Migrant Labourers

For over two months the biggest topic of discussion has been COVID-19. The second biggest topic in India has been the plight of migrant labourers. Despite watching their plight on screen, listening & reading about them I realized that there were several unanswered questions. To get the answers I did some research. I feel that my findings would be of some use to the readers.

What is the Number of Migrant Labourers in India?

·       As per MHA report there are approximately 4 crore migrant labourers in India. During the lockdown approximately 75 lac of these returned to their homes. As per the census of 2011 the migrant labourers were 13.9 crore. As per a Live mint report approximately 10 crore migrant labourers were responsible for 10% of India’s GDP. Since the present government has a tendency to hide data & prone to lying it would be sensible to assume that the figure would be between 10-14 crore.

·       State wise breakdown: Professor Kundu’s estimates show that UP and Bihar account for the origin of 25 percent and 14 per cent of the total inter-state migrants, followed by Rajasthan and MP, at 6 percent and 5 per cent. A very rough estimate of the number of workers from the states of origin is given below ( through my research; references are given below):

o   UP: 2.5 crore.

o   Bihar: 1.4 crore.

o   Rajasthan: 60 lac.

o   MP: 50 lac.

o   Orissa: 20 lac.

o   Jharkhand: 5 lac.

o   Chhattisgarh: Below 1 lac.

o   Andhra Pradesh: Below 1 lac.

o   Northeast states: Below 1 lac.

·       Host states: The states hosting the workers from other states along with numbers are:

o   Maharashtra (excluding Mumbai): Over 1 crore.

o   Mumbai: Over 1 crore.

o   Delhi: 70 lac-1 crore.

o   Gujarat:22.5 lac.

o   Punjab: Over 10 lac (over 7 lac in Ludhiana).

o   Haryana: 8-10 lac.

o   Karnataka: 6 lac.

o   Tamil Nadu: 4-5 lac.

Main Reasons for Migration

·       Permanent: Major sectors of employment: Textile, mining & quarrying, brick making & transportation.

o   Rural poverty is the prime reason for migration of males (Almost 66% of India’s population is rural; approximately 44% of the population is engaged in agriculture and generates only 15% of India’s GDP).

o   56% of males migrated for employment.

o   Other reasons were family, business and education.

o   70% of migrants were females. Marriage is the prime reason for migration of females.

·       Semi-permanent: Sectors for employment:

o   Construction.

o   Domestic work.

o   Textile.

o   Brick manufacturing.

o   Transportation.

o   Mining and quarrying.

o   Agriculture.

·       Seasonal: Agriculture.

Major Problems of Migrant Labourers


o   The overall birth registration rate in the country is 34.7 percent. UP and Bihar have birth registration rates of 6.5 percent and 1.6 percent, respectively. This means that many labour migrants are undocumented when they arrive in the receiving community. Though national policy entitles migrants to a new ration card as long as they remove their names from their ration cards at home, in practice they find it difficult to do this. Reasons: Lack of knowledge, uncertainty, corruption & so on.

o   The basic problem of establishing identity results in a loss of access to entitlements and social services. Lack of identification means migrants are not able to access provisions such as subsidized food, fuel, health services, or education that are meant for the economically vulnerable sections of the population.

o   Overall, discrimination in the provision of rights and entitlements combined with internal migrants’ identity as outsiders in the receiving society often perpetuate the economic and political exclusion of many groups, and suggest that there are deeply exclusionary trends in India’s democracy.


o   Migration and slums are inextricably linked, as labour demand in cities and the resulting rural-to-urban migration creates greater pressures to accommodate more people. In 2011, 6.8 crore Indians lived in slums. Across the country, the experiences of slum dwellers are characterized by sudden evictions without adequate rehabilitation and local governments that do not provide low-cost housing for the urban poor.

·       Slum dwellers who are migrants sometimes face the added challenge of establishing tenure—the right to remain on a particular piece of urban land, and the right to compensation if the dwelling on that land is seized by the government for redevelopment.

·       However, many seasonal migrants are not even able to “make it” to the slums. Unaffordable rents in slums force them to live at their workplaces (such as construction sites and hotel dining rooms), shop pavements, or in open areas in the city. This further perpetuates their vulnerability to harassment by the police and other local authorities.

Limited Access to Formal Financial Services

·       Despite the economic imperatives that drive migration, migrant workers essentially remain an unbanked population. Since migrants do not possess permissible proofs of identity and residence, they fail to satisfy theKYC norms. They are thus unable to open bank accounts in cities. This has implications on the savings and remittance behaviours of migrant workers.

·       In the absence of banking facilities, migrants lack suitable options for safe-keeping of their money. In order to avoid the risk of theft, they are forced to wait for long periods to settle their wages. This makes them vulnerable to cheating and non-payment of wages at the hands of contractors and middlemen. Sometimes, they are forced to avail safe-keeping services from local shopkeepers, who charge a fee for this service.

·       Many migrant workers end up resorting to informal channels to send money home. In the case of short-distance migration, workers end up carrying money themselves which poses a potential threat of mugging or personal injury. Long-distance migrants use courier systems or bus drivers who charge high service rates. Formal remittance services by private providers are mired by questions of legality, which means that a company like a domestic Western Union is unable to operate in India. The government does run a money transfer service, but it is sparsely used due to long delays and corruption.

Political Exclusion

·       In a state of continuous drift, migrant workers are deprived of many opportunities to exercise their political rights. Since they are not entitled to vote outside of their place of origin, some are simply unable to cast their votes. A 2011 study on the political inclusion of seasonal migrant workers by Amrita Sharma and her co-authors found that 22 percent of seasonal migrant workers in India did not possess voter IDs or have their names in the voter list. The study noted that “migrants leave their home at an age as early as 13-14. The voter ID is issued at an age of 18 or more. When they become eligible to get a voter ID, their work life is at its peak. Many migrants reported to not have the time to get their voter IDs made … and a staggering 83 percent of long distance migrants reported missing voting in elections at least once because they were away from home seeking livelihood options.” Because of this, migrant workers are often left unable to make political demands for entitlements or seek reforms.

·       Local politics also have major implications for internal migrants. The intersection of local identity politics and migration creates political volatility in many cities and regions across India, including in Assam in the Northeast, Andhra Pradesh in the South, as well as cities across Northern India.

·       The politics of Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, are an important example of the clash between migration and local identity politics. About 42 percent of Mumbai is Maharashtrian, and in 2001, migrants from other states accounted for 26 percent of the population in the Mumbai Urban Agglomeration (as compared to 4 percent in India as a whole). Mumbai is known both for its diversity of linguistic and cultural communities, as well as its decades-long history of anti-migrant politics. Since the 1960s, nativist political parties have claimed that migrants threaten Marathi culture and usurp job opportunities, residential space, and amenities that rightfully belong to the local Maharashtrian population. Historically, the Shiv Sena political party has been the anti-migrant voice in Mumbai’s politics. In the late 1960s, the Sena demanded that jobs be reserved for locals and was especially hostile to the Tamil migrant population that occupied middle-class jobs in Mumbai in the 1970s. Pressure from the Shiv Sena led to concessions from the Congress party, such as measures that gave preference to Maharashtrians for state government jobs. Today’s virulent anti-migrant party in Mumbai’s politics is an offshoot of the Shiv Sena—the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS; translated as the Maharashtra Renaissance Army). The MNS accuses North Indian migrants of taking jobs that they claim rightfully belong to local Maharashtrians. In 2008, after a fiercely anti-migrant speech by MNS leader Raj Thackeray in which he accused migrants of swamping Maharashtra, MNS supporters attacked North Indian migrants in Mumbai and other cities. Hundreds of thousands of migrants fled the state as a result. Orchestrated riots and violent political campaigns routinely target these migrants and protest their presence in the city.

·       Mumbai is a particularly stark example of local identity politics that marginalize internal migrant populations, but it also reflects a basic reality of the Indian states system, which is organized by language and cultural groups: since most Indian states are, by design, the local homelands of India’s different ethnic and linguistic groups, migration between states often creates competitive politics between migrants and locals.

Rampant Exploitation

·       Migration flows are mediated by an elaborate chain of contractors and middlemen who perform the critical function of sourcing and recruiting workers. The lowest links in this chain are most often older migrants who are part of the same regional or caste-based social network in the rural areas. The chain, then progresses toward destination- based contractors who aggregate workers from different geographies and link them finally with the principal employers.

·       While these networks do serve the purpose of providing migrants with information and subsequent access to work opportunities, they largely operate in the informal economy. There are no written contracts, no enforceable agreements regarding wages or other benefits, and no commitments regarding regular provision of work.

·       Migrants, completely dependent on the middlemen for information, end up working in low-end, low-value, hard, and risky manual labour and are constantly subject to exploitation with little or no opportunity for legal recourse. Their work lives are characterized by exploitative practices such as manipulation in wage rates and work records, non-payment or withholding of wages, long work hours, abysmal work conditions, and verbal and physical abuse. Female workers, especially in the domestic and construction sectors, are often sexually exploited in return for the offer of regular work. Accidents and deaths at workplaces are also extremely common in the construction sector, which is aggravated by the absence of any kind of social protection.

·       The presence of such elaborate contractor networks also means that it is almost impossible to fix accountability for most practices described. The worker never comes in touch with the principal employer who is thus easily able to absolve himself of any responsibility with regard to the welfare of workers.

·       The fact that migrants are dispersed throughout a vast urban or rural canvas also seriously inhibits their potential to organize themselves in formal or informal ways. This further weakens their bargaining power in terms of wages, benefits, and working conditions.


·       The magnitude and variety of internal migration flows in India, as well as the distresses associated with them, are enormous. A basic overview of this complex phenomenon makes clear that in spite of the vast contributions of migrants to India’s economy, the social protections available to them still remain sparse.

·       While the state and market have failed in providing protections to these millions of internal migrants, civil-society interventions across various high migration pockets in India offer a number of successful, context-specific solutions that the government can adapt and build upon in order to protect this marginalized segment of workers. A concerted national strategy that ensures access to entitlements and basic work conditions will be essential in building a sustainable and equitable pathway to progress. 

·       The first step should be to get them identity and voter ID cards. Till such time this happens our political parties are likely to continue to ignore them.


·       https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/4-crore-migrant-workers-in-india-75-lakh-return-home-so-far-mha/articleshow/75927222.cms

·       https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/india-has-139-million-internal-migrants-we-must-not-forget-them/

·       https://www.livemint.com/news/india/why-india-s-migrants-deserve-a-better-deal-11589818749274.html

·       https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/coronavirus-india-lockdown-migran-workers-mass-exodus-6348834/

·       https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-heres-what-census-data-show-about-migrations-to-mumbai/

·       https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi-news/delhi-has-highest-share-of-inter-state-migrants/story-QCYXSWlnSYAJbNb25ljcPL.html

·       https://hwnews.in/uncategorized/gujarat-hc-slams-govt-ober-high-deaths-asks-to-pay-for-migrants-train-fare/137757

·       http://www.aajeevika.org/labour-and-migration.php

·       https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/internal-labor-migration-india-raises-integration-challenges-migrants#:~:text=Labor%20migration%20flows%20include%20permanent,and%20characteristics%20of%20circular%20migrants.

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