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Natural Resource Perspectives

Overseas Development
September 2008

Support for migrant workers: The

missing link in India’s development
Priya Deshingkar, Rajiv Khandelwal and John Farrington

ndia has around 100 million circular migrant workers , placing its experience almost on a par
with China’s. Yet migration in India faces an almost total absence of forward-thinking policies.
Rejecting policies to ‘keep them in rural areas’ as unrealistic, this paper identifies the kinds of
migrant support that are needed if migrants are to continue adding to economic growth as they
currently do, but at lower personal cost than at present.

Policy conclusions

• Whilst infrastructural and other investment are still needed in the remoter, drier parts of India,
these are approaching their limits in terms of productivity and employment creation.
• The movement of labour from slow to faster growing parts of the economy is inexorable, and
far higher than shown in official statistics.
• Urban policies, backed by powerful urban electorates, are reluctant to recognise the economic
contribution made by migrant labour; many policies, especially on housing, do not simply
neglect migrants, but actively discriminate against them.
• Practical areas for migrant support include improved access to market information, skills
enhancement, certification of identity, remittances, housing and continued access to health,
education and social assistance whilst ‘on the move’.
• These, and more empowering types of support such as collective bargaining and release
from debt bondage, are currently being tried by a small number of innovative NGOs. The
results of their work merit policy attention at the highest levels.

Background women) moved for marriage reasons. The 55th

Convention dictates that massive capital round of the National Sample Survey indicates
i nvest m e n t is n e e d e d i n r u ra l a reas that there are 10 million (1% of the population)
(telecommunications, roads and other physical short term migrants in India. The difficulty of
infrastructure etc) to generate livelihoods, and interviewing mobile households means that both
the Rural Development Ministry’s budget is large, NSS and Census are likely to provide serious
at around $10 billion/yr.1 There is an argument underestimates. A rough estimate based on
This series is published by ODI, for making basic infrastructure available to all, those sectors mainly employing migrants (textiles,
an independent non-profit policy but against a recognition that the prospects construction, brick kilns, mines and quarries,
research institute, with financial for job creation in the more remote areas are domestic workers, street vending, rickshaw
support from the Swedish limited. Even public works, are in general poorly pulling, salt pans and prawn processing), backed
International Development administered and have limited impact on job up by village studies in ‘source’ areas, suggests
Cooperation Agency, Sida. availability. People’s own strategies of migrating that around 100 million workers are migrants.
Opinions expressed do not out of these areas are therefore likely to be the Inadequate official data have reinforced ill-
necessarily reflect the views of most effective in delivering benefits to the poor conceived policies on migration.
either ODI or Sida.
in the short term. Village studies indicate that the vast majority
of those migrating seasonally for work are in the
Overseas Development Institute Scale lower deciles of income distribution, and belong
ODI is the UK’s leading Official data do not help any serious discussion to disadvantaged groups such as Scheduled
independent think tank on of migration. The National Census indicates Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Muslims,
international development and that 98 million people migrated permanently in but are not the very poorest, who lack the capital
humanitarian issues. the decade before 2001 – almost half (mainly and contacts to overcome the risks that migration
Natural Resource Perspectives

poses. Migration for the poor is mainly circular owing to the desire family that migration poses. There are also important non-economic
to ‘keep a foothold’ in home areas during the agriculture season, reasons for migration which have so far received little attention.
but also to the lack of social security and barriers to settling more These include escaping oppressive caste relations and restrictive
permanently in urban areas. family environments, and the desire to experience city life.

Main migration streams and shifts What are the impacts of migration?
Caste, social networks and historical precedents play a powerful A large number of studies have found that migration earnings are
role in shaping patterns of migration. Well established ‘streams’ used mainly for ‘consumption’, i.e. food, clothing, house repairs,
of migration exist, but exhibit highly diverse terms and conditions, social events and religious pilgrimages. But this underplays their
returns and prospects. Our own research (Deshingkar and importance in improving family nutrition and reducing the need
Farrington, eds, forthcoming) as well as other village studies show to borrow for essentials. Furthermore, new evidence shows
that there are two broad kinds of circular migration among poorer that migration earnings are being invested in agriculture, small
social strata – one kind undertaken by the poorest, least educated enterprise, education, health and housing all of which contribute
and most disadvantaged social groups (mainly the Scheduled to improving household wellbeing (Deshingkar et al, forthcoming).
Castes or dalits, Scheduled Tribes and Extremely Backward Castes). On the negative side, male migration from nuclear families can lead
This category typically works in brick-kilns, unskilled construction, to loneliness and increased work burdens for women.
loading and unloading and agriculture (such as cotton pollination).
This kind of migration may allow slow asset accumulation, but Costs and risks of Migration
does prevent downward slides into poverty. Working conditions Migrants are rarely full citizens in their place of work. In the formal
are not much different from bonded labour with limits on personal context, they lose voting rights, as well as free healthcare and
freedom, long working hours, debt bondage and underpayment. subsidised food and fuel under the Public Distribution System.
Children from SC and ST families are widely employed in brick-kilns, It becomes less easy for them to access free education for their
textile markets, cotton fields and tea shops, and are particularly children. They are often regarded as illegal residents and may be
exposed to exploitation. subject to police harassment. Journeys to and from work can be
Contrasting with this is the migration undertaken by slightly hazardous, with cheating over tickets on public transport and
better off groups with more education and skills, more assets and the constant threat of theft. They also face discrimination more
a higher social standing. Backward Castes are heavily represented generally because they often belong to historically disadvantaged
in this kind of migration, typically in small industrial units groups such as the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.
(garments, shoes and bag making, embroidery), security services, Furthermore, women and girls from these social groups rarely
the hospitality industry, plumbing and carpentry. Although many receive ‘equal pay for equal work’.
of these jobs are in the informal sector, this kind of migration Poor migrants are often employed in risky jobs – industrial
often leads to substantial remittances, asset accumulation and accidents, exposure to hazardous chemicals, long working hours
investment which can lead to an exit from poverty; Bihari migrants and unhygienic conditions are the norm. Especially hazardous are
remitted Rs4.5bn in 2006 (approx US$100M) through post offices dyeing, other chemical industries, stone crushing, brick making,
in addition to an equal or higher amount sent through electronic steel utensil production, and loading.
transfers. Oriya migrants remitted an estimated Rs20bn in 2007. Migrants are susceptible to infectious diseases because of the
Labour market intermediaries (agents, contractors) are important very poor, crowded and unhygienic living conditions (migrants
in many (especially tribal) areas. Good access to information are identified as high risk group by the National Aids Control
gives them an advantage over labourers. They provide labour to Organisation). They often face exclusionary processes that prevent
an employer, but also supervise, and arrange lodgings and food, them from acquiring new skills and moving up the job ladder.
allowing them to take a heavy cut of wages as commission.
In this context of highly imperfect labour markets with high Why does it merit policy attention?
(and uninsurable) risks, it is not surprising that labourers limit Despite the contribution made by migrants to the national
themselves to proven routes/streams, and newcomers tend to go economy, most remain on the margins of society, contributing
only in the company of agents or established migrants. Only where cheap labour but unable to influence their pay or working and
migrants have become well established in a sector (for example living conditions, and without political voice, especially where they
Rajasthani cooks in Gujarat or Oriya plumbers across western migrate to other states. Migrants are preferred over local labour
India), do they strike deals directly with employers, or become by employers because they are cheaper, work harder and are not
agents themselves. unionised. As migrants become one of the most important sources
of labour across the country, services and support for migrant
Why does circular migration come about? workers need to be seen as an essential investment for India’s
Current and prospective rates of job creation in Indian agriculture development trajectory.
are poor, and the non-farm rural economy tends to grow only Yet, governments find migration an uncomfortable topic, not
where agricultural growth is strong (Bhalla, 2006). For large parts least where (as in India) a powerful middle class urban electorate is
of the country with unreliable farming or forest-based livelihoods, opposed to it. The lack of clarity in official positions on migration –
migration, with all its risks, offers better returns and better often, if anything, veering towards a denial of the contribution that
prospects for raising living standards than local employment. migration makes to the economy and prompting efforts to ‘relieve
But there are new ‘pulls’: labour intensive urban construction, distress’ in order to keep migrants in rural areas – all mean that
manufacturing and mining, and a growing service industry attract official support for migrants is almost non-existent. Such support
people to distant destinations despite the risks and isolation from as there is has been devised and implemented by NGOs.
Natural Resource Perspectives

The rationale here is that poor migrants cannot fend for

Box 1: Aajeevika Bureau’s migrant support services themselves in a job market dominated by intermediaries and
The Aajeevika Bureau is a specialised initiative based in employers who are better informed and connected than they are.
southern Rajasthan that provides services and support to Nor can they pay for such services on a full cost-recovery basis
rural migrants. It is amongst the largest Indian migrant support immediately. The services provided will enable them to access
programmes covering 5 source blocks and 4 destinations of better jobs and reduce the level of uncertainty and harassment
Gujarat and Rajasthan. Its direct membership is nearly 20,000 that they face in the job market.
with plans to reach 50,000 by the end of 2010. The services Like any subsidy approach, this kind of approach has attracted
implemented by the Aajeevika Bureau includes the following: criticism for being expensive and economically unsustainable.
Identity: Although ID cards for migrants have been viewed However critics under-estimate the time that it takes to attract
with caution by analysts worried about their potentially poor, risk-averse and uneducated workers into contributory
exclusionary impact on the poorest migrants, the Aajeevika schemes. While industrial worker costs may be borne by industry
Bureau has experimented successfully with them in Rajasthan. (see market based approach below) other poorer workers who
Registration and photo IDs can create a powerful data base of migrate on a freelance basis and switch jobs rapidly may require
migrant workers across the country and also create a gateway more support.
for provision of services to them. The Aajeevika Bureau ID card 2) Improving labour market performance: This model works
for migrants has been endorsed by the Government of Rajasthan with existing labour market patterns and offers services on a
and this has created a large demand for it among migrant cost recovery basis. An example is proposed by
workers. This card establishes the source address, skill and Samarthan, (a leading NGO in Madhya Pradesh) and the World
bona fides of the migrant worker. Bank-funded District Poverty Initiatives Project (DPIP). This
will provide skills enhancement and certification programmes,
Counselling, skill training and information: Counselling services
advice and information on jobs and help workers to link up
help migrants in making more informed choices about locations,
employers and markets. Aajeevika Bureau’s counselling
with government schemes for insurance and workers’ funds.
activities cover prospective migrant workers in the construction, They intend to work within a market economics framework, i.e.
hospitality and retail sectors. The Bureau runs regular skill recognising that capital and labour are highly mobile and that
training and placement programmes for migrant youth in order industry locates itself where cheap labour can be accessed, but
to help them move up the value chain in labour markets. also recognising that contracting through intermediaries means
that industry does not provide workers with the welfare benefits
Financial services and inclusion: Despite the growth of micro to which they are legally entitled. plans to provide
finance few migrants are covered because of their high mobility these services against payment by employers, thus keeping them
and inability to form stable groups. Support to savings and within the law. A further example is provided by LabourNet, an
remittances is an obvious starting point, but new lending
NGO based in Bangalore which has developed a database of 4,500
solutions also have to be found. BASIX and Aajeevika Bureau
migrant construction workers, with the intention of improving job
are presently experimenting with the creation of a financial
information to them.
inclusion model for inter-state migrant workers in partnership
3) The Labour Union Model: This is a rights-based approach and
with banks such as AXIS and SBI. Given the advancement in
works for better implementation of labour laws and regulation of
mobile banking technology, safe remittance solutions have
become possible but these are still in the early stages of
labour flows. Some NGOs like Prayas in Rajasthan and DISHA in
development and need careful monitoring. Gujarat believe that unionising migrant workers will go a long way
towards realising their rights, improving their bargaining power
in the market and preventing exploitation. Prayas has set up a
In a political climate of ‘denial’, policy options to support migrants union of cotton pollination workers, one of the main objectives
might best be divided into two categories: those (probably fairly being to regulate the supply of labour so as not to lower the
minor) that can be introduced unobtrusively, possibly as part of bargaining power of the migrant. They have enrolled over 1500
wider initiatives (e.g. identity cards, or support to remittances as recruiting agents or ‘mates’ and the Union has put out a charter
part of a wider upgrading of bank or PO services); and those that of demands. In 2007 it set up around 16 manned check points at
require more concerted and migrant-specific effort (e.g. ‘remote’ all the border crossings between Gujarat and Rajasthan in order
access to PDS benefits, education for migrants’ children and access to check movement of child labour. As a result, employers have
to health and housing), and so will require major pressure if policy offered a partial hike in wage rates and negotiations are continuing.
is to change appropriately. The work of an innovative NGO in these A similar approach has been adopted by the Bandhkam Majoor
areas, the Aajeevika Bureau, is outlined in Box 1. Sangathan (BMS) established by DISHA in Ahmedabad. Both
Prayas and DISHA also advocate for the amendment of the Inter
Other models of migrant support State Migrant Workmen Act which they argue is unimplementable
These fall into four broad categories, most of which have operated in its current form.
on a limited scale to date: 4) The Rehabilitation Model: ActionAid conducts raids on brick
1) Social Protection: This provides subsidised services related kilns in Orissa together with the police to release bonded migrant
to e.g. job information and rights awareness creation. It aims to workers and rehabilitate them. They believe that migration of
reduce poverty and vulnerability by promoting efficient labour this kind is akin to trafficking, where workers are lured on false
markets, diminishing exposure to risks, and helping the poor promises, often borrow money from recruitment agents which
to protect themselves against hazards and interruption/loss of they repay through punishing work schedules, their movement
income. is restricted at the work site and wages are well below the legal
Natural Resource Perspectives

minimum. Women and children are also exploited in economic growth in other locations. In absolute
various ways and living conditions are appalling. terms, China and India will have the largest increases
These models offer much promise, but for many in working age populations by 2015 (88 million and
types of challenge faced by migrants, a combination 148 million respectively) (Economist Intelligence
will be needed of these kinds of support together with Unit, 2006).
changes in (or better enforcement of) government The demand for unskilled labour will continue to
legislation, and in some cases more information will increase in services, road maintenance, construction,
be required on migrants’ needs. cable networks and coastal activities where
Of critical importance is the need to reform mechanisation continues to be limited despite
legislation related to food, housing, health, education growth. While earlier projections saw temporary
and social security so that migrant workers can migration as a precursor to permanent, and so
access schemes when ‘on the move’. a purely transient phenomenon, current trends
indicate that a growing number of people are
Access to subsidised food, housing, choosing to keep one foot in the village because
health and education of social ties, lower costs, other safety net aspects
Although at least three states have actively planned and a long term intention to pursue a better life in
the provision of mobile ration cards (Rajasthan, the village.
Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra) only one, namely In sum, there is a need to understand the drivers
Maharashtra, seems to have institutionalised the and impacts of migration better in order to move
system within a small area. In addition, pressure away from the common lamenting of ‘distress
from NGOs such as DISHA Foundation in Nashik migration’ as a destructive and impoverishing
have ensured that government resolutions are not process. The first step is to recognise that policies
forgotten when staff are transferred or when there have hitherto been inadequate. There is also a
is a change in government. need to understand migration properly in order to
Education for the children of migrants, on the manage urban development better and appreciate
other hand, has been taken up more widely through the poverty reducing benefits of urbanisation.
e.g. the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and District Primary Policy positions on urbanisation (such as in the
Overseas Development Education Programme after sustained advocacy Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission) aim to
Institute by NGOs and donors such as the America India clean up urban areas without any concrete plans
111 Westminster Bridge Foundation. for providing facilities to temporary residents.
Road, London SE1 7JD While AIDS and TB control programmes have Likewise a better understanding of migration would
targeted migrant populations, there is as yet also help in the formulation of more realistic rural
Tel: +44 (0)20 7922 0300
insufficient flexibility in routine health services which development strategies that recognise and support
Fax: +44 (0)20 7922 0399
would allow mobile populations to claim health multi-locational livelihood strategies, and help
Email: benefits away from their normal place of residence. people to make informed choices about where they
Barring one or two exceptions, housing programmes want to work without forcing them to live off local
Natural Resource
aimed specifically at temporary migrants do not agriculture alone.
Perspectives present exist in major migrant destinations. Some benefits
accessible information may accrue to migrants from the numerous slum References
on current development development programmes across the country but Bhalla, S. (2006) ‘Diversifying beyond the farm – introduction’
issues. Readers are many of these also give priority to older and well pp152-164 in Farrington, J., Deshingkar, P., Johnson, C. and
encouraged to quote established residents. Start, D., Policy Windows and Livelihood Futures. New Delhi
from them or duplicate Finally, there are still a few social security and Oxford, OUP.
them, but as copyright Deshingkar, P., Sharma, P., Kumar, S., Akter, S. and Farrington,
schemes that cover unorganised sector workers,
holder, ODI requests J. (forthcoming) Circular migration in Madhya Pradesh:
including migrants. The proposed National Social
due acknowledgement. Changing patterns and Social Protection Needs. European
Security Bill For Unorganised Sector Workers will Journal of Development Research, Taylor and Francis.
The Editor welcomes
cover many categories of migrant, but it has been Economist Intelligence Unit (2006), ‘Labour Mobility and
manuscripts for this
given low priority and still has not been passed in Migration Trends in the Asia Region’, EIU Research Paper
Parliament. prepared for Asia-New Zealand Foundation. The future

It is very likely that circular migration will continue
Series Editor: to increase in India as an increasing population of Priya Deshingkar is a Research Fellow at the
John Farrington young adults moves from rural stagnation to rapid Overseas Development Institute.
Administrative Editor: Rajiv Khandelwal is the Chief Executive of Aajeevika
Jojoh Faal Endnotes Bureau.
To which must be added the RD budgets of the individual
John Farrington is a Senior Research Associate of
© Overseas Development States plus the rural activities of roads, telecommunications, the Overseas Development Institute.
Institute 2007 irrigation, agriculture and other departments not falling Email:
ISSN 1356–9228 under the Ministry of Rural Development.