A double jeopardy

A double jeopardy

Rural-urban migration

Migrants working as construction workers in the city. DH PHOTO/Satish Badiger

Rural-urban migration in India covers a significant population and a vast geography. The Economic Survey 2017 had estimated the magnitude of inter-state migration at close to nine million annually between 2011 and 2016. Census 2011 estimated internal migrants at a staggering 139 million.

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest states of origin, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan; and the major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Kerala. These humongous flows include permanent and semi-permanent migration. This presents a formidable governance challenge. The absence of precise data on the migration flows and a systematic understanding of the experiences of migrants are major gaps in knowledge. This is compounded by the varying patterns of inequality across states and agrarian distress driving people out of agriculture.

Much of this migration is from places of origin that are endemically backward and facing environmental degradation to large cities, in search of livelihood. Typically, the migrants are poor, uneducated and unskilled. They are compelled to live and work in peri-urban areas of large urban agglomerations already stressed by the weight of numbers and facing resource constraints. The migration process is mediated by an elaborate chain of intermediaries that performs the function of sourcing and aggregating poor migrants from the villages and connecting them with city contractors as cheap labour.

Evidence suggests that most migrant workers work in the informal economy — as construction workers, labourers in brick kilns, drivers, cooks or security guards — rendering them vulnerable to exploitative practices such as manipulation in wage rates, non-payment or withholding of wages, long work hours, abysmal work conditions, verbal and physical abuse and, in the case of women, sexual exploitation. This is placing at risk the quality of life of millions of people at origin and destination alike.

There are few studies that examine the long-term consequences of this pattern of migration and how it impacts the economic and social prospects of the poor and socially disadvantaged households. An important policy question is whether migration, as a livelihood strategy, causes double jeopardy, resulting in a decline in the quality of life for the individual and the household at both ends of the migration corridor?

Is migration as a pathway to livelihood security unsustainable and constrains our ability to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1: end poverty in all forms everywhere; SDG 10: reduce inequality within countries; and SDG 11: make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, over the medium to long-term? Between 2001 and 2011, rural migrants in search of work added over 22% to urban population growth — a staggering 18 million migrants.

The hinterland of the large urban agglomerations in India comprises farming-rural communities driven to migration as the inevitable livelihood-coping strategy, often due to extreme climate events. Semi-permanent migration, where the wage earner goes to the city while the family stays back, is a country-wide phenomenon.

At both ends of the migration corridor, inadequate state capacity, imperfect markets, structural inequities and the exclusion of the poorest and the marginalised communities from the governance process bind the migrant and the household to patterns of inter-generational poverty cycles. This frame is common to large parts of the country and hence needs policy, programme and regulatory attention across states.

There is evidence to suggest that the migrant in the urban agglomeration encounters four fundamental problems — the absence of documentation and identity resulting in her remaining in the informal economy or even the shadow economy; social and political exclusion and the privation of being seen as ‘the other’; little or no rights-based access to public services — water and sanitation, healthcare, and education; lack of housing — migrants tend to live in the interstices of urban agglomerations or in slums; and no access to formal financial services as a result, remaining an unbanked population.

While they eke out a living, there is little surplus that they can remit back to the family or save, to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Back home, the absence of the male member renders the family more vulnerable and often results in a perilous social slide. State governments must recognise migration as an opportunity with positive outcomes for the poor, rather than a problem. It is time to mainstream migration management and take two initiatives in this direction: first, working with migrant communities to understand the problems that these ‘invisible people’ face.

The Social Accountability approach, pioneered by citizen-centric think-tanks like Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru, and tools like the Citizen Report Card, the Community Score Card, and the Climate Change Score Card, can help prioritise adaptation and mitigation practices keeping migrant communities at the heart of the analysis. Simply put, it gives voice to the millions of vulnerable migrant workers, seldom heard in decision-making in government.

Second, governance attention needs to focus on migrant populations in the peri-urban areas. Typically, poor migrants reside on the periphery — at the intersection of the rural and the urban administrative boundaries — and are not on the governance radar of either governance unit. The migrant workers receive little attention, if at all, from either, and are often deprived of access to civic amenities such as water and sanitation, housing or access to health care and education. They are left at the mercy of unscrupulous middlemen.

Migration, inter and intra-state, will only grow in the future. An efficient migration process and the portability of skills will be central to the structural transformation of the economy –- the movement of labour from the farm to non-farm sector. Migration management will need both policy and programme attention.

Equally, concerted capacity building and training at the third-tier of governance will be necessary if migrant workers and their families are not to be left behind in India’s development. The state governments must focus on transforming migration into a humane and orderly process.

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru)