Why India must safeguard the rights of internal migrants
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Why India must safeguard the rights of internal migrants

It’s not just refugees who often face the wrath of a host State; even internal migrants, especially the poor, face similar roadblocks in their own countries even though they are legitimate citizens. The negative feeling about migrants reflects in India’s policies too: Our social and political rights are based on the assumption that people are sedentary.

analysis Updated: Jun 26, 2018 12:38 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
rohingya,refugees,migrants
Labour mobility is not just good for those on the move but it also has a positive effect on the economy because they are engaged in the construction industry, domestic work, textiles, brick-kilns, mines and quarries, agriculture, food processing and the hotel and restaurant business. Let’s not forget that the backbone of the Green Revolution in Punjab was actually migrant labour (Hindustan Times)

United States President Donald Trump doesn’t mince words. Last week, even as videos of refugee children being held at a Texas facility did the rounds, Trump said: “The United States will not be a migrant camp… And it will not be a refugee-holding facility — it won’t be.” Although two days later, he signed an executive order to end the separation of the refugee families, Trump’s original views on migrants may not have changed much. His statement was similar to what India’s additional solicitor general, Tushar Mehta, told the Supreme Court, which was hearing a case on the Rohingya refugees, in January: “We do not want India to become the refugee capital of the world.”

It’s not just refugees who often face the wrath of a host State; even internal migrants, especially the poor, face similar roadblocks in their own countries even though they are legitimate citizens. For example, China’s hukou system limits where a person is allowed to live. If one is born in a rural hukou, it can be challenging to move to an urban one. South Africa’s apartheid state was as much about racial segregation as it was about controlling, regulating and restricting black labourers from settling in white townships.

India may not have a hukou or an apartheid system, but here, too, migrants don’t have it easy. For example, a former Delhi chief minister once blamed migrants for putting enormous pressure on the infrastructure of the city. The Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray once said one Bihari brought with him a hundred headaches. These unwarranted comments probably mirror a popular belief that migrants create problems and are a burden on a host state. But in reality, labour mobility is not just good for those on the move but it also has a positive effect on the economy because they are engaged in the construction industry, domestic work, textiles, brick-kilns, mines and quarries, agriculture, food processing and the hotel and restaurant business. Let’s not forget that the backbone of the Green Revolution in Punjab was actually migrant labour.

The negative feeling about migrants reflects in India’s policies too: Our social and political rights are based on the assumption that people are sedentary. For example, people’s ration cards are invalid in their destinations of work. So a migrant family will lose out on their rations in their new homes, and will have to depend either on their employer or labour contractor for food provisions or purchase food in the open market. This significantly increases their cost of living and reduces the additional earnings they might hope to remit to their families. A migrant’s family may also lose out on schooling and health doles.

The only social support migrant families possess is the compensation offered by the state in the case of death at work. “This is because migrant workers are mostly in informal employment and dotted across several sectors and industries, they have little organised space to voice their grievances or articulate complaints,” says Indrajit Roy, lecturer, Global Development Politics, Department of Politics, University of York. His research project, titled ‘Fragmented Transitions’ situates migrants’ experiences and practices within the wider processes of modernity, development and democracy. The project design is multi-sited. The project’s centerpiece is ethnographic research [www/livesonthemove.com] with circular labour migrants, their families, neighbours and co-workers.

Despite these obstacles, statistics show that India is on the move. The last round of Economic Survey pointed to a spike in internal migration: between 2011 and 2016, close to nine million people migrated between states annually, up from about 3.3 million according to successive censuses. India is projected to add 404 million people to its urban population between 2014 and 2050.

Some states have already taken cognisance of this movement: Kerala is the only state in India which a scheme which treats migrant welfare as the “duty of the state”. It offers financial support for the medical treatment of migrants, grants for their children’s education in the state and also provides retirement benefits to those who have completed five years under the scheme. The scheme also has provisions for compensation to the enrolled workers in the event of injury or disability, compensation to survivors upon the death of a worker, and allowances for repatriation of the body. The other developed southern state, Karnataka, ensures that all migrant pregnant women, lactating mothers and young children get nutrition benefits under the Mathru Poorna scheme.

The central government must now take note of mobility and make social and political rights portable, which means people should not lose the rights they have in their localities of origin when they move; and share in the same bundle of rights as held by others in their destination areas.

First Published: Jun 26, 2018 07:34 IST