with Short-Term Migration
4th 2007, C.P Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh
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
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
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
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
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 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.)
2a >> Chart
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.
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.
3 >> Chart
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
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
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
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.