In 2011, India had 400 million internal migrants, a third of its population, according to UN report, Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India. This represents mobility for livelihood, often seasonal. Reports say 70-80 per cent of migrants are women—marriage transfers them from the father’s home to the husband’s—who are likely to face harsh conditions and exploitation at work. Mobility has its advantages—the promise of finding opportunities in a city as opposed to stagnating in the rural economy—but there are associated risks.
A majority of people migrate mainly to improve socio-economic conditions. Civilisations began when people moved out of forests, settled near river banks and took to cultivation to make a living. All cities and towns in the world were created by migrants. Post-war Germany was built by workers from Turkey. The construction boom in the Gulf was made possible by workers from India and other countries. Similarly, South Indians played a major role in the making of Mumbai. Migration also creates resentment as the growth of localised political outfits like the Shiv Sena creates a psychology of locals vs outsiders.
Their articulations thrive on a ‘sons of the soil vs outsiders’ syndrome. What is not realised is that migration is a two-way traffic. Not long ago, the Malayali was the most peripatetic of Indians, going all over the world in search of greener pastures. They still have a large presence in many West Asian countries. Yet, Kerala has been attracting a large number of migrants from West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. This is because the minimum wages for agricultural and non-agricultural workers are the highest in the state. There can be no disputing that some people resent the presence of migrants, who are blamed for growing crime. Just as the people in Arunachal cannot manage without Chakma refugees, Keralites cannot manage without migrants from the north. This reality needs to be recognised while planning for the future.
Migrants are often given the toughest, most hazardous or looked-down-on jobs: on construction sites, clearing waste or as domestic help or guards. Yet, their contribution to the economy is immense. Estimates of remittances sent back home range from `70,000 crore to `1,20,000 crore every year. Bihar gets 10 per cent of its GDP from remittances sent by its migrant labour force. UP, home to 200 million and source of large-scale migration, could get as much as 4 per cent of its GDP from its migrants.
As India continues down the path of diversification of economic structure and urbanisation, the number of migrants will go up. We need policies to create new towns and paradigms of urban planning to provide these builders of modern India something better than slums and ghettos. A caveat must be added to this formulation. India should be concerned about distressed internal migration that later results in practices such as bonded labour and trafficking. The constraints faced by internal migrants are many and the current public discourse does not address issues such as seasonal and circular migration, and gender and child-specific facets.
While there should be better enforcement of law related to these malpractices, the political class should recognise it as a vital part of contemporary economic and cultural exchange, and attune political discourse accordingly. It’s not enough to blame Mumbai. South Indians, who have been part of early migrant populations in rest of India, must now adjust too to the stranger in their midst.