This writing piece highlights the plight of the inter-state migrating population of India and the huge daylight between their ground reality and the policies framed for them.
Before delving directly into the issue with policies related to domestic migration, there’s a need to understand the causes and patterns leading to this migration. India sees a large population of seasonal migration from rural to urban areas in search of daily wage work. In most rural areas, farming is carried out for two seasons – Kharif and Rabi — and in the summer season, people come to the cities to find work.
Emphasis should also be put on the land-holding of farmers. As of 2018, 86% of all farmers in India were small and marginalised farmers with a land-holding of less than two hectares. As per the 2005-06 National Family Health Survey, the average household size of India was around 4.8 and this number went up to 5.7 in states with a migrating population, including Uttar Pradesh.
For families with low land holdings, one or two individuals are enough to engage in farming while others are sent to cities to work as daily wage earners to send back earned money, as finding other occupations within the village seems very limited. These are a few push factors that lead to migration. The pull factors can be attributed to a better socio-economic lifestyle such as access to healthcare, education, mobility and other services.
This leads to the argument regarding the impact of the schemes or policies related to empowering the rural economy such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 and the Panchayati Raj Act of 1992. There’s a need to understand the wage parity between the labour work in cities and rural areas. Before the lockdown, under the NREGA, daily wage workers were earning ₹182 per day and after the lockdown, it got increased by a meagre amount of ₹20. On the other hand, daily wage work in cities offers considerably better pay.
A limited number of days of work and low wages of the NREGA have also been a contributing factor toward inter-state migration.
Coming to the devolution of power to the panchayats through the Panchayati Raj Act, the Act looks excellent on paper. However, it has failed to provide autonomy to the panchayats when it comes to decision-making, as these bodies merely act as an implementation arm for Centre- and state-sponsored schemes of construction of toilets, roads etc.
The existing policies that were meant to safeguard the interest of the migrating population have failed miserably in doing so. Among these are the Inter-State Migration Workers Act (1979), the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act (1996), (BOCW Act or BOCWA), and the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act (1996).
Let us look at the BOCW Act in a little detail.
Employing 55 million daily wage workers, the construction sector is one of the main employers for the migrant population. To ensure social security of these workers, the BOCW Act was enacted under all state governments. By this and the complementing Cess Act, construction companies are mandated to pay a cess of minimum 1% of the construction cost to the respective state governments. The state government is responsible for spending the funds towards the welfare of the workers registered under this Act.
This seems a very beneficial and effective Act, but till date, its implementation has been abysmal with the exception of Kerala. Such poor implementation can be attributed to several factors including the political will of the state, the registration procedure that doesn’t account for the literacy level of the migrant population, and others. Kerala is the only state that has spent more than the amount of funds collected from the BOCW Act. States including Maharashtra and Delhi have ramped up the registration process amid the pandemic so that migrants can have some assurance of welfare when they come back to work.
It is interesting to note that some of the relief measures announced for migrant workers during the pandemic have been from this Act itself, which was their right in the first place. But it was portrayed to the people of India as a dedicated relief measure. Till 2018, ₹28,000 crores of the fund were unspent, of which Maharashtra accounts for ₹6,000 crores.
Almost 94% of the total labourers do not have their BOCW cards — this translates to 51 million of the 55 million migrant workers not having access to any of the BOCW benefits. As pointed out earlier, this is due to the cumbersome registration process that is distant from the reality of a migrant worker. These registrations are not portable and are allowed to be used only in one state, which is contrary to the nature of the work of migrant workers. Also, the onus of the registration is on the worker rather than on the employer. The registration requires the submission of a 90-day employment certificate, but in reality, most of the employment of the construction workers doesn’t last as long. Hence, getting such a certificate from their employer is not easy.
All these lead to a single large question: couldn’t these policymakers empathise with the plight of these poor souls before bringing in such a complex Act? A migrant worker, for whom education is a privilege, having a smartphone with internet packs is rare, TV with a set-top box connection is hard to find, and they have hardly any good connection with people of the privileged world. Then how can one expect these migrant workers to be aware of such Acts and schemes, and be knowledgeable enough to avail their benefits? There’s a huge gap in the dissemination of rights and entitlements of the deserved migrant population of India.
Different approaches towards addressing this issue can be looked at as quick fixes, besides having a long-term approach. Someone getting the migrating population registered under these Acts, I consider that as a quick fix. Unless they become aware and empowered enough to avail what they are entitled to, the situation of these workers won’t improve. There’s a need to activate the agency of migrant workers and mobilise them to act independently so that they can make a free choice and hold the system accountable. Social media channels, particularly, Facebook and Twitter, shouldn’t be the only media to seek accountability, and neither should a selected few be the flag bearers of the whole of the migrating population of India.
Recently, one may observe that the role of civil society bodies or non-profits has shifted towards immediate solutions, which offer impact in terms of numbers, somewhere failing to work towards the rights and entitlement and migrant workers. Also, if I try to count organisations that directly engage with migrant workers, numbers are hard to come by. Now, during the pandemic, many organisations bloomed as well as a few existing organisations came forward to assist the travelling migrants by providing immediate relief.
As I said before, efforts shouldn’t be limited to quick fixes, and here lies the opportunity for these organisations to work towards activating the agency of the migrating population with a long-term systemic approach. Programmes focused on basic literacy, digital literacy, awareness and capacity building to access their rights are a good start.
The registration process as well as availing of benefits should be considering the ground realities of the people involved in it. Necessary mechanisms should be brought in place by the government for the ease of access of the schemes and removal of stringent mandatory clauses such as 90 days of work-proof, non-transferable of the benefits from state to state.
Another important aspect to consider is to ensure that the government has the political will in effective implementation and spends the collected funds. This can be looped back to the activating the agency of the migrant people as well as the role of civil society in working towards rights and entitlements of the people.
The panchayats should have autonomy over addressing and allocating funds to local issues focused on employment opportunities. They shouldn’t be pressured by babus and government schemes. In order for the NREGA to become the first choice for people and not as just an alternative when there’s no job, the pay for labourers should be at par with the market rate.
Since the last one or two decades, and especially in recent times, India has seen a greater push towards boosting its economy. Under the realm of ‘Ease of Doing Business’ and getting in more companies to set up their businesses in India, labour laws for forming unions have been made stringent. Moreover, there have been a few dilutions to the labour laws in a few states recently — no doubt the ISMW Act had never been taken seriously as it puts a lot of responsibilities on the employers and contractors. This, in turn, adds to the cost as well as human resources, and not profit.
To sum up, who will keep a check on all these issues? The Judiciary, labour ministry, Opposition, labour unions, civil societies or social media? Unless he migrant workers realise and are able to access their rights, change is hard to come by.