Migrant labourers are the most disenfranchised invisible citizens: political scientist Ashwani Kumar

It is shocking that those who build fantasy cities not only can’t own a home of their own but also can’t vote in elections, says political scientist Ashwani Kumar

Updated - May 31, 2020 10:40 pm IST

Published - May 31, 2020 10:28 pm IST

Political scientist Ashwani Kumar.

Political scientist Ashwani Kumar.

Political scientist Ashwani Kumar, whose forthcoming co-edited book titled Migration and Mobility is to be out soon, speaks on migration, inter-State workers and amendment to the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979.

Also read: Will migrant workers benefit from the Centre’s measures?

The COVID-19 crisis for India has also become a humanitarian one involving inter-State migrants on return journeys home racked by pain and suffering and no surety of any income going ahead. Could we have an idea about the contours of this migration?

There is a wealth of theoretical and empirical literature on the reasons behind short-term seasonal and circular migratory flows in India. For a majority of migrant labourers , migration is either a livelihood accumulation strategy or survival risk reducing strategy whichever way we define the nature of migration. The migration studies also confirm that the migrant labourers are the most exploited and also disenfranchised invisible citizens of contemporary India. It’s shocking that those who build fantasy cities not only can’t own a home of their own but also can’t vote in elections and treated like almost ‘as second-class citizens’. This double tragedy of migrant life is ironically further exploited by sons of soil politicians in various States of India.


According to the Census of India, 2011, more than 450 million Indians (37%) are internal migrants who change their residence within a country’s national borders. About 30% of the migrants are youth aged 15-29 years and another 15 million are children. Women migrants are less represented in regular jobs and more likely to be self-employed than non-migrant women. Domestic work has emerged as an important occupation for migrant women and girls. Facing relentless bouts of gender discrimination at home, and on the farms as wage workers, these migrant women are forced into various forms of servitude in the domestic spaces of affluent city dwellers.

Also read: How will govt. help migrant workers when it doesn’t have basic data about them: Cong.

Is there more granular data on migration?

Prominent migration scholars like Priya Deshingkar suggest that around two-thirds of internal migrants are concentrated in rural areas, while around one-third are concentrated in urban areas in India. Males dominate the inter-State and inter-district streams of migration, while females dominate the intra-district stream of migration. Studies suggest that household members were found to migrate in various combinations — men only, women only, men and women, and men, women and children. Described as ‘footloose workers’ in migration studies, about 100 millions of workers/labourers circulate from place to place never with the intention to settle down, but to return to their native villages and towns once a job is completed or when a working season comes to an end. In between migration and settlement for employment and livelihoods, these footloose army of migrants are often denied welfare rights in their destination place and imposed debilitating transaction costs in case they decided to negotiate their citizenship rights.

Also read: Will migrant workers benefit from the Centre’s measures?

What is the distribution in terms of caste and gender deprivation and type of work that migrants move home to do?

Research studies suggest that Scheduled Tribes are several times more likely to migrate compared with upper castes, followed closely by the Scheduled Castes who are more likely to migrate than OBCs, and then by Backward Castes (BCs) who are more likely to migrate. Upper caste households with some assets migrate for better opportunities but not for coping strategy. Short-term migrants are engaged mostly as casual labour and mostly remain invisible and often face exploitative labour practices. Such migrants are often found as construction workers, brick kiln workers, auto drivers, rickshaw pullers, sex workers, private security guards, household help, cab drivers, dabbawalas , presswalas , courier workers, beauty parlour workers, plantation workers etc. Field studies by leading migration scholar R.B. Bhagat indicate that the lead source States of internal migrants are Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu, whereas key destination areas are Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab and Karnataka. According to a UNESCO study, Surat at 58% has the highest percentage of migrant labour population in India, while the percentage of migrant population is 43% for Mumbai and Delhi. Internal migration has become so ubiquitous that Kerala, long known for “Kerala model” of human development and land of expatriates, has embarrassingly become a ‘rainbow country’ of migrants. Pouring mainly from West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Maharashtra, domestic migrants are now estimated at 25 lakh in Kerala. Micro studies conducted by research institutions and NGOs suggest that around 80 million short-term migrants are working in India, including: 40 million in the construction industry, 20 million domestic workers, 7 million sex workers and around 12 million who work in illegal mines.

Editorial | Belated, but welcome: On Supreme Court move on migrant workers

There are calls for the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service), Act, 1979 to be amended to respond to the massive changes since then and to be more effective. What are the amendments you would suggest?

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 is largely a regulatory law failing to incorporate welfare rights of the migrant labourers. The most urgent revision is to introduce a National Migrant Workers Commission at the Central level backed up by State level Migrant Workers Commissions. Also, we need to expand the definition of migrant labourer and include next generation skills like IT, mobile repair, financial services related works. Also, the Act needs to include provisions for State-supported skill training services for migrant labourers. A long pending issue is portability of migrant workers’ voting rights. The Election Commission of India is already working, so time has come to empower migrant workers so that they gather better bargaining power and political voice in the system. Other laws relating to workers must be synergised with the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act. For instance, the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment And Conditions of Services) Act, 1996 should be integrated into the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act. And it needs to be implemented by the Secretary of the Migrant Workers Commission. In this digital age, we must stress more digital administrative techniques such as smart cards and leverage Jam — Jandhan/Aadhaar/mobile payment infrastructure for portability of all.

Also read: Hours before taking up migrant workers issue, Supreme Court got stinging letter from senior lawyers

Another urgent issue is portability of the public distribution system (PDS) for migrant labourers and also allowing migrant labourers to use their NREGA job cards in any part of the country. This portability of NREGA will be a great relief, if any migrant labourer is in crisis like the pandemic, he or she can take up NREGA work at the destination site rather than returning home.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.