As India imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns a year ago, ordering 1.34 billion people to stay at home for months, thousands of migrant workers scrambled to return to their native villages. Walking along highways or railway tracks, or packed like cattle into trucks and vans, their images on TV and in newspapers shook the nation’s collective conscience.
At least 2.6 million migrant workers – the people who keep the wheels of India’s informal economy turning — were stranded across the country, according to the Chief Labor Commissioner’s Office. At least 1 million returned home during the COVID-19 crisis.
Despite these staggering numbers, however, this sizable demographic is missing from the country’s official data, depriving it of access to state-run social protection programs, welfare schemes, and even basic human rights. As most of these schemes are linked to the place of origin of the migrants, these workers find it tough to take advantage of their benefits when they migrate to other towns. Worse, being diverse and disaggregated, exploitation of this disenfranchised group is also rampant by unscrupulous employers.
These facts were glaringly highlighted at the height of the pandemic when the government’s outreach to the poor, to provide them with food and shelter, was hobbled by the paucity of personal information about them. Such was the ignorance that when Minister of State for Labor and Employment Santosh Gangwar was asked in parliament how the government had helped the migrant laborers during the lockdown, his riposte was startling: “Data was not available on this.” When further pressed to answer if thousands of migrant laborers had died during lockdown, the minister said, “No such data is available.”
Such a lack of empathy to the unprecedented humanitarian crisis elicited sharp criticism from humanitarian organizations. They pointed out that most internal migrants are denied basic rights because internal migration is not a priority in the government’s policy and practice.
A report, jointly published by the International Labor Organization, Aajeevika Bureau and the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) in December 2020, urgently called for the Indian government to develop an inclusive policy framework to mitigate the vulnerabilities faced by internal migrants who enter informal arrangements to work due to the absence of reliable estimates on them.
Another recent report, “Migration in South Asia: Poverty and Vulnerability,” slammed the Indian government’s tardy treatment of the country’s internal migrants. The 165-page report from the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication studied internal and external migration trends across India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. “The worst response of the state responses has been to the internal migrants. They are stateless without losing the state’s legal recognition. They are either climate refugees within their countries or displaced persons without any protection from the end of the state. They are human entities meant for profiteering by others,” the report said.
The report also pointed out that although India has been implementing a series of pro-poor entitlement policies, interstate migrants are deprived of access to those policies, as they are not portable across state borders.
An ILO study has further revealed that 95 percent of India’s internal migrants lost all their means of livelihood during the lockdown and only 7 percent benefited from the efforts to revive their livelihoods through the state-run MGNREGA program for employment for the poor. The organization has urgently called for an inclusive policy framework to help internal migrants who face exploitation from employers due to their informal work arrangements.
Such pressure seems to have finally nudged the Indian government into action. The NITI Aayog, the government’s policy think tank, recently launched an umbrella policy framework, the National Action Plan for Migrant Workers, prepared by a subgroup of members from various ministries, subject experts, and civil society organizations.
According to a press release, the document emphasizes the political inclusion of migrant workers so they can demand their entitlements; advocates setting up interstate coordination mechanisms; suggests embedding a migration wing in each state’s labor department; and aims to get source states and destination states to work with each other.
Calling on employers to be transparent about their value chains and formalize work contracts with migrant workers, the draft policy advocates a “rights-based” approach to tap the migrants’ potential rather than issue hand-outs and cash-transfers. It also emphasizes how state-run programs such as the MGNREGA and State Rural Livelihood Mission, meant to address out-migration by tribals, have failed to reach the recipients.
Experts say the policy draft move is a significant step in mainstreaming migrant labor. Currently the only legal framework that protects the rights of this demographic is the flawed Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 that covers only laborers migrating through a contractor, leaving out millions of independent migrants. In fact the NITI Aayog policy draft mentions that the Ministry of Labor and Employment should amend the 1979 act to better protect internal migrants.
However, critics point out that the NITI Aayog draft report, though well-intentioned, fails to address the policy distortions at the root of migrant workers’ issues. “Perhaps the biggest fundamental weakness of the report is its approach towards labor rights and labor policy. By putting grievance and legal redressal above regulation and enforcement on which it remains silent, the report puts the cart before the horse,” Ravi Srivastava, director of the Center of Employment Studies at the Institute for Human Development, wrote in an article in The Indian Express. “Surprisingly, the report does not take stock of the new labor codes, mentioning only the defunct laws that were subsumed by them.”
Activists say the policy draft should be debated and discussed in painstaking detail by all stakeholders to cover all aspects of labor welfare. “There should be tripartite discussions between the government, labor unions, and employees to set right the skews in the current draft,” says Dr. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a New Delhi-based policy think tank. “Currently, migrant labor enjoys no decent working conditions, minimum wages, grievances redressal mechanisms, protection from abuse and exploitation, nor health or accident protection, even though they are the backbone of India’s informal economy.”
Women, adds Kumari, have the highest stake in labor empowerment as they constitute over 90 percent of the country’s informal workforce. As former senior advisor to the Ministry of Labor under the UPA government, Kumari says that though she helped set up a commission on the informal sector with other experts, not much was achieved through this channel due to lack of political will.
“All dormant mechanisms like this commission must be reactivated to empower these migrants. Given the massive size of India’s unorganized and informal sector, a comprehensive law that brings internal migrant workers under the ambit of legal protection is urgently required.”
Studies have proven that the impact of state negligence on migrant labor is intergenerational. Not only are these migrants excluded from welfare benefits and urban planning initiatives, but their children too, are also deprived of schooling and other such opportunities due to frequent migration by their parents in search of better livelihood.
“Due to disruption of regular schooling, these kids’ dropout rate is among the highest of all groups, not to mention their high vulnerability to being trafficked or married off early. The government needs to address these issues as a priority,” concludes Delhi-based lawyer and activist Akriti Thakkar.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based columnist and editor.