Labour-Migrants: excluded from Universal Health Care in India

By Dr Pavitra Mohan, Secretary Basic Health Care Services & Director, Health Services, Aajeevika Bureau

“India is the only country trying to become a global economic power with an uneducated and unhealthy labour force” – Amartya Sen

Following Universal Health Coverage Day yesterday, we reflect upon the state of affordable quality health care for every person, everywhere. In India, the health policy and programs exclude one of the most vulnerable groups from access to healthcare: that of labour migrants. While labour migrants have played a huge role in fuelling the Indian economy, the state and industry has failed them when it comes to providing them good health.

Migrant man worker.jpgMigrant populations are at high risk of ill health, death and disability:

In India, over 100 million people migrate, typically from rural to urban areas and mostly for work in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. Living in unhygienic and crowded conditions in the cities, and working in hazardous and physically demanding occupations, their bodies (their only source of livelihoods) are affected prematurely. Not a surprise then that they are highly vulnerable to life threatening injuries, as well as infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV infection, malaria and diarrheal diseases. In a study conducted by Safe in India, 1,000 workers in the automobile industry in Manesar, Haryana lose their fingers each year, while working in factories that produce parts of the glitzy automobiles.

Their occupation further predisposes them to dangerous and fatal conditions such as silicosis. Their vulnerability is compounded by poor nutrition status. We found that half of all migrant workers, working in the factories or at construction sites in Ahmedabad, are malnourished. Living and working in perpetual stressful conditions and poverty, with limited social networks, away from home, their minds are affected adversely as well.

Migrant populations are excluded from health services and policies

When faced with an injury or illness, migrants are unable to seek unfamiliar and unresponsive health services from the government. Most migrant workers will fail to seek care, or continue working until they can get care, returning home only if the disease reaches an advanced stage. Women workers are not able to access even simple preventive health services, such as care during pregnancy. In a survey we conducted among agricultural workers who migrate from southern Rajasthan to Idar tehsil of Banaskatha district of Gujarat, not a single pregnant woman had received antenatal care. None of the children were immunized.

When the disease gets advanced, migrant workers or their families finally seek care from an expensive private facility, selling or mortgaging their assets and getting indebted for life. Advanced disease or disability also makes them unable to work for prolonged periods, sometimes for life.

Since most migrants work in informal economy, they are not covered with any form of employees’ state insurance at the workplace. In India, of an estimated 423 million workers in the informal sector, only 20.3 million are insured persons, registered under the ESIC. While some of them are registered under state-specific health insurance schemes (such as Bhamashah Yojna in Rajasthan), that does not entitle them, as inter-state migrants, to seek healthcare in the destination state.

In such a scenario, formulation of the new National Health Policy in the year 2016 was a good opportunity to incorporate provisions and financing for the health care of migrants. However, this opportunity was lost since the policy remained silent on healthcare of migrants, and of those working in the informal sector. Meanwhile the urban health component of the National Health Mission, while acknowledging the need to serve migrant populations, does not come out with specific programs or interventions to reach this extremely difficult and vulnerable population group.

Health photo#HealthforAll: Call to Action for migrant friendly health services and policies

It is clear that healthcare in India does not reach the large and vulnerable population group of migrants, their families and communities; therefore, India cannot claim to advance towards universal healthcare, unless it has policies and programs in place to reach these populations. We call for formulation of a national health policy for migrants, similar to that in place in Sri Lanka.

On a short-term basis, the sending and receiving states should work out ways to provide migrant-friendly health services to populations in transition. Labour-migrant populations are not perpetrators or carriers of illnesses. They are unfortunate victims of an unjust system, which uses their bodies for economic growth, but abandons them once their bodies are weakened and spent.

Health 2.JPG


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A Day in the Life of Health Waste Workers in Kurla, Mumbai

By Nisha Bharti, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions

Following Human Rights Day, Nisha Bharti of our Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions considers human beings’ right to decent work, and reflects on the life of health waste workers in Mumbai.

All of us get stuck in traffic everyday. How does it feel when you realise that the vehicle beside yours is a garbage collecting van? Do you remember the stench of a sanitary napkin filled with menstruation blood? What smell do you encounter when you enter patients’ wards in hospitals?

Does not the act of recalling the smell coming out from the garbage collecting van, the stench of a used sanitary napkin and the smell of patients’ ward in hospital itself make you gag?

Nonetheless, there are people engaged in sorting varieties of stuff from garbage. The dumping yard and garbage sorting unit are their workplace. They work in this gut-wrenching environment for more than eight hours in a day.

I visited one of the units in Kurla, Mumbai, engaged in sorting wastes from a hospital with one of my colleagues, Deepak.  He asked the only male worker whether I could sit and observe the work being performed at the unit. The man indicated towards a table near entrance and said, “Yes, she can sit there.” As I entered the workspace, the gendered division of work was apparent. The male worker was charged with unpacking the waste bags, and four women workers were sorting out the garbage.

On seeing me one of the women workers invited me to sit with them. “Nothing happens, we have been working here for a long time, and nothing has happened to us”, she assured me. I sat on the stairs behind them, and asked a few questions, which were met with silence. I decided to remain a non-participant observer, but intermittently asked questions hoping that they would respond to some.

Women working, surrounded by health waste, including used sanitary napkins and diapers

Cramped, inhumane conditions

The size of the unit was approximately 400 sq. ft. Of this, only 100 sq. ft. was available as a working space, with the remaining space being used to store garbage. The waste keeps coming in every day, with each bag weighing around 5 to 10 kilograms. Women sit in groups of two, with six polythene bags beside them to sort out the waste. At a regular interval, the male worker unpacked the garbage bags in front of the women, making the strong stench in the room unbearable.

Waste and #HealthforAll?

The waste came from hospitals, and consisted tissue papers, newspapers, x-ray envelopes, medicine tubes, blood stained cottons, packaged food containers, hand gloves, surgical masks, plastic bottles used for different purposes (drinking water bottle, bottles used for giving saline, glucose and blood to patient), medicine covers, used sanitary napkins, used diapers etc.

The workers performed their tasks in a perfect rhythm. They kept tissue papers, used tea cups, snacks paper plates in one bag. Plastic bottles in another. Hand gloves and surgical masks in a different bags, sanitary napkins and diapers in another, medicine covers and the covers of packaged foods (hard papers), were all sorted into different bags. The bags were replaced with a set of empty ones as soon as they were full.

The male worker performed both tasks efficiently – unpacking the waste bags in front of workers and replacing the bags (after sorting) with another set of bags.

Seeing these by-products of health care delivery, I struggled to reconcile waste workers’ abject working conditions with the aim of #HealthforAll. How could affordable, high-quality health care for everyone ever be achieved, if workers continued to work in unhealthy, unsafe, degrading conditions, sorting through other people’s health waste? How could we claim we are nearing goals of human rights and universal health coverage when workers continue to put their health at risk in search of a regular wage?

Health and safety?

I asked the women why they did not use masks or hand-gloves. One of them informed me, “Nothing happens even if we do not use them. We (pointing towards another lady) are working in this unit since fifteen years. Nothing has happened to us till now”. The man added defensively, “We have no dearth of gloves and masks, but by using gloves they get boils in their hands and masks make them feel suffocated.”

These women work from 9 in the morning till 7 in the evening, with an hour of break in the afternoon. Women workers go their houses for having lunch. I asked them whether they get paid on a fixed rate basis or daily basis. They reported that until 5-6 years ago, they were paid on a daily basis. They were receiving Rs. 120 per day. Now they receive payment of Rs. 6,000 every month. They further added that they are ok with the low salary. “For us it is good that we got work in our own locality. We do not have to run for bus or for local train. We do not encounter the rush in the local train.”

Suddenly, a man entered the unit and began shouting at the women workers. He said, “You should continue working here only if you are going to work properly. Some of you take leave for a day but disappear for a week. The seth incurs loss and he scolds me. I am warning all of you!” He added, “You people asked for tea and we arranged it twice in a day. Some of you ask money instead but this cannot be done. If you want to drink tea, then drink it! Money will not be given!”

One of the women workers attempted to pacify him, “You have said it all. Now onwards, no mistake will be made. Please convey this to seth”.

After sometime, I left the workspace and walked towards the supervisor. He told me that the sorted waste would be sent to other units in nearby locality where they will be pulled apart into small pieces, before being sent to Vapi for recycling.  All the paper will be recycled into tissue, the used medicine covers would become new medicine covers.

I left the unit with a heavy heart. How could a population engaged in crucial recycling have to work in such pathetic conditions, in the absence of even basic facilities?

A right to decent work

The world celebrated Human Rights Day this past Sunday. A fundamental human right is the right to work – but not to just any work. All human beings have the right to work with dignity and humanity. It is not enough to simply generate jobs, create employment and spur economic growth. The jobs which India creates must be dignified jobs that protect workers from harm and ill-health, and guarantee their basic human rights.

As the fastest growing nation in the world, it’s time that India took the lead in treating workers with respect. We cannot allow such perverse consequences to arise from basic health care provision to our citizens. We cannot permit people to endanger their health by shifting through other people’s health waste. India’s Clean India initiative, Swaach Bharat, must recognise the wider objectives of decent work, and raise working standards for waste workers across the country.


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‘Leave no one behind’ must include the unseen, unheard women and girls of India’s vast informal sector

By Clare Murphy-McGreevey, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions

This International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we face a starker situation than ever before. One in three women face violence – equivalent to a public health crisis.

This crisis is not limited to so-called ‘developing’ countries. Across Western nations, powerful men, working in industries as wide-ranging as politics to entertainment to academia, have been outed as sexual predators. The depth and breadth of the MeToo campaign has revealed just how many abusers are lurking in our homes and workplaces. If this doesn’t make the case for ‘universal’ development, where aims like the total elimination of violence against women apply to all countries, then I don’t know what does.

The sprawling informal sector

In India, over 90% of the labour force works in the informal sector. Unregistered, unregulated, unorganised labour exists right under our noses, but the lived experience of workers remains invisible.

Harassment in these workplaces happens under the radar. Casual, migrant female workers rarely raise their voices, or receive media attention. They tend to be the most defenceless of Indian society: they belong to Scheduled Tribes and Schedules Castes, and are considered to be the lowest of the low in the social hierarchy. Seemingly, these women are worlds apart from female Hollywood celebrities outing Harvey Weinstein, or the contestants of the Miss Peru pageant, highlighting the endemic nature of harassment and violence.

Violent spaces

Rural abuses

In the rural construction sector, the hiring process itself is a form of sexual harassment, while the naka or labour point is a site of abuse. Our ongoing research in the Salumbar block (Udaipur district) indicates that adolescent girls of 14 to 17 years of age have become the dominant workforce in the rural construction sector.[1] Girls are recruited as day labourers because of their vulnerability: labour contractors and supervisors know they will be powerless against any abuse or ill treatment.

Girls report being recruited on the basis of their appearance, while observation of nakas reveals that girls have to slather on makeup and show off their youthful good looks to attract prospective employers. Once hired, they must play by men’s rules, entertaining male advances to keep their jobs and gain future work.

Girls and women report that verbal abuse is constant, and that they are regularly addressed with gaalis, not their own names. This sort of behaviour is heavily normalized, so it is near-impossible for girls to challenge it, especially because there is no guarantee that other sites would be better. Given this treatment, it is little wonder that girls of 14-17 living in rural areas are fleeing the workplace: the greatest decline in female labour participation is happening here.

Urban harassment

Urban construction sites are also spaces of insecurity and violence. Of all the spaces in the city, women report they feel most unsafe at the construction site where they work. Even women who sleep on the street every night say they feel less safe at the construction site, because they face the hourly prospect of harassment from their supervisor.[2] Male family members may know abuse is happening, but they dare not take action and risk their jobs.

Vana, a construction worker in Ahmedabad The contractor sometimes abuses or complains if I frequently go to the washroom. Because of this, I go to the washroom only 3 times a day. . .sometimes we don’t even get a break for having tea. We have to have it as quickly as possible while the work goes on.[3]

Construction workers.jpg

Public spaces should be safe places

Worksite harassment in the informal sector will take a long time to correct: it will involve structural change to the patriarchy engrained in the informal sector. But right now, the government can ensure that its public service delivery spaces are safe spaces. The abuse and name calling which regularly happens at the ration shop and the MNREGA worksite must end. Pet schemes like Swacch Bharat, most recently used to publicly shame those who defecate in the open, must return to its original aims, and stop humiliating citizens if they cannot afford to build a toilet.

[1] Study conducted by Aajeevika Bureau’s Salumbar field team, including Vikas Pathak, Prema Dhurve, Parashram Lohar and Payal Gandhi.

[2] Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions’ ongoing housing study, Ahmedabad.

[3] Ibid.

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Migrant women workers and the everyday hunt for a toilet: whose Swachh Bharat is it?

By Nivedita Jayaram, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions

This World Toilet Day, we can spare a thought for the millions of migrant women workers in Indian cities, who rise hours before their husbands to find a private place to relieve themselves.

Imagine waking up as early as 3AM everyday, to hunt for a pay-and-use toilet and relieve yourself before the sun rises. What if this is the only time that affords you some privacy and allows you to avoid long waits to use the toilet? Finding the toilet in your locality closed, what if you had to walk additional miles in those unholy hours to look for another one, which may or may not be functioning?

This is the story of Shantaben, who lives with her family on a pavement in Ahmedabad, where they have migrated to seek work in the city’s construction sites. In fact, her story echoes the daily struggles of numerous migrant women who perform casual and unskilled labour in our large cities.

World Toilet Day image.jpg
Many migrant workers in Ahmedabad live on pavements, forcing them to resort to open defecation or expensive pay-and-use toilets

Migrant workers enable rapid economic growth in India’s cities by contributing physical labour to expanding industrial activities. However, these cities do not offer them any housing options. Ahmedabad depends on a 1.3 million strong migrant workforce to fuel its factories and construction activities. Earning less than a living wage, migrant workers in Ahmedabad are unable to afford housing even in the city’s slum settlements. They have no option but to live in open spaces or in labour colonies near their worksites.

In Paldi and Narol areas of Ahmedabad alone, there are approximately 2,500 migrant workers’ families living in open spaces – on pavements, under flyovers, near railway tracks and on open grounds. The majority of these households rely on the pay-and-use toilets in their localities to meet their sanitation needs.

Aajeevika Bureau, which has been observing and documenting the condition of migrant workers in the city, shares the experiences of migrant women. . .

No such thing as a free toilet

While free public toilets exist across cities, they are usually not functional and are too dirty or clogged to be usable. A migrant family living in open spaces in Ahmedabad typically spends an average of Rs. 1,200 on sanitation in pay-and-use toilets every month. This means that more than a tenth of their meager income is spent in accessing the very basic service of sanitation. Even then, each family member can use the toilet only once.

The situation at worksites is not any better, as many construction sites in the city do not have functional toilets. Women workers have to leave the site, taking time off their work hours to go outside and seek a private spot.

Women migrant workers who live in labour colonies near their worksites suffer a similar plight, as Somaben’s experience reveals. Waking up later than 5AM is not an option for her as the labour colony does not have toilets. She has to go out in the open before it is light outside. She then quickly proceeds to bathe in the labour colony’s shared bathing space before the men wake up. The bathrooms have no doors. If she is delayed, she will have to endure stares, vulgar comments and harrassment by men who crowd around the bathrooms from 6 AM onwards.

Multiple implications for migrant women workers

“Women report that they only use the toilet one time everyday, before daybreak, even during menstruation and pregnancy.”

The lack of access to basic services, especially sanitation has multiple implications for migrant women workers. Women report that they only use the toilet one time everyday, before daybreak, even during menstruation and pregnancy. They often refrain from water or food intake throughout the day to avoid the urge to use the toilet.

Not only is their health and wellbeing affected – they also face adverse impacts on their time use and productivity. Women migrant workers are faced with a high intensity of work, both at the worksite where they perform physically strenuous tasks, and at their living spaces where they carry the disproportionate burden of care work and managing the household. They often work late into the night, only to wake up unreasonably early and spend valuable hours seeking out toilets.

While safety of women has come to the forefront of public discourse in India, there is very little recognition of the pervasive interaction between sanitation and violence in our cities. Open defecation areas and public or shared toilets have increasingly become sites of harrassment of women, offering them no privacy or respite from the ever-present male gaze.

A Swachh Bharat for whom?

“The loud Swachh Bharat Abhiyan aspires to make India ‘open-defecation free’ by 2019. While our cities scramble to meet this government mandate, a fundamental question remains – open defecation free for whom?”

Migrant workers are highly mobile and temporary populations, who are on a constant move between their villages and destination cities. As floating groups, these communities are pushed to the peripheries of the city, both spatially, as well as in the imaginations of urban policies and programmes.

There are an estimated 100 million seasonal and circular migrants in the country. Ahmedabad, a fast growing urban area, demonstrates that over 1/6th of the population in our cities can comprise migrant workers, who are outside the reach of basic services, including toilets. Women workers in the city are doubly disadvantaged as they face gender-based challenges in accessing sanitation. Yet, Ahmedabad bagged 14th place amongst the 100 cleanest cities in India, and all urban areas in Gujarat have been declared open-defecation free.

For female migrant workers, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan represents an empty promise, and a potential threat: women are increasingly being publicly harassed and humiliated for defecating in the open, even in an absence of viable alternatives. If this mania for cleanliness that has swept the country with a single-minded fervor of constructing more and more toilets is to remain, it is necessary that it at least be sensitive towards the specific sanitation needs of the most underserved and invisible populations.

As we reflect on the state of the world’s toilets today, we must acknowledge that the continuous assault on the safety, dignity and privacy that millions of migrant women workers in India endure every day has to end. A cleanliness drive means nothing if it is not inclusive of a large proportion of the population, whose labour feeds the economy. If the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is to deliver on its lofty goals, it must offer safe and dignified sanitation for women migrant workers.



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  • 27 out of 182 constituencies in the Gujarat state assembly are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, but politicians continue to ignore the invisible Adivasi migrants working in Gujarat’s thriving commercial centres
  • Adivasis constitute almost 15% of the state’s population, but live and work in horrible conditions, and are excluded from Gujarat’s growth story
  • Earnings from labour migration represent 80% of adivasis’ total cash flow

Ahmedabad, 15 November 2017: Ahead of the Gujarat State Assembly elections, three civil society organisations working with Adivasi migrant workers have come together to issue their joint demands to party candidates.

Bandhkaam Mazdoor Vikas Sangh, Bandhkaam Mazdoor Sangathan and Mazdoor Adhikar Manch have created a Charter of Demands, under the newly-formed collective: Sthalantrit Adivasi Shramik Manch. These demands reflect the views and feedback of Adivasi migrants, who constitute a significant proportion of the Gujarat electorate, and yet who remain invisible and voiceless, working within key farms, factories and commercial hubs across Gujarat. The Stalantrit Adivasi Shramik Manch calls for urgent action to support the Adivasi migrant population and ensure that migration is safe, secure and beneficial to migrant families. Its full list of demands addresses the unique vulnerabilities which migrant families face, both in their home village and in the destinations where they work.

In the upcoming Gujarat State Assembly elections, major political parties are busy wooing Patidars, Thakors and Dalits, who respectively constitute 12%, 20% and 7% of the state’s total population. The most vulnerable and exploited social group, the Adivasis of Gujarat, constituting a significant 14.75 % of the state’s population, seldom receive any attention from political parties and the media.

Please read our full charter of demands, here.






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Sthalantrit Adivasi Shramik Manch: Charter of Demands to Gujarat Political Party Candidates

Civil society organisations, Bandhkaam Mazdoor Vikas Sangh, Bandhkaam Mazdoor Sangathan and Mazdoor Adhikar Manch, working on the issue of Adivasi migration in Gujarat, have issued the below Charter of Demands to the political party candidates. We have come under a common platform “Sthalantrit Adivasi Shramik Manch” to highlight the core concerns of the most marginalized and vulnerable section of Gujarati peoples belonging to Scheduled Tribes:

Data, intelligence gathering and insights on migration

  1. Presently there is no data on the number of adivasi workers migrating out of their villages for work. A Database on adivasi migration shall be set up, based on the registration of adivasi workers at source villages, through the institution of Gram Panchayats.
  2. Adivasi migrant families to be tracked and monitored so that educational, nutritional, ration and health services are provided both at the source and destination.

 Legal protection and redress

  1. For promoting the safety and security of adivasi migrant workers, separate adivasi legal re-dressal cell with judicial powers shall be setup at the district level to deal with disputes related to minimum wages, non-payment of wages, caste based discrimination, sexual harassments and violence, accidents and accidental deaths.
  2. 24/7 Labour Helpline to be setup to register cases and provide immediate relief to adivasi migrants in distress and bondage.
  3. Cases shall be heard at the courts near the source villages of the adivasi migrants.

 Immediate relief to families facing accidental death

  1. Relief fund of Rs. 3,00,000 to be provided in case of accidental deaths of adivasi migrants through the Chief Minister’s funds

 Social security for families in their home villages

  1. Under the National Food Security Act, adivasi migrant families have to be provided rations (wheat at Rs.2, Rice at Rs.3) through food coupons or mobile ration shops at the destination. Mobile ration shops shall be kept in close distance to settlements where adivasi migrants live in huge numbers
  2. Provision of 200 days of employment to women Adivasi migrants at the source villages through better implementation of MGNREGA.


  1. As part of Town Planning, Temporary Labour Colonies with basic facilities shall be established for adivasi migrants.
  2. Enumeration and official recognition and documentation of informal settlements where adivasi migrants have settled. Such settlements have to be provided with basic facilities such as water, sanitation, health and education.


  1. Safer journeys: when adivasi families migrate to cities, they have to pay extra charges for their children and their luggage in the buses. As they are from a vulnerable background, government buses should provide a 100% waiver of luggage charges up to 2 bags and children up to 2.
  2. It shall be made compulsory that employers have to transact wages to Adivasi migrants through individual bank accounts. This helps in establishing direct relationship between the employer and the employee.
  3. Under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, adivasi migrant workers have to be linked with cooking gas facility with a cylinder of 5 kgs.
  4. To improve the appalling state of education and high drop-out rates among adivasi children, the number of student hostels has to be increased in source areas and mobile schools has to be setup at the destination.
  5. Under the Gujarat Building and other Construction Worker Welfare Board (BoCW), 50 % of the funds have to spend on the welfare and social security of adivasi migrant workers in the state. Necessary representation of adivasi trade unions and civil society organizations has to be ensured in the BoCW council.
  6. At the worksites, adivasi women and children have to be linked with health services of the state like Anganwadi, vaccination etc.Movement
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Demonetization: fraud by another name?

By Sangeeth Sugathan, Executive – Migration Services, Aajeevika Bureau

Galba Charpota, an adivasi migrant worker from Banswara district in Southern Rajasthan, looked shoddy and drained when he entered Aajeevika Bureau’s office in Ahmedabad. He and his wife, teenage son and daughter had migrated to Ahmedabad a long time ago, in search of work because of agrarian distress back in their village. He presented us with a shabby, worn-out Cheque which his employer had given him to settle his family’s two month’s hard-earned wages. Galba seemed extremely uncomfortable making sense of the vocabulary and intricacies of the cheque. As we skimmed through it, we realized that it was unduly filled by his employer with incorrect information and that the cheque had expired three months ago. Soon the picture became clear: Galba had been slyly tricked by his employer through the instrument of a cheque.

Financial inclusion? Or financial fraud?

Since the announcement of demonetization, a large number of migrant workers have been cheated out of their wages through cheques. In our experience at Aajeevika Bureau, a civil society organization supporting migrants, 43 workers in Ahmedabad have been victims of financial fraud since November 8 2016, losing out on Rs. 4,14,015.
These numbers are likely a gross under-estimation of the reality on the ground, since migrant workers tend to approach formal avenues of redressal only in extreme scenarios of deprivation. Our close engagement with these workers has helped us unravel the multiple ways of financial fraud that have come to the forefront in the last one year.

Cheques: a new route to wage theft

When employers issue cheques, more often than not workers cannot cash them. Employers issue a cheque to the worker most likely to have a bank account in the village back home. But when the cheque bounces due to insufficient funds, the workers then need to file a legal suit in the court near to his bank branch. Since migrant workers lack numeracy skills, and are completely new to formal finance institutions and instruments, they are usually unable to seek legal recourse, and lose out on their wages altogether.

Employers also encourage their workers to wait for months before depositing the cheque with their bank, arguing their savings will increase if they wait. With blind trust in their employer, workers wait so long that the cheque becomes invalid. Workers’ wages disappear into thin air.

chequeFigure 1: Unduly filled Cheque by a worker

Bank accounts for the poor?

Demonetization has driven up the demand for bank accounts, but the supply side has failed to meet the demand of workers. Since the SBI amended its minimum balance rules making it mandatory for account holders to keep a monthly balance of Rs.5000 to maintain a savings account in metro cities, migrant workers have been forced to open Jan Dhan accounts. These bank accounts are not migrant worker or remittance friendly: they have transaction limits of Rs.10,000 per month and deposit limits of Rs.50,000. These limits make Jan Dhan accounts unviable for sending remittances back home, a core concern for migrant workers.

The objective of bringing India’s poor and working population into the fold of the formal financial system is admirable, but it cannot overnight, as demonetization did. It is a long-term endeavor – requiring stronger financial literacy campaigns designed for migrant workers. It also requires a strong correction to the supply side – to the likes of the SBI who fail to supply bank accounts which the 150 million migrant workers in India can actually use.

Thus far, demonetization has resulted in a proliferation of financial fraud and wage theft – hitting the poorest, most unskilled workers – those who are most vulnerable to financial shocks. As we see repeated cases of workers stripped of their wages, we are reminded of the danger these kinds of grand schemes hold.


Figure 2: Workers left jobless at Raipur, a prominent naka (labour point) in Ahmedabad.

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Development as freedom and connection

By Clare Murphy-McGreevey

Amartya Sen said that development is the ‘removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency’ (2001, xii).[1] My recent experience in the adivasi villages of Southern Rajasthan brought to life how development brings not just freedom to the rural women from India’s Scheduled Tribes, but also human connection and shared experience. I saw how women’s empowerment groups provide a safe space for women to engage in unfettered social engagement and interaction.

In a culture where females are required to cover their faces in the presence of older men (through the practice of ‘ghoonghat’), the weekly gathering offered an opportunity to reveal their faces, to make eye contact, to laugh and smile with other women. Rural, adivasi women are multidimensionally deprived and face a range of vulnerabilities, which are heightened when their husbands migrate to Gujarat and Maharashtra for work in the textile and construction industries.

The women’s empowerment groups I visited were led by the relatively better-off women, with some farm lands and livestock. To an outside observer, one might think that these women, comfortable in their asset holdings and land ownership, would be less interested in claiming their rights to government benefits, let alone helping other women do so. But instead these leaders saw all village women as equal participants in the process of change, and in the consistent, ongoing battle for their rights. They were active in fighting back against corrupt ration dealers changing the rules on who could claim rations, and panchayats who denied the right to work. Networks of kinship, trust and friendship between women and across the scattered farmlands of Southern Rajasthan act as a powerful collective force for justice.

IMG_4773 (2)

Collective action: women fighting for women

Meeting three leading activists of collective action in the small town of Aspur, I saw how when just one woman is denied her right to work, a force of dozens rally, march and conduct ‘sit-ins’ in front of the panchayat’s ‘bhavan’ or office. The activists had led the women workers of Aspur to demand their full compensation from the panchayat, for work undertaken under the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

The three activists are wives, mothers, farmers, tailors, textile workers and leaders of collective action. They manage these various duties with flair and with comfort, saying that their many roles are all part of who they are. Their passion for their cause is evident; they would be glad to demonstrate all night, if it got just one woman her entitlement to work. As I watched these women’s faces, bright, confident, smiling, mothers, wives, farmers, labourers all rolled into one, I thought that they are living the values of Gandhi in present-day India, and bringing his aspirations to life.

Clare Murphy-McGreevey is a new Aajeevika Bureau fellow. She has a background in poverty and development studies, with a focus on social protection and public policy.

[1] Sen, A. K. (2001). Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press, p. xii.

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Reflections on Diwali: behind the firecrackers and temples

By Krishnavatar Sharma, with Clare Murphy-McGreevey and Nivedita Jayaram

As the nation prepares to celebrate Diwali, Aajeevika Bureau reflects on the plight of the unorganised workers behind this festival. A vast labour force produces the stone of Hindu temples, firecrackers, clothes and other products synonymous with the festival.

As many pay their respects at temples across the country, a dark truth hides behind the beautiful stone carvings: the stone itself is capable of killing. The stone carving industry in Pindwara block, Rajasthan is renowned for its ornately carved stones, supplying to temples within India and overseas. But large volumes of dust, with very high silica content, are released on carving with machines, exposing workers to a deadly respiratory disease called silicosis.

When Aajeevika Bureau began its work in Pindwara three years ago, this disease was completely outside the purview of the state. Through regular health screenings, we were able to ascertain that 1 in 10 workers in Pindwara suffer from silicosis, which affects over 1000 workers in the region. Yet, only eight factories are registered under the Factories Act, and less than 10% of these workers get Provident Fund (PF), Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) or insurance coverage. Aajeevika Bureau now assists workers and their families in accessing compensations and social protection.

Obscure value chains, where it is hard to identify the principal employer, and religiosity make it easy for the industry to escape responsibility towards its workers. Safety features in factories are done away with in order to cut the costs of production. “Yeh to bhagwan ka kaam hain” – “this is God’s work, why do the workers need any protection”, ask the employers.


The daily struggle for rights

The original meaning of Diwali is the triumph of good over evil, when Rama defeated the demon king Ravana. This struggle is alive and well in India today in women fighting for their rights and entitlements. Two examples illustrate this point.

  • Women are demanding their rights to food and work from public officials. The solidarity groups Aajeevika Bureau runs have helped women overcome female seclusion and patriarchy in the villages, ranging from addressing gender discrimination and violence within their homes, to participating in Gram Sabha meetings.
  • Women in Daad village, near Aspur, are standing up to injustices created in the name of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Here, police have frightened and terrorised households without toilets, publicly shaming them each morning. They have told women that they can only claim their rations if they have a toilet, when in fact there is no such Government ruling. Ration dealers can encourage households to build toilets, but they cannot withhold rations on this basis.

As we celebrate with our family and friends this Diwali, we should remember the Diwali tradition of helping those less fortunate, and join in their collective fight to claim their Government-mandated rights and entitlements.



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होशियारी की मुंबई

होशियारी की मुंबई                         

हाल ही में मेरी दोस्ती मालपुर [सलुम्बर] के नारायण से हुई जो मुंबई

Narayan with Parasram

Narayan with Parasram

में कंस्टकशन की लाइन में ठेकेदारी करता है|  रक्षाबंधन की छुट्टी में गाँव आये नारायण से पहली मुलाकात में ही बढ़िया तालमेल बैठ गया | फर्राटेदार बातें करने की कला नारायण को और युवाओं  अलग पहचान दिलाती है |  नौ साल से मुंबई में काम कर रहे नारायण ने अपनी जिंदगी में भी उस शहर की तेज़ी और उर्जा को बड़े सलीके से  संजोया है| 25 की उम्र में उसका खुद पर भरोसा देखने लायक है |

“मुंबई में ढीले रहे तो लोग जीने नहीं देते, मेहनत ज्यादा तो पैसा भी ज्यादा | काम की कमी नहीं है | पर किसी और के भरोसे नहीं चल सकते, खुद का दम ही काम आता है|‘’ नारायण के मुँह से कुछ ऐसे ही जुमले बार बार निकलते हैं |

हालांकि नारायण ने जो भी काम किया मुंबई में ही किया लेकिन अपने तजुर्बे की झलक कुछ यूँ देता है वह – ‘’मैंने 12 साल में दुनिया देख ली है | काम ही सगा है, और कुछ नहीं | ‘’

अपनी बीमार माँ के गुजर जाने के बाद पहली बार मुंबई के लिए निकला था तो महज 16 साल की ही उम्र थी| बीमारी का कर्जा इतना हो गया कि पैसा कमाने के लिए जाने के अलावा कोई रास्ता नहीं था | 10 वीं  तक पढ़ लेने के बाद उसको पढने का मौका दोबारा नहीं मिला | जब अपने दोस्त के साथ पहली बार मुंबई की बस में बैठा तो उसकी उम्र के लड़कों  की तरह उसे भी कुछ नहीं पता था कि वहां काम क्या होगा? कैसे रहना होगा ? इतना अहसास था कि वहां गाँव के कुछ और लोग भी हैं |

सच में, नारायण के गाँव में अभी भी गिनती के पक्के घर हैं | उसे आज खुद इस बात पर भरोसा नहीं होता कि मुंबई में वो कितनी बड़ी बड़ी बिल्डिंगों के काम ठेके  में लेकर करवा चुका है | आज जब भी वह गाँव से मुंबई के लिए वापस जाता है तो उसके साथ भी कुछ नए लोग मुंबई की बस में चढ़ते हैं, इसी भरोसे पर की वहां नारायण है वो संभाल लेगा उन्हें |  नए लड़कों को नारायण का सीधा सपाट मार्गदर्शन होता है – ‘’ देखिये होशियारी रखोगे तो कमा के खाओगे, नहीं तो किराये के  पैसे भी किसी और से लेने पड़ेंगे |’’ नारायण की वजह से कई लोग अब मुंबई में कारीगरी का काम करने लगे हैं|

नारायण का एक भाई अहमदाबाद में ठेकेदारी करता था | मुंबई का एक काम उसके पास आया तो उसने नारायण को बोला अगर वह चाहे तो ये काम खुद करवा ले वहाँ | नारायण को लगा मौका अच्छा है उसने काम ले लिया | कंस्ट्रक्शन नयी लाइन थी उसके तो पहले तो मुश्किल हुई लेकिन फिर मज़ा आने लगा| जल्दी ही ठेकेदारों और बिल्डरों के बीच अच्छी जान पहचान हो जाने की वजह से एक के बाद एक काम मिलने लगे | वर्तमान में नारायण कई नए लड़कों को अपनी साईट पर काम देता है | काम सिखाता है और शहर में रहना भी |मुम्बई में नारायण की शुरुआत  भी चाय की लोरी से हुई | नारायण कहता है – ‘’चाय पीने के लिए तरह – तरह की खोपड़ियाँ [ लोग] आती थी | छोटा था तो मजाक उड़ाते थे मेरी | पर इसने बोलना भी सिखा दिया |  अच्छे लोगो से भी जान पहचान हो गई|  उसके चलते एक सेठ ने उसे अपनी किराने की  दुकान पर काम दे दिया | काबिलियत देखी तो पगार भी अच्छी मिलने लगी| सेठ का भरोसा कमाया तो सेठ ने भी उसे बहुत अपनापन दिया|‘’

हालांकि गाँव के लिए उसका लगाव कम नहीं हुआ है | शहर की  परेशानियां  कभी कभी सब कुछ छोड़ कर गाँव की ओर खींचती हैं, लेकिन फिर लगता है कि काम यहीं है तो यहीं सही है| छोटे से कमरे में 10-15 लोग, वहीं खाना बनाना, सोना, थोड़ी मुश्किल तो है जिंदगी लेकिन अच्छी है |


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श्रमिक सहायता एवं सन्दर्भ केंद्र , सलुम्बर

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