Faceless and dispossessed: India’s circular migrants in the times of COVID-19

The 2011 Census said India has 454 million migrants, 54 million of whom are interstate workers. But the data accounts for a fraction of workers in circulation 

By Priya Deshingkar
Published: Tuesday 16 June 2020

India’s model of capitalism and social reproduction among the elite has depended heavily on a precarious workforce that circulates between underdeveloped regions and the urban informal sector, industrial zones and middle-class homes.

A significant chunk of workers are interstate migrants. They come from poor, historically disadvantaged castes and classes and work outside suffocating agrarian relations of serfdom and indebtedness, patriarchal norms and stagnant wages in the countryside.

But these migrant men and women are adversely incorporated into urban and industrial economies — they work low-paying jobs, do not have formal contracts and are outside the reach of the law.

They provide critical labour that sustains India’s economy, but remain on the margins. In the already precarious existence, the abrupt lockdown prompted by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and loss of livelihood resulted in a migrant exodus, which has been compared to the great migration during Partition.

So how many circular migrants are we talking about?

This seems to be the burning question, especially since state governments, labour departments and other agencies have been scrambling to find representative data. According to the 2011 Census, India has 454 million migrants, out of whom only 54 million are interstate migrants.

But we have known for some time that these numbers are gross underestimates and account for only a fraction of workers in circulation. In order to address the imbalance, I estimated the extent of circular migration in India at 100 million just over a decade ago, based on industry estimates by sub-sector. The data is backed by rigorous empirical studies.

According to my calculations, migrant workers contributed to about 10 per cent of the national gross domestic product.

Given the galloping pace of development in export industries such as textiles and other domestic industries over the last decade, it is time to revisit these numbers. Let us examine the key sectors that provide employment to migrants with few formal qualifications. My calculations, based on estimates from reliable and established industrial development agencies, international organisations and non-profits are as follows.

The textile and garment industry employed 119 million workers in 2015 at a time when its market value was $108.5 billion. Given that the industry is on a growth trajectory with a projected market share of $223 billion by 2021 and the trends point towards outsourcing, piece rate and informalisation, it is likely that the numbers of workers would have doubled and most of them would be in the informal sector.

Studies of Tirupur and the National Capital Region clusters show that 70-100 per cent workers are interstate migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other poor states, while the Bengaluru cluster employs mainly intrastate migrants. Thus, one can conservatively assume that at least 100 million migrants work in this sector.

Another giant is the construction industry which employs around 60 million workers, mainly migrants working as carpenters, masons and plumbers. Add to this the growing number of migrant female domestic workers coming from impoverished parts of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh to work in middle-class homes in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and other cities.

According to International Labour Organization estimates, there are 20-90 million domestic workers in India. If we take an average of the two and assume that at least half are migrants, the estimate is roughly 27.2 million.

Other significant employers of circular migrants are brick kilns, which has 23 million workers, according to Anti-Slavery International, an internation non-profit. This is followed by small scale mines (12 million); street vendors (10 million); rickshaw pullers (10 million); and gem polishers and cutters (1.5 million).

These numbers add up to 243 million and would be higher if we were to include other significant sub-sectors, including fisheries and seafood processing, footwear, ceramics and leatherwork.

My informed guess is that the overall number is close to 250 million. But let us not get obsessed with precise numbers — it is the overall scale that I want to draw attention to — and the fact that the lockdown was imposed without a thought to workers who lost their livelihoods and accommodation overnight.

I believe this was due to the interconnected problem of inaccurate data and because a majority of disenfranchised migrants were lower caste and poor. It was only after their plight became visible and there was public outcry that action was taken.

But even this has been fraught with problems: The relief package of Rs 3,500 crore to feed stranded migrants and Shramik trains and take them home, have failed to reach a majority of migrants who lack of documents such as Aadhaar cards or registration under the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act.

First-hand accounts from the Stranded Workers Action Network and others indicate that only 10-25 per cent workers have left so far and a second, larger wave of return migration is expected.

Migrants have lost faith in the city and many have vowed to not return. Even though migrants are extolled for their tenacity in the face of adversity, few will forget the humiliation of being abandoned in the time of need. Many do not even know who their bosses are due to multiple layers of subcontracting.

The arrogance and indifference to the plight of poor, lower caste and uneducated labouring classes continues and is manifest even in the relief measures provided — there have been reports of Shramik trains not providing food or water to their passengers in a dignified manner.

Till date, only five million workers have been sent home on these trains and many more are waiting to go home. Taking advantage of the gap in services, an industry of dalals has sprung up and it charges Rs 3,000 or more to take them home. Here, too, those without the means are being left behind.

The response of the authorities to this has been to take migrants off unauthorised vehicles and place them in detention centres. Migrants continue to travel on foot, tempos, buses and other means, often at night to evade detection. They have been criminalised in their own country.

It may not be too late for the government to amend its approach and offer rapid assistance on a humanitarian basis without insisting on documentation. Help could be offered on the basis of community validation — numerous good citizens and civil society organisations who are offering help on the ground could be asked to help the authorities to identify who should be given assistance.

Likewise, government should move away from a system where its own agencies have a monopoly on generating migration data and involve others who generate statistics of their own. This is critical for understanding the scope of invisible migrant workers who are hard to reach through conventional surveys. 

Finally, serious steps must be taken to provide migrant workers with greater security at destination including insurance against loss of pay due to shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of proof of identity and domicile.

More also needs to be done to support vulnerable families whose breadwinners have returned. State governments are starting to set up commissions to provide migrants jobs and business loans, but they should consult them to better understand their aspirations.

Here, too, the identification of beneficiaries should be done through community involvement rather than government alone to ensure fair distribution.

For more, refer to Circular Migration and Multilocational Livelihood Strategies in Rural India, OUP

Priya Deshingar is professor of Migration and Development, University of Sussex

Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth


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