Migration i.e. Human mobility is one of the most critical elements of freedom. It also increases the capability of individuals, their families, communities of source and destination areas. It expands freedom and opportunities in terms of work, education, health care, political rights, safety etc.
Our world is an unequal place. Huge differences in development over last couple of decades, especially after 1991 economic reforms, have created a big gap in income levels, industrialization, investment, health and education levels etc. across regions.
Some areas like Punjab, Haryana and western UP were benefited due to Green Revolution and became prosperous. Some others like Gujarat and Maharashtra had a head start in industrial development. Initial policies towards balanced development like setting up of big and propulsive industries in backward region did not help because these industries usually had forward and backward linkages outside that region. Moreover the natural advantage of resource rich regions of erstwhile Bihar (including Jharkhand) and MP (including Chhattisgarh) were minimized due to introduction of telescopic freight rates.
After liberalization, the inequalities among regions got accentuated. Industries naturally shifted and got concentrated in the regions which had a head start in industrialization or were prosperous and had better infrastructure facilities. This can be seen from the FDI inflows. Maharashtra and Gujarat followed by Tamil Nadu and Haryana attracts largest FDI. Also these states were able to provide better policy environment and incentives to attract investment.
Chronic mal governance, corruption, law and order problems, poor public service provisioning, along with caste and religion based politics has led to poor human development indicators in regions like Bihar, UP, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, MP and Rajasthan.
Therefore inequality in employment opportunities and income levels along with cheaper communication and transport has increased both the demand and supply of migrants. Higher wage rates in well off regions also creates demand for cheaper labour from migrants.
The main source areas of migrant labour are Bihar, eastern UP, western Orissa, Jharkhand, southern MP, and southern Rajasthan. Major sectors employing these migrants are construction, textile, small industries, brick kiln, stone quarries, crop plantation and harvesting, sugarcane cutting, rickshaw pulling, security services, hospitality, etc. Moreover, historically disadvantaged communities such as scheduled tribes, scheduled caste, and other backward castes are heavily represented in migration. Poor migrants are absorbed in informal sector jobs, much maligned for being insecure, poorly paid and unproductive but offering the only option for employment.
When people move, they embark upon a journey of hope and uncertainty. If they succeed, it also benefits the people whom they leave behind. But not all succeed and they also face the problems of loneliness, feeling unwelcome among people who resent newcomers, and may not be able to access social support system if they fall ill or lose jobs.
We interviewed several women on construction sites in and around Shimla. One of the dominant reasons for their migration was that they practice farming for 6 months only as the area lacks irrigation and is rain fed. They migrate to Shimla from Jharkhand every year. When asked for reasons to migrate to Himachal only, they said that it has pleasant weather as compared to northern plains of Punjab and Haryana. This makes caring for younger children easier. On another site, a lady whose family has been settled in Shimla for last 8 years cited decreasing remuneration of agriculture as dominant reason. She said that even after working so hard for several months they are only able to sell potatoes or tomatoes at 2 Rs/kg. She added that while they are here they are able to save nearly 1 lakh rupees. They can utilize this money to fund the education of their children. A rag picker originally from Bihar in a slum area said that he just wants to fill his stomach by selling waste and it does not matter where he is.
These migrants face several problems. The biggest problem is that of housing. They live in shanty houses which are inadequate to protect them from extreme cold weather. The room occupancy levels are as high as 10 persons in a single room. There is hardly any provision for sanitation. On construction sites, most contractors provide accommodation but it is rudimentary. Water availability is another major issue. The slum area which we visited had only two taps for the whole area. All residents rely on only these two taps. Water comes only two times in a day. On construction sites also, at some places women had to travel as far as 1 km to get water. Though one good thing in Shimla is that electricity is available to these migrants almost everywhere.
Another major issue is that of children’s education. Different group of migrants face different problems regarding educating their children. Circular migrants i.e. migrants who travel back and forth every year cannot provide their children any education as they have to take them along. Even those who stay for whole year face problem as they keep on shifting their residence as the workplace changes from one construction site to another. The schools at the new place do not give admission in middle of year. So the children have to travel long distances sometimes to continue schooling at the same place.
Also since at some places there is no provision of day care for small children below 6 years of age, woman can be seen carrying their children on their back while working. Moreover there is a typical group of migrant women labour who are engaged in work of transporting building material like stones etc. These women keep on moving with the truck whole day. They also take their children along as they cannot leave them at anganwadi since they leave home as early as 4 AM in morning. However at some places working migrant woman get facility of ICDS nearby.
But in some places we found a promising scenario. Here everyone goes to school and they have their own dreams. Here the kids are not even aware of their migrant status. Moreover one thing which cut across all segments of migrant labour is that they want to educate their children and wish that their children do not face the hardships which they had to face. For this they are sacrificing a lot to save some money for future education of their children. It is these dreams which keep their spirit up among all hardships.
Migrant women go through most hardship. Even after a day’s hard work, she has to take care of hearth and home. Even then she is not paid equal wage. One woman at construction site said that once contractor made wages equal. But the men protested and it was again made unequal.
Healthcare system is also not inclusive as far as migrants are concerned. Contractors do take care of workers in case of accident on construction site and may even give salary for missed days but in case of any illness workers have to take care of themselves.
Migrants also do not get any social security benefits. This is because these benefits are targeted and require identity cards like BPL card. They have to buy rice, wheat etc. at market price only and also do not get any free medical treatment. Lack of identity in recipient state also creates several other obstacles like admission of children in schools.
Migrants can get BPL card issued in their home state only which is not accepted by any other state. Moreover since the migrants do not have any voting power, the political class is also not much interested in pursuing migrants’ cause.
Contractors generally give work to migrants according to region they belong as they also have strong stereotypes. When we talked to labour supervisor (called “Munshi”) at a construction site, he said that he employs locals for skilled work like carpenter, mason etc. According to him people who come from Nepal are dumb and hence he gives them work which require no skill like carrying stones or digging. Also he said people who come from Jharkhand and Bihar are generally fast learners and hence they pick up work very easily. He said there is a problem of language barrier also in teaching work to people who don’t understand Hindi.
Another emerging problem is that of stereotyping and bias against the migrants by local residents. When we interviewed locals, this was very much perceptible. One local resident at a slum said that migrants get involved in illegal activities like drug and liquor business. He said that this creates bad environment for upbringing of their children. He said if they object to such activity than migrants even beat them up. According to him even police and administration is apathetic to them. If they complain to authorities, only one or two police personnel come for formality and they don’t take action.
This stereotype against migrants exists all across the country as can be seen in recent spurt in violence against migrants. Eg. Backlash against north east people and violence against migrants from Bihar in Maharashtra. This shows that if migrants are not treated equally and fairly, some of them might indulge in illegal activities. This creates a stereotype against migrants in the mind of locals. This creates conflict between the two. This vicious circle has to be broken else it will create law and order problem which will threaten the integrity of the nation.
This plight of migrant labour has no place in a civilized society. Recognizing the need to ensure protection of migrant labourers Government of India had passed the Interstate migrant workers (regulation of employment and condition of service) Act way back in 1979. The act provides for timely wages, suitable residential accommodation, medical facilities, makes it mandatory for contractor to notify accidents, sets penalties including imprisonment for lack of compliance. But apathy of government and ignorance of migrants of their rights makes its enforcement a pipe dream. Construction Workers Welfare Funds set up by States under a central law also saw similar fate as pointed out by CAG recently in several states.
The constitution of India provides Right to movement, livelihood, and profession as a fundamental right to every citizen. but still these migrant labourers are treated like a second class citizen in their own country. Migrant labour faces difficulties on all fronts. But all these problems can be tackled if only we, as a nation, have will power. There are several good initiatives which can be replicated in several sectors. RSBY scheme is a case in point.
Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna (RSBY) has been launched by Ministry of labour and Employment, Government of India to provide health insurance coverage for Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. The objective of RSBY is to provide protection to BPL households from financial liabilities arising out of health shocks that involve hospitalization. Beneficiaries under RSBY are entitled to hospitalization coverage up to Rs. 30,000/- for most of the diseases that require hospitalization. Government has even fixed the package rates for the hospitals for a large number of interventions. Pre-existing conditions are covered from day one and there is no age limit. Coverage extends to five members of the family which includes the head of household, spouse and up to three dependents. Beneficiaries need to pay only Rs. 30/- as registration fee while Central and State Government pays the premium to the insurer selected by the State Government on the basis of a competitive bidding.
RSBY provides the participating BPL household with freedom of choice between public and private hospitals. The key feature of RSBY is that a beneficiary who has been enrolled in a particular district will be able to use his/ her smart card in any RSBY empanelled hospital across India. This makes the scheme truly unique and beneficial to the poor families that migrate from one place to the other. Cards can also be split for migrant workers to carry a share of the coverage with them separately.
The portability of social security benefits is the ability of workers to preserve, maintain, and transfer acquired social security rights. Therefore portability is sine qua non for improving migrants’ lot.
Dovetailing social security schemes to Aadhar number is also promising. It will give identity to all citizens and hence schemes can be made portable throughout country.
Universalisation of social security benefits across country should be promoted like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act (MNREGA), Right to Education (RTE). It can go a long way to mitigate exclusion errors.
“Change Begins at Home” After witnessing the plight of children of these labourers on a construction site nearby, we started a crèche in our own academy (NAAA, Shimla) for the children of the migrant labourers. Today we have 9 children enjoying the care, security and nurture we have created for them. The smiles on their faces lift our spirits and fill our hearts. We also made a documentary on issues and challenges of migrant labour in Shimla. When we brought this issue to the notice of additional secretary of Government of India in labour ministry, he wrote a letter to chief secretary of Himachal Pradesh asking for steps to be taken to provide social security benefits to migrants under RSBY and Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board Act. This is proof of the fact that if someone is ready to take up this cause, it brings light to a migrant’s life making his life a little bit easier.
Advancing this agenda of migrants will require strong, enlightened leadership coupled with a more determined effort to engage with the public and raise their awareness about the facts about migration. It is a failure of our nation and nevigation of our constitution and dreams of our forefathers if migrants are not treated fairly and equally. The core package of reforms, should include ensuring basic rights for migrants and making mobility an integral part of national development strategies.