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India has 139 million internal migrants.

They must not be forgotten | World Economic Forum 10/2/17, 6)57 AM

India has 139 million internal migrants.

They must not be forgotten

Seasonal migrants dominate the low-paying, hazardous and informal market jobs in key sectors in India
Image: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

01 Oct 2017

Krishnavatar Sharma
Co-Founder and Director, Aajeevika Bureau

This article is part of the India Economic Summit

According to the State of World Population report, more than half of the worlds population
lives in urban areas, and the number is steadily growing every year. India, where the majority of
the population is still dependent on agriculture, is no exception to this trend. As per the
census, the level of urbanization in India has increased from 27.81% in 2001 to 31.16% in Page 1 of 6
India has 139 million internal migrants. They must not be forgotten | World Economic Forum 10/2/17, 6)57 AM

2011. Urbanization in India is a consequence of demographic explosion and poverty-induced

rural-urban migration.

The Economic Survey of India 2017 estimates that the magnitude of inter-state migration in
India was close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016, while Census 2011 pegs the
total number of internal migrants in the country (accounting for inter- and intra-state
movement) at a staggering 139 million. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest source states,
followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir
and West Bengal; the major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat,
Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

Not so smart cities

To address this issue of growing urbanization, the government of India launched the 100
Smart Cities Mission in 2015 among other urban development projects. It has also pledged
massive investments in the smart cities project. In the last few years, smart cities have become
a prominent buzzword among technologists, urban planners, the government and the private

While smart cities may or may not find solutions to the issues of urbanization in India, they
have already left behind a major chunk of its population: the poor and marginalized. Among
these poor and marginalized lies the doubly peripheral and ignored section of seasonal
migrants. When urban planners discuss the issues of urbanization and provide smart solutions,
they completely miss accounting for migrant workers as part of the city.

To devise policies and provide services for seasonal migrant workers, the state needs to have
a realistic statistical account of their number and an understanding of the nature of their
mobility. Unfortunately, the Indian state fails on both accounts. Official agencies tend to
underestimate short-term movements, and thus play down or miss seasonal migration
altogether, which according to recent field studies account for the bulk of migratory
movements for work. Further, census data is collected after a gap of 10 years and is stock
data, unable to capture the sharp increase in mobility that has occurred in India.

Vulnerabilities faced by seasonal migrants Page 2 of 6
India has 139 million internal migrants. They must not be forgotten | World Economic Forum 10/2/17, 6)57 AM

Seasonal migrants dominate the low-paying, hazardous and informal market jobs in key
sectors in urban destinations, such as construction, hotel, textile, manufacturing,
transportation, services, domestic work etc.

They have poor access to health services, which results in very poor occupational health.
Since they cannot afford private hospitals, they often go back to their villages once they fall
sick. This affects their employment opportunities, as well as the loss of wages. A large number
of migrants find work as unskilled labourers since they enter the job market at a very early age,
experience no upward mobility and remain stuck in the most unskilled, poorly paid and
hazardous jobs for their whole work-life span. As depicted in the graphic below detailing the
economic lifestyle of migrant workers in south Rajasthan, this has severe inter-generational
implications, transferring vulnerability, poor health and low level of skills from the parents to

Vulnerabilities of the migrant workforce

In an unorganized and chaotic labour market, migrant workers regularly face conflicts and
disputes at worksites. The common issues they face are non-payment of wages, physical
abuse, accidents and even death. The existing legal machinery is not sensitive to the nature of
legal disputes in the unorganized sector. Many informal sector disputes never make their way
to labour courts or keep languishing in courts for lack of proof.

The cities were built on the hard labour and exploitation of migrant workers, but they never
entered the consciousness of the architects; instead, they are considered part of the problem
in cities. The political class ignores them because they dont count as votes, especially in the
case of inter-state migrants. Due to their mobile nature, they dont find any place in the
manifestos of trade unions. They spend their whole day on worksites and silently sneak into Page 3 of 6
India has 139 million internal migrants. They must not be forgotten | World Economic Forum 10/2/17, 6)57 AM

perilous shelters at night, without the cities even noticing them.

Ahmedabad's migrant army

Ahmedabad, which is the seventh-largest metropolitan area in India with a population of over 6
million, is an important economic and industrial hub. There are approximately 1.3 to 1.7 million
labour migrants in the city. They come from all directions in north, west and eastern India. Over
the years they have come to be identified with specific sectors tribal migrants from Madhya
Pradesh and Rajasthan form the construction workforce; seasonal migrants from Bihar are
head-loaders and cart pushers; migrants from Uttar Pradesh dominate as factory workers and
drivers; Oriyas are mostly associated with plumbing work, and the diamond cutting industry is
made up of people from Saurashtra. A large majority of them hail from historically marginalized
groups such as the SCs and STs, which adds an additional layer of vulnerability to their urban

These seasonal migrant workers have carved spaces for themselves in the most inhospitable
places in Ahmedabad. The choices are varied: rented rooms, open spaces, slums, pavements,
worksites, etc. While the rented rooms are severely congested, open spaces are insecure
arrangements exposed to the public gaze and eviction drives by the Ahmedabad Municipal
Corporation. The most vulnerable of these are the seasonal migrant workers who live on the
worksites themselves while it helps them save money, it also makes them available for work
24 hours a day.

Migration from different parts of the country to the city of Ahmedabad has formed numerous
channels of exploitation. Recruited from villages through an elaborate network of contractors,
migrant workers end up being a vulnerable workforce that can be subjugated and disciplined
easily. The system has become so openly abusive and brutal that migrants find it easier to find
work in other states rather than in their own. The contract labour system and a loose
monitoring and regulating state apparatus has only helped strengthen these unfair models and
practices in the migrant job market.

Building visibility for migrant workers

In the absence of state apparatus, Aajeevika Bureau has devised innovative ways to provide a Page 4 of 6
India has 139 million internal migrants. They must not be forgotten | World Economic Forum 10/2/17, 6)57 AM

host of services and solutions to migrant workers in Ahmedabad. Through its Shramik
Sahayata evam Sandharab Kendras (3SKs), it has delivered services to migrant workers and
developed on-the-ground networks to address their issues.

It provides registration and photo IDs to migrant workers that are helpful in emergencies,
employer verification,and at banks. Since the migrant workers have limited access to formal
financial services, Aajeevika has partnered with the State Bank of India to provide assistance.
Aajeevika has successfully provided registration and photo ID proofs to 16,904 seasonal
migrants in Ahmedabad.

Aajeevika also provides legal education, counseling and mediation through its lawyers and
paralegal workers. A total of 552 legal cases and wage-related disputes have been registered,
out of which 345 have been successfully solved. A total amount of INR 64,29,236 has been
settled in favour of the workers. On-the-job training is provided to migrant workers in
construction, factory work and hotel sectors, catering to their specific needs. This helps to
raise wages, enables better placements and improves their self-esteem and dignity. Over
1,000 young people received vocational training, and 690 placements have been made over
the last decade in Ahmedabad.

It also runs Amrit primary health clinics through which it organises health camps, provides
consultation, drugs and referrals. Similarly, creches for children of migrant workers, especially
at construction sites, are also being run. Aajeevika Bureau has also created platforms for
collective action, problem-solving and advocacy.

The challenges are still complex and the lack of recognition for migrants is still to be fully
addressed. Unless we view migrant workers as a dynamic part of a changing India, we will not
be able to solve the problem of urbanization.

Written by

Krishnavatar Sharma, Co-Founder and Director, Aajeevika Bureau

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum. Page 5 of 6
India has 139 million internal migrants. They must not be forgotten | World Economic Forum 10/2/17, 6)57 AM

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