Migrant workers looking for work at a naka in Ahmedabad. Photo credit: Jyoti Patil
by Priyanka Jain, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions
In India’s quasi-federal structure, citizenship is a unitary feature. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution lends a fundamental right to citizens to freely move and settle anywhere within the territory of the country, notwithstanding state borders. Legally, citizenship in India is a universal and egalitarian relationship between its people, and of the people with the state. In practice, however, it is highly mediated by various forms of inequality. When viewed as a composite of rights and entitlements, citizenship of many groups remain truncated by their gender, class, caste, religion and language. Cutting across these social markers is the emergent category of internal migrants that work in the vast informal economy of the country, moving around in circular and seasonal manners. Marginal groups such as Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims have an overwhelming presence among internal migrants, highlighting that these forms of labour mobility represent the intersection of belonging to the poorest classes and the most disadvantaged social groups (National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector [NCEUS], 2007).
The disenfranchisement experienced by these groups of migrants is such that their existence at work destinations is marked by a distinct quality of ‘internal alien-ness’ (Shah and Lerche, 2017, pg. 19). These floating citizens stand at odds with two entrenched features of governance: firstly, the deeply sedentary nature of institutional design that is yet to catch up with the reality that millions of poor households are at once divided across geographies by work; secondly, the ethnic nature of the country’s federalism that relegates intra-state migrants (especially those with very different linguistic and cultural backgrounds) to the de-facto status of aliens, who end up living in their own country with highly limited citizenship rights. The exclusionary processes faced by migrant workers are therefore multiple and compounded:
Lack of identity
Though an Indian citizen has the right to travel and settle anywhere in the country, governance in practice is structured to demand a legitimate reason for the person’s existence outside of their place of origin. In a brush with the police, a person from outside the city/town is viewed with suspicion unless they can show a valid reason for their presence there, which could be proof of employment or proof of residence. As Shah and Lerche (2017) argue, this suspicion is magnified in case of marginal groups such as Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims (as majority of seasonal/circular labour migrants tend to be), who face broad-based and deep stigmatization in public spaces and with government authorities. In many such cases, a migrant can spend decades in a city, moving in and out, without ever acquiring an accepted form of identity that validates her/his presence in the city/town, and which can protect them from such harassment.
With the rolling out of Aadhaar, proponents claimed that one of the benefits would be lending a national identity to migrants that need to move around in the country for a livelihood. While Aadhaar has been enforced with the utmost strictness and the linkage to it is very high among migrants, it remains a problem-solution mismatch as far as the problem of identity for migrants is concerned. Migrants do not so much lack identity documents altogether, but suffer due to the absence of a local identity document, which is demanded for access to services. Therefore, the national identity of Aadhaar brings little relief to migrants as it the institutional design of cities and towns are disposed against seeing the national identity as an adequate substitute for local identity, and remain pre-occupied with the latter. Aajeevika Bureau’s migrant resource centres spread across Mumbai, Surat and Ahmedabad find that the only access issue faced by migrants that has been alleviated due to Aadhar is obtaining a pre-paid SIM card! Aadhar has here substituted the need for a local proof of address, though the latter is still critical for a post-paid connection or other vital services such as opening bank accounts.
Local proof of address and employment – these are the central problems related to identity for migrants, and access to them is very hard due to the informality or even illegality that surrounds their work and living conditions. Employers refuse to provide proof of employment to migrants as they often hire them off-the book, and make them work in conditions against applicable labour laws. Providing proof of employment is therefore too risky for employers who extract migrants by evading laws and rules for profit accumulation (Jain and Sharma, 2018). Residence proof is also an odd requirement to ask from migrants, especially of the seasonal, circular variety, as they tend to live largely inside factories, on work sites, in open public spaces (under a flyover, by a payment), or in temporary shelters made of scrap in labour colonies. Even in the cases where migrants rent rooms, it is often from a landlord who cannot provide proof of residence as they themselves rarely own the land and are often encroachers themselves! Proof of residence and proof of employment are incongruent to the very nature of the highly informal and peripheral spaces that migrants inhabit (Sugathan and Jayaram, 2018). In some cases, benevolent landlords and contractors provide a letter attesting for the migrant or share the light bill of the establishment that is accepted for some services. Other migrants have to turn to brokers, agents and informal political actors to obtain local identity documents. In this inner world of the poor, there is a fee for obtaining a local residence proof, for change in name in Aadhaar, for opening a bank account and for a wide variety of other barriers that migrants face in accessing their citizenship right.
Exclusion from public provisioning and entitlements
Several studies show that migrants have to pay very high prices for basic requirements in the city including food, sanitation, transportation and medical needs (CEPT 2014; Aajeevika Bureau, 2014; Sugathan & Jayaram, 2018). They tend to live in areas that are under-served by government services and are locked into unfair relationships that engage in illicit rent-seeking. For example, it is common that a migrant’s landlord (in cases of rental accommodation) would require the worker to exclusively buy everyday supplies from a grocery store run by the landlord himself, where commodities are sold at a markup! Migrants have to depend on such extractive relationships and markets given the near complete absence of public provisioning and government services in their living areas.
Portability in the Public Distribution System (PDS) has been demanded by migrant rights’ advocates for long now. But state governments remain reluctant to bear the cost of migrant workforce. While portability in PDS has been announced for states such as Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Delhi, the flexibility extends only for intra-state migrants, and would not benefit inter-state migrants (Dabhi, 2018). Yet again, state boundaries remain a reason to deny the Right to Food to migrants, which the Supreme Court has argued to be part of the fundamental Right to Life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution (PTI, 2013).
The Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana is a significant scheme that provides for portable benefits to Indian citizens enlisted in the BPL category, subsidizing them upto Rs. 30,000 for using medical services from an enlisted public or private hospital. However, linkage to RSBY remains low and even where migrants hold the smart card issued under the scheme, it has been hard to obtain benefits (SLD & IMA, 2017). Not only was the scheme never pushed as much as Aadhaar, it is now being dismantled to be replaced by the National Health Protection Scheme, as announced by the Central government in Budget 2018-19 (Reddy, 2018). Moreover, such an insurance based scheme belies the importance of the supply side of public provisioning of healthcare facilities, which tend to be absent or weak especially in migrant dense areas.
The Right to Education Act (RTE) is another instance where an attempt has been made to extend a basic public service to migrant population. According to Section 5 of the RTE Act, children from migrant households can now enroll into a state school even in the middle of the school year through a transfer certificate. This is an important policy change that should be extended to the ICDS programme. Migrant families in multiple cities have reported to Aajeevika Bureau’s centres that Anganwadis refuse to enroll their children because the staff get penalized if children drop out. These design features make essential, critical public schemes and entitlements antagonistic to the needs of migrants. Making such provisions migrant-friendly requires deep understanding of the contexts in which migrants work and live. For instance, despite the RTE provision for transfer, enrollment of migrant children in schools remain very low. The Act only covers public schools that are often missing in the peripheral areas where migrants work and live in cities and towns. The Act provides for transportation of children in such cases, but migrants report to Aajeevika Bureau that they have never encountered any such facilities functioning in their areas.
The incoming of Aadhaar has not made any of these barriers less overwhelming. To the contrary, it has created a new category of ‘Aadhaar based exclusion’. For instance, in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, many migrant families that had managed to enroll their children to school after many years of effort had their children expelled due to lack of Aadhaar linkage. The families reported that their children were born at home or sometimes at work sites due to lack of access to medical facilities. Therefore, they were unable to produce the birth certificates needed to link their children to Aadhar. Similarly, migrants with existing bank accounts are dealing with the threat of closure of account unless they forfeit a day’s work and wage to go to a bank (during unsuitable opening hours) to provide fingerprints. Other migrants have complained that their fingerprints have been erased due to hard manual work, which leads to a rejection of their identity by the bio-metric system of Aadhar.
Political and civic exclusion
Article 326 of the Indian Constitution provides that a citizen can exercise his/her right to vote only in the constituency where their voter identity card is registered. For the 100 million seasonal migrants in the country that spend a large part of their working lives in other areas outside of native homes, it comes down to choosing between wages and voting. The meagre incomes and temporary nature of their work does not allow them to permanently shift base with their families to the destination area, in order to open up the possibility of registering as a voter at destination. Based on a study covering around 700 migrants spread across 15 locations in five states, Aajeevika Bureau (2012) found that 60% of the total migrants studied (and 83% of the long-distance ones) reported having missed elections at least once due to migration. Over half of the respondents did not vote in the previous Lok Sabha elections, and in case of long distance movements, the participation further dropped to 31%. Respondents displayed greater participation in the local, panchayat elections and a majority of the migrants (especially short-distance ones) reported going back to the village for the purpose of voting. Migrants shared that they were anxious that if they did not vote in the village, their names would be struck off without explanation and they would be denied benefits of government schemes.
Non-permanent labour migrants tend to come from the most disadvantaged social groups. It is vital that they cast their vote and participate in the political life of the country to bring forth their agenda. Despite the critical need to give space to the voices of this overwhelmingly large segment of national community, the Election Commission has opposed creating mechanisms for inter-state migrants to vote (Choudhury, 2015). In the same year, however, the Supreme Court extended the right to vote to overseas Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) by providing for postal ballots (Chari, 2015)! The invisibility and indifference of the state towards internal migrants is glaring even at local levels. Aajeevika Bureau (2012) finds that despite the higher participation rates of migrant at the source, governance at village, block and district levels remain ill-informed and oblivious to the needs of migrant households. Their concerns are not reflected in the local political agenda or administrative efforts, even though over half of the village (if not more) could be heavily dependent on migration as a form of livelihood.
Civic inclusion at destination remains even more distant. The imagination of urban poor is heavily constricted to slum-dwelling populations. In most cases, non-permanent migrants are too marginalized to even acquire living space in slums, and live completely off-the grid in factories, works sites, pavements and temporary shelters made of scrap. In its interactions with municipal authorities across towns and cities, Aajeevika Bureau finds that municipalities are often not even aware of the presence of migrant workforce in their jurisdictions, or are unable to differentiate between them and other groups of urban poor. For example, when discussing the issue of housing for migrants, municipal authorities cite Rain Baseras as a solution, which was designed for the urban homeless and are highly ill-suited for labour migrants. It is no wonder then that the design and distribution of public services – water tankers, public toilets, transportation and medical facilities – have the poorest coverage in migrant-dense pockets, as municipal policies and designs are oblivious of their presence and needs in the first place.
Housing policies showcase the deep disconnect that urban governance suffers with respect to acknowledging and including migrant populations in their design and implementation. The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yogjana, much like its predecessors and urban rehabilitation schemes, use domicile as the main criteria. Even if seasonal migrants spend about 10 months in the city for 15-20 years, they are highly unlikely to be able to obtain domicile related documents given their existence on the fringes. Moreover, the schemes are based on home ownership and do not factor in the mobility as well as the urban-rural dual existence that millions are subjected to. Currently, a rental housing policy is in draft stage and a system of rental vouchers is under discussion, to subsidize urban poor in acquiring market-based housing options (Nair, 2017). It remains to be seen if the policy will be designed in an inclusionary way for non-permanent migrants. Moreover, a significant barrier in such a market-based approach remains that the supply of housing for migrants is highly limited in the market, restricted to very sub-optimal shelters that are dirty, dangerous and inhumane. There is also wide-scale stigmatization against renting to labour migrants that makes available rooms and houses inaccessible for migrants (Jayaram, Sugathan and Jain, 2018).
The urgent need in policy reform is to do away with such sedentary bias in the design features of its public provisioning, but also to ensure that state boundaries do not function as national boundaries. In the lapse of responsibility by states, it is the Central government’s responsibility that portability and pan-India enforcement of citizenship rights is preserved and upheld in policy and implementation. Unfortunately, the trend in state-centre relationship shows signs of moving in the other direction. The ever deepening shift towards labour market flexibility, has further allowed destination states and industry to abandon of their responsibility towards migrant workforce. Prior to the 1990s, India followed the principle of regional balanced development, with heavy public investments in the so called ‘backward areas’. With structural reforms in the liberalization phase, the logic of industrial policy shifted to regional competition. Niti Ayog, that has replaced the Planning Commission, has distinctly shifted from a pan-India consciousness to openly encouraging states to engage in ‘competitive federalism’ (ET Bureau, 2017). Attracting private sector investments over rival states through greater ease of business has become the thrust of economic relationship between states. Creating this business friendly environment in a competitive, race-to-the bottom manner, has further pushed states to weaken labour and citizenship rights (Rossow, 2016). This further entrenches the discursive environment of viewing intra-state migrants as non-citizens within the boundaries of a destination state, and lends legitimacy to the argument that destination states do not have the moral and economic responsibility to bear the costs of migrant welfare.
Aajeevika Bureau (2014): Their Own Country: A Profile of Labour Migration from Rajasthan. Aajeevika Bureau. Udaipur.
(2012). Political Inclusion of Seasonal Migrant Workers in India: Perceptions, Realities and Challenges. Udaipur: Aajeevika Bureau. Retrieved from http://www.aajeevika.org/assets/pdfs/Political%20Inclusion%20of%20Migrant%20Workers%20in%20India.pdf
Chari, M. (2018). Supreme Court gives NRIs the right to vote, but internal migrants are unable to do so. Scroll. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/article/700175/supreme-court-gives-nris-the-right-to-vote-but-internal-migrants-are-unable-to-do-so
Choudhary, A. (2015). Migrants can’t vote in native place, Election Commission tells Supreme Court. The Times Of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Migrants-cant-vote-in-native-place-Election-Commission-tells-Supreme-Court/articleshow/46901395.cms
Dabhi, P. (2018). Along with three other states, ration card portability is next in Gujarat. The Indian Express. Retrieved from http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ahmedabad/along-with-three-other-states-ration-card-portability-is-next-in-gujarat-5132423/
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Jain P. & Sharma A. (forthcoming). Seasonal Migration of Adivasis from Southern Rajasthan: A Political Economy View of Labour Mobility. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Nair, S. (2017). Draft National Urban Rental Housing Policy 2017: Not-so-strong foundation for rental housing. The Indian Express. Retrieved from https://indianexpress.com/article/business/business-others/draft-national-urban-rental-housing-policy-2017-not-so-strong-foundation-for-rental-housing-4664495/
[NCEUS] National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector. (2007). Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganized Sector (pp. 1-107). New Delhi: Government of India.
CEPT (2014). Housing Conditions Of Construction Workers In Ahmedabad. Ahmedabad: CEPT University.
PTI. (2013). Right to life also includes right to pure food, beverages: SC. The Times Of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Right-to-life-also-includes-right-to-pure-food-beverages-SC/articleshow/24613997.cms
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Shah, A., & Lerche, J. (2018). Tribe, Caste and Class – New Mechanisms of Exploitation and Oppression. In Ground down by growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in Twenty-First Century India (1st ed., pp. 1-31). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
[SLD & IMA] Society for Labour and Development & Internal Migration Alliance. (2017). Access to Rights and Entitlements for Internal Migrants in India. New Delhi: Society for Labour and Development.
Sugathan, S., & Nivedita, J. (2018). ‘Housing for All’ Means Nothing for India’s Migrant Workers. The Wire. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/economy/housing-for-all-migrant-workers
Sugathan, S., Nivedita, J. & Jain, P. (2018). Settlements of the un-sedentary: a study on the living conditions of migrant labour in Ahmedabad city. Manuscript in preparation.
The Inter-State Migration Alliance (IIMA) and Society for Labour and Development (SLD) met with similar findings vis-à-vis Aadhar and RSBY in their study ‘Migrant Workers at the Margin’ (2017) conducted with migrants from Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh and urban destinations of Delhi and Gurgaon.
Some experiments that have worked are simple solutions that inform policy. For example, Aajeevika Bureau’s migrant resource centre in Ahmedabad helped open 1500 bank accounts for migrants by simply providing their office address as the correspondence address and a letter testifying that the person is employed in the city. The organization’s ID card also provides validity of this nature that migrants use to legitimize their presence in the city. The ID card is now being modified to be more specific about the living location of the migrant in the city, by mentioning the factory name (in case of on-site living), or the name of the pavement (with markers such as pole no.) to create a type of documentation that helps migrants assert their claim over spaces they occupy at destination.