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Explainspeaking: What 2020 taught us about India’s internal migration

If one imagines all of India’s internal migrants as one nation then not only would that nation be the third-largest country on the planet — that is, after China and India — but also, it would be roughly double the size of the fourth-largest nation on the planet — the United States

Dear Readers,

It is almost a year since the Covid-induced nationwide lockdowns were announced in India. It may not be an exaggeration to state that the distressing images of migrant workers walking back to their homes — often hungry and utterly hassled, often with small children in tow — with little support from the government is the most enduring memory of that period. The displacement of people has been described as the second-largest since the Partition of the country.

Eleven months since the March 2020 lockdowns, the situation is considerably different.

Covid caseload has declined sharply. The vaccine is being rolled out across the country. Economic activity is on the mend — the Index of Industrial Production has grown and the RBI says capacity utilisation, as well as consumer sentiment, has improved even as retail inflation has finally started receding. Presumably, some, if not all, of the migrant workers have started returning to work.

A couple of key questions, however, remain unanswered.

One, what did India learn about its internal migration patterns in this process and why could we not avoid the disastrous reverse migration? Two, if, god forbid, another similar crisis were to happen again, would we be able to respond better and take better care of migrant workers?

As you might guess, there are no easy answers. But a few things are becoming fairly clear about India’s internal migration.

#1: As of 2020, according to Prof S Irudaya Rajan (Centre for Development Studies, Kerala), India has an estimated 600 million migrants. In other words, roughly half of India is living in a place where it wasn’t born. To further put this number in perspective, if one imagines all these migrants as one nation then not only would that nation be the third-largest country on the planet — that is, after China and India — but also, it would be roughly double the size of the fourth-largest nation on the planet — the United States.

#2: But this doesn’t mean that 600 million Indians were crisscrossing between Indian states in 2020. That’s because the bulk of the internal migration in India is within one district itself. An estimated 400 million Indians “migrate” within the district they live in. The next 140 million migrate from one district to another but within the same state. And only about 60 million — that is, just 10% of all internal migrants — move from one state to another.

#3: From a Covid perspective, the 400 million that migrate within the same district were less of a worry. But 200 million were broadly affected by the Covid disruption. Even within these 200 million, only about 140 millions migrated for earning a livelihood. The balance is family members who migrate with the bread-earner.

#4: There are other misconceptions as well. Typically, it is thought that most migration happens when people from rural areas move to urban areas. That is incorrect. The most dominant form of migration is from rural to rural areas. Only about 20% of the total migration (600 million) is from rural to urban areas.

#5: That is not to suggest that urban migration is not important. In fact, 20% of the total migration is from one urban area to another urban area. As such, urban migration (rural to urban as well as urban to urban) accounts for 40% of the total migration.

#6: But even at these staggeringly high absolute numbers, India’s proportion of internal migrants (as a percentage of the overall population) is much lower than some of the comparable countries such as Russia, China, South Africa and Brazil — all have much higher urbanisation ratios, which is a proxy for migration level. In other words, as India adopts a strategy of rapid urbanisation — for example, by building so-called smart cities and essentially using cities as centres of economic growth — levels of internal migration will increase further.

#7: Coming back to the Covid impact, however, the reality of a migrant worker’s existence is much more complicated than those sharply defined numbers. Not all migrants were equally affected. The worst-hit were a class of migrants that Prof Ravi Srivastava (Director, Centre for Employment Studies, Institute of Human Development) calls “vulnerable circular migrants”. These are people who are “vulnerable” because of their weak position in the job market and “circular” migrants because even though they work in urban settings, they continue to have a foothold in the rural areas. Such migrants work in construction sites or small factories or as rickshaw pullers in the city but when such employment avenues dwindle, they go back to their rural setting. In other words, they are part of the informal economy outside agriculture. And, thanks to the precarious nature of their existence — they constitute 75% of the informal economy outside agriculture — most shocks, be it demonetisation or GST or the pandemic disruption, tend to rob them of their livelihood.

#8: According to Srivastava, close to 60 million moved back to their “source” rural areas in the wake of pandemic-induced lockdowns. That number is roughly six-times the official estimates. That estimate also gives a measure of the sense of labour shock that India’s economy faced as migrants moved back.

So, the answer to the initial query — why couldn’t we take better care of our migrant workers in 2020 — lies, in the words of Alex Paul Menon (Labour Commissioner, Chhattisgarh), in India’s approach to its labour class. “Ignorance fuelled by indifference,” says Menon. “Be it academia, bureaucracy, or the political class, we have to accept that we are ignorant about our labour class and especially about migrant labourers. And this ignorance is borne out of indifference in my understanding,” he says.

The truth is that even now all the estimates mentioned above are individual estimates. The official data — be it the Census or the National Sample Survey — is more than a decade old. In fact, Census 2011 migration data was made publicly available only in 2019.

In the absence of any real measure of understanding about our labour class, it is any surprise that so many suffered when India enforced one of the strictest lockdowns anywhere in the world with just a few hours of notice to the migrant workers who had no resources of their own or any immediate help from the government?

What can be done in terms of policymaking so that this is avoided in the future?

Watch the first in a series of eight webinars that The Indian Express and Omidyar Network India organised last week to find out the answers.

Take care

Udit

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