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Neither Here nor There: The Plight of Internal Migrants in India

Hailing from the Himalayan valley town Siliguri of Darjeeling District of West Bengal, migration has been a way of life for me for more than a decade. The first move was to the bustling city of Mumbai which offers a canopy of dreams over the tin-roofed one room dwellings in the numerous slums giving solace to millions of migrants from all over India. The second move was to the IT hub down south in Bengaluru and then further down to Kochi in God’s Own Country where ‘Bengali’ has become a synonym for a migrant worker.

Throughout the journey, fortunately or unfortunately encountered with several disasters. I vividly remember the night of 26 July in 2005, when incessant rains flooded Mumbai and we were stranded at the International Institute for Population Sciences were I worked. Though we had to remain hungry, felt safe being with friends who lived in the campus. The only thing that bothered us that night was we were unable to inform our family members back home that we were safe. We could not do that even in the next couple of days, as the entire telecommunication system of the city had collapsed. I can still imagine how anxious they would have been in those days!

Then it was during the terrorist attack on 11 July, 2006 when bombs simultaneously exploded in multiple locations in the in the sub-urban railway network in Mumbai. Though we were in the other part of the city and at a much safer space, we could not avoid thinking how our families back home, who were far away, would know if we were in the pool of bloody bodies of dead or injured persons! To be honest, on that day I could not escape a sense of insecurity as a migrant in the big city!

These two incidents made me reflect that despite being safe and having enough social capital in the city, we had failed to escape insecurity as migrants following an incident which did not affect us directly. This thought made me ponder over the situation of the inter-state migrant labourers, who form the lowest stratum of the inter-state migrants, how they cope with disasters, natural or human-made? I received the answer in 2018 when Kerala faced nature’s fury and the devastating floods and landslides impacted almost all districts in Kerala. Thanks to my association with the non-profits here, I had the opportunity to understand the real plight, the fear, the heightened sense of insecurity of the migrant workers. It was visibly prominent in their eyes and appeals. They had no clue on what to do next when they lost their livelihood, their shelters were flooded, and whether they would be accommodated in the relief camps, how to access food/relief materials and the list is on. On the top, the most dominant thought was would it possible to go back home? Whether the state governments at the source or at the destination can facilitate their journey back home! I was just wondering despite contributing significantly to economies of both the home and destination states why they always feel such helplessness under any disastrous situation!

The same thought again become prominent when I witness the exodus of migrant labourers following the recent breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting nationwide lockdown. Though such exodus was not evident in Kerala, migrant labourers, along with women and children, from many other prominent destination states started their journey on foot to reach their respective home states, some even over a thousand kilometres away, knowing fully well the herculean nature of the task. Under the pandemic, their situation is far grimmer, as unlike other disasters, they may not be welcome even in the home state! Eventually, as per the guidelines of Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, most of the destination states have assured food and shelter and many source states have taken steps to transfer cash to the stranded migrant labourers. However, these measures may not be enough to surpass their looming insecurity regarding their livelihood, uncertainty about the future that make them anxious. The media is flooded with reports of non-receipt of subsistence and attempts or pleas by groups of workers to go back home, in the absence of work and money. Moreover, given the indefinite nature of this medical emergency, the trajectories of their life choices and restoration of normalcy in ensuing future is yet to be unfolded and that has further added to the quantum of insecurities involved with Covid-19 compared to any other disaster experienced by the country in the past.

I feel this anxiety is rooted in the sheer invisibility of migrant labourers in the policy arena of the country. The disaster has brought again the age-old question of inclusion and welfare of inter-state migrant workers who play a pivotal role in the economy. Article 19 of the Constitution of India entitles any citizen of the country to move freely, work and settle in any part of the country. The regional disparities in the demographic achievements and economic development in India push people to migrate to escape distress. As disasters have become the new normal with climate change augmenting the rural distress, survival migration is only likely to increase. However, the policy environment around internal migration in India maintains a conservative outlook by considering migration as a negative process, therefore remaining unsupportive to it through discrimination and inaction. Till date, except some ad-hoc welfare measures, the country lacks a sound migration policy to mainstream the challenges of inter-state labour migration.

A major reason why the urban centric development models of India have failed miserably in ensuring legal or social protection to this vulnerable group is the serious data gaps on the extent, nature and magnitude of internal migrants both at source and destination states. Thus they form an invisible population who contribute significantly in both urban and rural development by taking up odd and hazardous jobs, accepting deplorable living and working conditions while remaining largely absent in the political economy of both the states. This becomes far more critical during a disaster. We witness such narratives in the current situation where the states are failing to act coherently with regard to their migrant populations. Among the major destination states, Kerala has by and large, ensured basic necessities like food to its migrant workers, termed as ‘guest workers’ in the state, quite effectively. The state is encouraging the workers through the government arms such as National Health Mission to stay back and continue working in the state post lockdown (e.g. in Ernakulam District public announcements in different languages have been circulated) so that remittances help their families to tide over the crisis. On the other hand, there are also states like Maharashtra and Gujarat which are still grappling with the issue of ensuring the supply of essentials. The recent outburst of migrant labourers in Mumbai and Surat clearly reflect the distress of the workers. Currently the Government of Maharashtra is proactively advocating for resuming the long distance train services to send the migrant workers back to their home states once the lockdown is lifted.

The varied reactions of the state authorities as well as that of the central government in managing the issue of the informal migrant labourers during the lockdown certainly pointing towards a policy void in defining the role of the central government and the source as well as the destination states towards the welfare and inclusion of the migrant workers. A country like India characterized by a huge informal economy and a wide variety of migratory moves of labourers cannot afford such varied approaches for its states, especially during a crisis. The devastating impact of the disasters are likely to push more people out of rural India to the urban centres for survival and it is high time we get rid of our sedentary bias and address the challenges faced by the migrant workers. Recognizing the crucial economic contributions and the far reaching social contributions of internal migration, Government of India should strengthen the policy measures to mainstream internal migrant workers with clear and defined responsibilities for the sending and receiving communities.