The Plight of Migrant Workers in India calls for a National Policy on Internal Migration

By Dr Nitesh Dhawan, Public Servant & Author

The situation of migrant workers stuck during the lockdown period has been of great concern. About 6.3 lakh migrant workers were given shelter in 22,567 government relief camps. Many lost touch with their families. Though state government took several initiatives like providing them shelter homes, food and medical facilities, they became desperate with each passing day about their uncertain future. This prompted governments to make arrangements for their migration. During post-lockdown period, there is a possibility of massive job loss in informal sectors and may take several months to get back on track.

The large scale migration of workers during corona lockdown across the nation has really been an eye opener in many ways. It has drawn attention of people towards the magnitude and depth of the issues pertaining to migrant laborers as one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the recent times. It has also raised serious questions about the purpose that ideologies of economic growth serve to the cause of working class who are themselves the pillars of economic development. In one of his critiques of capitalism, Marx stated that human history has progressed through a series of stages, from ancient slave society through feudalism to capitalism. In each stage a dominant class controlled the means of production and exploited the larger class of workers to its advantage. The capitaltalist classes reap the benefits by paying workers a pittance for long hours and hard work and amass enormous wealth while proletariat falls further into poverty. In this way, capitalism leads to alienation besides inequality, poverty and false consciousness. With heart breaking scenes of workers struggling to reach their homes in a pathetic condition during lockdown period only reiterates the point that nothing has changed much from the Marxian phase as far as dignity of labor is concerned.

Celebrating 1st of May as International Labor Day every year has become a tradition for all of us to recognize and acknowledge the monumental efforts of labor force in our unflinching journey towards development. The revolutionary labor class in Russia used this day as a source for inspiration during their struggle movement. Associated with reducing the working hours of labor, the International Labor Day is the fine example of applauding labor dignity across the world. But ironically, the month of May has brought adversities for the migrant workers across the nation. During the unprecedented corona crisis, most of the labor associations and NGOs working with the textile and garment industry have restrained themselves to situation analysis and drafting of policy guidelines and feeding along with taking care of immigrant workers is not on their agenda. There is no reliable data of stranded migrant workers either.  

According to the 2011 census, almost 326 million or 28.5 percent of the people are internal migrants. As per the Economic Survey 2017, almost 9 million people had moved annually between 2011 and 2016. The lack of employment or seasonal employment, agricultural distress and poverty are the primary reasons that have induced migration.

The increasing share of cities in country’s economic growth would not have been possible without the contribution of migrant workers. However, in a recent study conducted by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), it was found that domestic migrants in a developing country experience substantial decline in mental and physical health. They also face social discrimination in terms of pay scales, housing facilities etc. According to 2014 data, migrant workers earn only two-third of what is earned by non-migrant workers. Migrant children face disruption of regular schooling causing sub-culture of poverty to percolate. To add salt to the injury, some states are in the process of amending the existing labor laws, either suspending altogether or increasing working hours to counter industrial crisis that has emerged due to extended lockdown period. This would dilute the labor protection laws and infringe the basic rights of labor class. The unbridled exploitation of migrant laborers in terms of manipulation of work records, withholding of wages, long working hours, abysmal working conditions etc. necessitate for a National Policy for Internal Migrants.

The National Policy on Internal Migration should focus on building capacities of panchayats and urban local bodies for maintaining a database of migrant workers and make provisions for inter-district and inter-state coordination committees to collaborate for institutional arrangements for migrant workers. It should allow assisted migration through proper mechanisms in place with universal minimum social package for migrants. The central government can take a leaf from Kerala model which is the first State to have social protection scheme for migrant workers. Moreover, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 should be revised to include inter-district migrants, monitoring of unregistered contractors and establishments with other social security provisions.   

Recently , the Centre has apprised to Supreme Court about various measures taken by government for rehabilitation of migrant workers. According to it, about 700 food processing and preservation units along with infrastructure projects have been sanctioned in different parts of the country under PM Kisan Sampada Yojana which provide various employment opportunities for the migrant workers. Similarly there is Scheme of Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries (SFURTI) to enhance the marketability of products of artisans for sustaining employment and providing them with mechanical or electrical traditional tools. These are promising steps but there is a need for organized approach for abating their grievances by formulating a policy framework addressing all issues in a holistic manner.