In many ways, they are the nowhere people. Now a Unesco report Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India puts the number of internal migrants at around a third of the population. This number is far higher than the number of migrants who leave India to work abroad. Yet, since most internal migrants move back and forth according to where they can find work, they get left out of social welfare schemes. The plight of women and child migrants is pitiable as they are vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and are often shortchanged in their wages.
Despite the amount that they contribute to the GDP, they are viewed with suspicion by people who feel that they are spoiling the cities with their presence and contributing to different types of malaise. The Shiv Sena and Navnirman Sena with their attacks on migrants are extreme manifestations of this paranoia about outsiders coming in to take over jobs and contribute to urban blight and crime. Even in Delhi, the chief minister has been less than kind in her observations about migrants. Yet, no one seems to highlight the fact that they do jobs which many find too demeaning to take on and that they provide services which keep these places running smoothly.
Now that various social welfare schemes have kicked in, farmers in places like Punjab are finding it hard to find labour from places like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It is clear that most cities and towns cannot function without the services provided by migrant labour. So the humane thing to do would be to provide them shelter and other basic amenities like healthcare so that they are not viewed as a burden on society. It is a measure of our double standards that we have no qualms about using their services while railing about their being responsible for the ills of urban living. What the government should also do is to create more employment opportunities in rural areas. Giving out wages for a fixed number of days of work alone is not enough, there should be productive employment the whole year round. For this there has to be greater investment in rural areas and better road and rail connectivity. Improving skill sets in rural areas should also be priority. What the government should be aiming at is reverse migration. People will go where there are jobs and it is quite the norm that they would prefer to stay as close to home as possible. It is only when reports like the one by Unesco come out that this issue is even talked about. For the most part, internal migrants are a part of our lives that we prefer not to acknowledge.