Dealing with Short-Term Migration


Oct 4th 2007, C.P Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh

Probably more than at any time in the past, the Indian economy is being fuelled by the movement of labour. The current rapid growth of the Indian economy is certainly fuelled by movements of labour - from villages to other villages, towns and cities; within and across districts, states and even national borders.

Such migration is not only a sign of dynamism – it reflects increasing inequalities, agrarian crisis and inadequate livelihood generation in many parts of rural and urban India. Apparently, a growing part of it is short-term and often repeated, although destinations may change. And while it has already created huge changes in the lives and work patterns of ordinary Indians, these consequences are yet to be adequately recognised and addressed by public policy.

The ways in which this migration has contributed to macroeconomic stability are numerous. Remittances sent back to India by Indians working abroad (dominantly but not exclusively in oil-exporting countries of the Gulf and West Asia) have generated current account surpluses and contributed more to the Indian balance of payments since the early 1990s than all forms of capital inflow out together. Internal migration has played a crucial role in allowing rural people to cope with the consequences of agrarian distress and the ravaged rural economy in many parts of India.

Large construction activities in many Indian cities, as well as other major public works, depend upon labour drawn from villages as far apart as Andhra Pradesh and eastern Bihar. Migrants from across the eastern borders of India fill many service sector occupations, and even formal industries rely on migrant workers to fill in the “casual labour” slots in their workforce, and to provide support services that reduce the costs of other labour. Large farmers in places as distant as Haryana and Maharashtra rely on seasonally migrant labour for cultivation.

Much of this is not new. But there are new features: the increasing incidence of women travelling – on their own or in groups – to find work; the greater willingness of many to travel long distances for short-term work or even without the promise of any work; the sheer extent of mass migrations from certain areas; the growing likelihood of finding evidence of some migration in almost every part of India.

Not all of this migration in recent years has been because of push factors. There is no doubt that the availability of work in the Middle East and in other countries, as well as the growing demand for more skilled workers such as software engineers and teachers in the developed world, have played a role in increasing cross-border migration. But a very substantial part, especially of internal migration, is distress-led, driven by the complete collapse of rural employment generation, the economic difficulties of cultivation and also the inadequate employment opportunities in towns.

This is why most migrant workers in India today are poor and with few of the resources or social networks that could smoothen what can be a traumatic and painful process. Yet public policy does little to alleviate this – in fact, most public interventions and regulations work effectively to make the process even more difficult and traumatic.

One reason for this is because our statistical system is not really designed to capture short-term migration, and so policy makers also may remain simply unaware of the sheer extent and likely increase in this phenomenon. The Census of India, for example, captures only permanent migration, by asking respondents if they had previously lived somewhere else, and how long ago that was. Even in this there is likelihood of some under-enumeration, especially of destitute migrants without fixed address or defined home structures, since the Census covers households.

The National Sample Survey is slightly better, in that it tries to capture some short-term migration of two months' duration or longer. However, there too there are problems in the way the sample is structured, since it is household-based. Further, the nature of the questions asked (migrants must have spent at least 60 days in the previous year away from their place of residence) tends to leave out those who travel on a seasonal basis for shorter periods (say a few weeks or a month in the lean agricultural season) as well as those who commute fairly long distances to work on a regular basis.

Chart 1 >>

Chart 1 provides information on the aggregate migration rates according to the NSS, which includes both long-term migration and that which the NSS defines a short-term migration for work. The rates in Chart 1 refer to per cent of population, and it is immediately evident these rates are significantly higher for women than men in both urban and rural areas. Further, the evidence suggests, if anything, a slight decline in these migration rates over successive NSS rounds. (The data for the latest round, 2004-05, have not yet been released.)
Chart 2a >> Chart 2b>> Chart 2c>> Chart 2d>>

The reason for this is amply evident from Charts 2a to 2d – that is, women still migrate dominantly for marriage, and to a much lesser extent as girl children moving with the rest of the family. Indeed, marriage accounts for between 80 to 90 per cent of recorded permanent migration of women. For men, migration is due to more varied causes – work dominates for urban men, while work and marriage/family reasons are equally important for rural men.

However, the phenomenon of short-term or seasonal migration that was mentioned at the start of this article is generally not captured in these figures. The NSS data on short-term migration (of more than 60 days duration in a year) for work is a closer approximation, and that reveals a different pattern for both men and women. This is presented in Table 1.

Table 1 >>

This reveals that such absence in search of work is higher among rural than urban workers, and that it is highest (for both male and workers) among casual labour and those who are usually unemployed. Gender gaps in migration for such work are much smaller than they are in permanent migration for work.

Such migration is also affected by levels of living and the extent of poverty. Charts 3 and 4 show that for rural workers, those in the lowest expenditure class (in terms of mean per capita monthly expenditure) have a greater tendency to engage in such short-term migration, and that in general such migration decreases as the per capita household expenditure increases.
Chart 3 >> Chart 4 >>

For rural women engaging in this type of movement for work, the tendency was higher among the poorest groups, or lowest expenditure categories, and to a lesser extent among the richest groups.

This reinforces the conclusion about the complex nature of short-term migration today, which can be a liberating force reflecting expansion of opportunities for some, and a desperate source of livelihood as part of a survival strategy of the household, for others.

While the aggregate data may not tell us very much, evidence from the field in different parts of India suggests that there are some relatively new features of short-term migration for work in India. These re obviously not completely new, but it is likely that their incidence has increased. Thus, there are many more examples of women traveling – on their own or in groups – to find work, and also a greater willingness of both men and women to travel long distances for short-term work or even without the promise of any work. There have been reports of mass migrations from certain areas, and there is increasing likelihood of finding evidence of some migration in almost every part of India.

Despite this, public policy is alarmingly inadequate in terms of recognizing and dealing with migration. These inadequacies cover both points of origin and destination. Consider the conditions for would-be migrants at their place of residence: there are no official strategies for providing information regarding employment in source areas or assistance in ensuring contract with minimum wages and acceptable work conditions.

Then, there are no attempts to ease process of travel – workers left to mercy of contractors or to manage on their own. There is little public consideration for safety of migrants (especially women migrants). Often no basic facilities (housing sanitation, etc) at provided at the destination – for example, construction workers often have to live in tents or makeshift homes, provide their own food, manage without proper sanitation, and so on.

Typically for such short-term migrants there is no public provision of schools, crèches or medical services. Nor is there anything resembling work protection at the destination: there are no public help centres for migrants,
no information offices, no complaint cells, indeed no mechanisms to redress any grievances, such as non-payment of wages, bad conditions of work, physical exploitation or violence. Instead, local officialdom in the destination typically views migrants as vagrants or nuisances, behaves aggressively or exploits them.

Further, there is little official recognition of the social dislocation caused by such short-term migration, and very rarely are there any interventions planned or implemented for families left behind. This especially a problem for families of migrant women with young children. There are issues of care of the young, the old and the sick. In addition, in poor households there are issues of daily survival of members left behind with uncertain remittance income.

All these difficulties are compounded by the fact that our public service delivery is essentially residence based, requiring proof of residence at every point. This affects the access of short-term migrants to a very wide range of essential goods and services: food from the Public Distribution System; preventive health care including vaccinations; curative care in public health facilities; maternity benefits and infant care through anganwadis; schools for children; employment guarantee scheme and other public works; micro-credit schemes and institutional loans.

And finally, such short-term migration can even lead to the loss of political voice and voting rights, because of exclusion from voters' lists, or being away when the voting is actually taking place. This is true of elections at all levels: national, state assembly, panchayat elections. Being on the move also naturally affects active participation in gram sabhas, which are now being seen as an important tool for democratization of many public delivery systems.

It is clearly time for policy makers and the public in general to become much more sensitive to its manifold implications, and to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that something driven by distress does not create further trauma.

This requires measures at different levels. There should be active interventions for the protection of and assistance to migrants at both source and destination areas. The provision of public services must be revamped so as to reduce reliance on residence-based qualification. There have to be special provisions to ensure continued voting rights and political voice of migrant workers. And obviously, it is important to address the central cause of distress migration by improving economic conditions in the rural areas.


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