small quantities (less than an acre) and because of rise of costs it is not profitable for them to rely on agriculture. Irrigation and power facilities are poor.

Sixty five years after independence, only 10 per cent have access to credit from a bank. Hence the dependence on moneylenders is high. This means that they have to pay a substantially higher rate of interest. There is hardly any local industry or cottage industry which can provide alternative source of livelihood.

Under such circumstances almost all households in these villages have one male member who has migrated to other parts of India. The study team found that the migrants are going all over India rather than any specific area. However Delhi is the most preferred destination followed by Maharashtra and Gujarat. Kolkata is another traditionally favourite destination.

What is particularly interesting is the Union or state government plays no role in their process of migration. They rely on family and caste ties to find work, occasionally there are contractors who take them to destination points as was the case of Jagmohan Chaudhuri. The remittance that they send is vital for the survival of their families but they have to endure severe hardships, live in Dickensian conditions where they cannot take their family and have absolutely no social security to protect them if they fall ill. These workers are also rarely unionised and therefore lack bargaining power.

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS) was supposed to offer relief to the workers in rural areas by providing them 100 days of guaranteed employment during the lean season. This was supposed to have reduced distress migration. There is no evidence at least in the study districts that this has been the case. In fact the overwhelming number of villagers said they hardly got any work. We have no public data on whether MGNREGS is able to offer a viable alternative to poor villagers in migration prone districts.

In fact the state of data is so bad that we do not know which the important migration prone districts in the country are and how MGNREGS is being implemented there. There is a legislation called Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. Unfortunately it exists on paper only. Gram Panchayats, even when they are willing to help, do not know exactly what they can do.

It is time for policy makers interested in 'inclusive growth' to look into the issue with the rigour and attention that it deserves. Why can't we have a Committee like the Sachar Committee for minorities that will look at the national picture, talk to various stakeholders in different states, and arrive at policy recommendations for Government of India? If India wants to become a global player then it must develop a social security system for migrant workers.


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More about Debraj Bhattacharya

Debraj Bhattacharya is an alumnus of Presidency College, Calcutta, and currently is with Institute of Social Sciences, a civil society organisation, where he researches on contemporary development issues. He has earlier edited a book of essays, "Of Matters Modern: The Experience of Modernity in Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia" (2008) and has written several reports on rural development issues of India. He also writes in more popular vein in newspapers in English and Bengali.

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