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The Invisible City Makers: Of migration and migrant workers in India

By Amrita Sharma & Rajiv Khandewal 

On July 5, 2014, sixty-one workers died in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu, India, crushed under rubbles of an under-construction building. All the workers were seasonal migrants from rural Vizianagram and Srikakulum districts of Andhra Pradesh and Gajpati district of Odisha. 20 of them were young mothers. As the farms failed to provide enough food, they came to Chennai to work in the booming construction sector which promised higher wages –Rs. 175 more than what were able to earn back home. Men made Rs. 400 a day while women worked at Rs. 225-275. None held any employment contract, worked seven days a week for long hours, without safety equipments. None were entitled to any insurance or compensation in case of a death or injury. (Indian Express, 5th July, 2014)

That the city would eventually triumph over the village is no longer debated. Country after country has followed this trend. In most cases, the flux from the rural to urban has not been smooth and to achieve the illustrious goal of economic growth, human lives, mostly of migrants caught in transit, have suffered aplenty. India is no exception. If anything, lack of a policy stand on internal migration and poor safeguards for labor interests has given way to perverse labor market conditions thriving on abundant and unregulated access to cheap rural labor, easily recruited, circulated, and cast away at will.

The story of economic growth in India is essentially the story of labor migration and of migrants, who leave the increasingly poor villages with a decadent farm economy in search of better lives. They build resplendent city economies but fail to get a share of the riches; much worse, many struggle for a dignified human existence – for shelter, subsidized food, healthcare, and education – in the same cities they build. Unfortunately, their voices never make it to the mainstream. What we instead experience is a discourse dominated by the concerns of the urban majority, crying foul over burgeoning city populations, slumming of cities, and over-burdened city resources.

What is the story of internal labor migration in India? Why are more and more people moving en masse lately? What do they bring to the city and what do they take away? Here is a story of a population stuck in transit, struggling with disenfranchisement within the boundaries of its own country and an uncertain livelihood option which is their only exit from poverty.

Of Numbers and Patterns in Labor Mobility

The estimates on number of seasonal migrants vary from 15 million, as argued by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) to 100 million, a figure put by Priya Deshingkar, a renowned migration scholar from India. This open range can also be interpreted as saying that we do not have a reasonable estimate on seasonal migration. A wide variation in migration cycles, corridors, and an ever-changing nature of labor circulation makes the task of defining migration difficult. Nevertheless, over time a popular understanding on migration patterns has emerged, thanks to the micro/meso-investigations carried out by civil society organizations, academics, and to the efforts by NSSO.

In recent times, labor movement in India has become more long distance with an increase in inter-state mobility. The patterns of labor mobility have also grown more diverse, defying conventional wisdom informed by the Bihar-Punjab age. There are new hotspots of migrant sending and receiving regions and more sectors are known to employ migrant work force. Labor is circulated far, wide, and in between, blurring state boundaries, distances, and also definitions of migrant receiving and sending regions.

Figure 1 depicts some of the well established corridors of migration in India. At the national level, there is a clear trend of labor movement from the north and eastFigure 1 of India to the west and south, a trend that can be mapped parallel to the regional variations in economic prosperity in the country. States such as Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Rajasthan, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand with laggard economies and a surplus of labour are the primary suppliers of labour. At the other end, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, known for their robust and flourishing local economies attract large numbers of workers. Some of the notable corridors include eastern UP to Maharashtra, Bihar to Delhi-NCR, Odisha to Gujarat and to the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan to Gujarat and more. The last two decades have seen an upsurge of migration numbers from the states of Odisha and Rajasthan with creation of new corridors. Kerala is another new entry in top migration corridors, but as a migrant receiving economy. The North-East which was known predominantly for high student migration is increasingly in news for its economic migrants. While these are broad trends, there are hundreds of smaller corridors driven by creation of new towns and work opportunities in the local economies, mostly casual.

The tide of movement is also not linear, as many regions are found to be both sending and receiving migrants. Labor markets show a preference for migrant over local labour, giving way to extensive labor circulation. For instance, a large group of brick kiln workers from Allahabad and Pratapgarh migrates to work in the brick kilns of Bihar, while the local brick kilns recruit Oriya labor from Nuapada in western Odisha. Jodhpur district receives migrants from other districts of Rajasthan and from other states to work its mines while workers from Jodhpur move hundreds of kilometers to work in cotton ginning mills of Gujarat, or as tractor drivers to other parts of the country. Commuting between the rural to urban is a trend growing stronger by the day. It would not be an exaggeration to say that economic growth in India today rests on the rising mobility of labor. New India has also perfected the model that thrives on keeping the rural masses parked in the villages or the sub-urban peripheries, as reservoirs of labor.

The work sectors employing migrants are mostly a part of the unorganized economy. The rapidly growing construction sector is known to be the largest employer with 40 million migrants. This is followed by employment as domestic work (20 million), employment in textile industries (11 million), brick-kilns (10 million), transportation, mines and quarries and agriculture[1]. Within these sectors, seasonal migrants are mostly employed to do bottom-end tasks, which entail back-breaking labour and high risks; tasks which the local labour would not be willing to undertake.

Notably, social kinship networks and private labor contractors play a pivotal role in shaping migrant labor markets – migrants show clear trends in movement across regions – people from a region move to work at a specific destination, at times far away from the source and defying comprehension. It is striking that most plumbers found in urban India come from select districts of coastal Odisha, in and around Kendrapada. Similarly, most of the master firemen fuelling India’s brick-kilns originate from three adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh – Allahabad, Pratapgarh, and Kausambi. And, all the youth manning the unbranded ice-cream lorries across India named Sawariya, Mewar etc. come from select blocks of Rajsamand and Chittaurgarh in Rajasthan. These are telling examples of social networks in migration and how they shape migrant labor markets. However, known for providing a safety net and access to job opportunities, these informal networks, are also known to perpetuate caste and gender relations and often limit the mobility of workers up the value chain.

Not all migrants face the same set of vulnerabilities. Migration of semi-permanent or long-term circular migrants and seasonal or short-term migrants needs more attention, because seasonal migrants are engaged as casual labour and face difficulties both in establishing and claiming their entitlements. Seasonal or short-duration migrants are more vulnerable and more likely to come from the Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes, and more likely to have lower levels of education, skills, and lower asset ownership than other migrants. NSS statistics show that 54 per cent of short-term migrants fall in the bottom two MPCE quintiles. Notably, incidence of temporary, circular movement is found to be more dominant among women migrant workers. Child migrants, though undercounted, form a significant part of seasonal migrants either migrating alone or with parents. A study by Human Rights Watch finds that bonded child laborers are employed in large numbers to work in brick-kilns, stone quarries, carpet-weaving, bidi rolling etc.

Of Migrant Lives

Most workers join the urban labor markets at an age as young as 13–14 years. As dropouts from school, they lack both education and skills and are forced to undertake manual labour at whatever meager wages it is offered. Lack of skills exacerbates their vulnerabilities, because they are highly replaceable and are found to be frequently rotated across work sites and sectors. The urban labour markets treat them with opportunistic indifference extracting hard labour but denying basic welfare entitlements and often cheating them of hard earned wages. Scattered, ill-informed and uneducated migrants frequently become victims of poor labour practices, unfair wage deduction, and fraudulence. They have little recourse to legal action or redress.

An early departure from the village also means that migrant youth lack all verifiable proof of their identity. The inability to establish one’s identity becomes a cause of frequent harassment by civic authorities and police in the cities. Migrants become easy suspects in case of theft or other crimes. When spoken to, identity related harassment is the most commonly voiced concerns by migrants.

In cities, migrants do not have access to reasonably priced, good quality public facilities for food, health, transportation, and financial services. They are also known for paying much more than the local population for basic services. For lack of access to subsidized ration, expenses on food account for majority of the living costs (40 per cent). In such a scenario, migrants often have inadequate nutritional intake, which affects their ability to work and earn a livelihood in a sustainable manner.

Long working hours, poor living and working conditions and inadequate nutrition often become breeding grounds for health problems. Migrants are highly susceptible to tuberculosis, HIV, and a range of occupational health hazards arising from the risky jobs they enter into. Healthcare seeking behavior is also highly compromised and limited to the informal health service providers who are easily accessible but unqualified, thereby exacerbating their vulnerabilities further.

Women and child migrants form an even more vulnerable group within this community facing serious lack of security at the destination areas. Women in particular face high risks of trafficking and various forms of exploitation, including forced prostitution. Because of the real estate prices in the cities and low disposable incomes, migrants are compelled to live in sub-human conditions on work sites, pavements, filthy, and congested slums, which lack basic amenities and sanitation facilities. This gives rise to issues such as harassment and abuse by the police and local land mafia, increased vulnerability of women and children and risks to health and well-being.  For households that migrate with children, access to good quality education also becomes a significant challenge. As per an estimate, the number of children out of school because of seasonal migration is six million, almost 60 per cent of the total number of children out of school. The fall-out of this exclusion is thus inter-generational, condemning the children to a similar future as their disadvantaged parents [Editor’s Note: See Rosaria-Centrone & Murphy’s papers on migrant children’s education in this issue.]

The root of this exclusion lies in the way economic relations are increasingly structured in the larger economy – relations that incentivize informalization and casualization of labour. Several recent studies analyzing rural livelihoods report that more and more rural households are dependent on wage labor. With a growing trend in capitalistic farming and inadequate investment in agricultural inputs and technology, farming is no more a sustainable or remunerative option. Local livelihood opportunities are scarce, leaving people with no option but to move out of villages.

Of the State and Civil Society Response 

Despite the compelling numbers that underlie this phenomenon and a blatant abuse of human rights, the policies of the Indian state have failed to provide any form of legal or social protection to this vulnerable population. Owing to the highly mobile nature of their employment, migrant workers get excluded from the scope of both urban and rural policy design. This has a significant impact on their access to public amenities and welfare schemes. A large number of migrants are unable to cast their vote and participate in elections because they are highly mobile and are not entitled to vote outside their place of origin. Serious citizenship issues arise as the state machinery does not allow a portability of basic entitlements and workers lose access to state subsidies for the poor, as they move.

Further, most civil society initiatives, caught in the artificial separation of “rural” and “urban geographies and populations miss out on the millions of people, who are in between and can be termed as neither rural nor urban.

In the past few years, there have been certain dedicated attempts to understand the vulnerabilities and concerns of seasonal migrants in India and design solutions and services for migrants in India; focused interventions that would make migration a more secure and dignified experience. These interventions, notably, have been led by civil society organizations working on the increasing casualization and informalization of labour. Aajeevika Bureau, a non-government, public service organization, for instance, has been working in western India reaching out to migrants with the help of targeted livelihood services helping them reduce the vagaries associated with the movement and leverage migration as an opportunity. There are notable interventions on education of migrant’s children, access to health care, legal aid, decent employment opportunities, and more. Given the magnitude, there is a need for a much bigger, stronger, and a concerted policy response, which acknowledges migration as a growing reality in rural livelihoods and makes this rural-urban shift more humane.


Amrita Sharma works with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-governmental, non-profit initiative for providing services, support, and security to rural, seasonal migrant workers, based in Rajasthan, India. She leads the research and training mandate of the organization, working as the coordinator of Center for Migration and Labor Solutions (CMLS). In her academic career, she has published on the subject of agricultural demography, institutionalization of migration, and international remittance management. Amrita has a Master degree in Public Policy and Development Studies from ISS-Hague and CEU, Budapest and a post-graduate Diploma in Rural Management from IRMA, Anand, India.

Rajiv Khandelwal is the Executive Director of Aajeevika Bureau, headquartered in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India. Aajeevika Bureau is a new generation public initiative that provides services, solutions, and social security to rural migrant workers and their communities. Rajiv founded Aajeevika Bureau in 2004 after long years of rural development practice and research experience in India and East Africa. Under his leadership, Aajeevika Bureau has become well known as the first attempt in India to focus on the problems and solutions for India’s millions of internal migrants. He holds a degree in rural management from India’s prestigious Institute of Rural Management, and has written and published extensively on issues of rural livelihood and change.

[1] Deshingkar P. and S. Akter (2009), ‘Migration and Human Development in India’, Human Development Research Paper 2009/13


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Prakash Chandra #

    Orissa Government is a failed government. It has no care for people. There is no governance there. It is clear cut jungle rule. Successive governments have seen to it that Politicians and bureaucrats thrive under their patronage. Rest are left to Lord Jagannath. So it is an appropriate Oriya saying “Jai Jagannath”.

    September 17, 2015

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