Migration in contemporary India

A course designed for future development practitioners, action-researchers, and social activists to understand the challenges faced by migrant workers.

Major changes in economic policies in India in the last one and half decades has made labour fragile, leading to unforeseen increase in pace and intensity of their migration in search of work within the country. To build a perspective on the phenomenon and its effects, it is imperative that we pay attention the history of internal migration of labour in India, theoretical approaches to it, sectors of migration, vulnerabilities faced by migrants, policy deficits on part of the Indian state and mobilizations to address these.

Just as migrant workers played key role in industries prior to India’s independence from
colonial rule, Nehruvian development projects too rode heavily on their shoulders. Migrants connect regions of the country by moving for work from one place to another temporarily, seasonally, circularly as well as permanently. They migrate within and across state borders and their movements trace natural [agricultural as well as non-agricultural] production corridors as well as industrial regions. In neo liberal India, migrants carry out the lowliest paid, hazardous, insecure, casual, feminized, conflict-ridden, forced, and more often, invisible work. Migrant workers’ vulnerabilities are manifest in their working as bonded labourers in underground sewers; living in inhuman residential arrangements like Kapashera; not being able to produce identity documents to access public services; and being the first to lose their jobs in conflict-situations like Kashmir. In fact, drawing on the vulnerabilities arising from these shortfalls, certain industries now prefer a mobile workforce over the native, and these include mainstream areas of work like construction, garment and allied manufactures, domestic work etc.

It is necessary to expose students of MA-Development to the fact that labour migration
challenges and fractures the idea of dignity of work and workers. They will learn that while
on the one hand, migrants are the most sought-after labour force because of their low costs, on the other hand, they live the worst lives as they do not have access to basic rights like secured contracts, well-defined labour processes, employment benefits, social security,
electoral participation, access to healthcare, rations, housing etc. Students will be introduced to lived experiences of migrants earning the lowest revenues in the country. They will learn that the absence of rudimentary things like identity documents, push migrants to the fringes of the socio-economic fabric and render them invisible both at the source as well as the destination of migration.

Students will develop a perspective that migrants develop skills, and travel through different sectors of work. They will also learn that migrants build networks among themselves, negotiate political divisions of caste, gender and religion, sub nationalism. Finally, they will see how migrants navigate corridors of migration, asking for the right to dignified work, access to social security and a living wage. To work meaningfully in the field, students will need to unpack the complex picture mentioned above, and of the polarization between migrant labour and capital produced thereby.