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The Earth Moves Under Us

Why are official policies so migration-blind? Are the poor so invisible?

The Earth Moves Under Us
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
The Earth Moves Under Us

There’s no doubt about it: Indians are mobile as never before, and also in many more ways. The economic and geographic mobility recently achieved by our elites and professional classes has been so rapid and high-profile as to be awe-inspiring. The movement of professionals and other wage-workers to richer countries spawned the extraordinary socio-economic phenomenon of the NRI, shorthand for a diverse group that has achieved a remarkably powerful political voice even within India.

To that has been added the possibilities of upward mobility through certain kinds of professional education or newer forms of economic activity. All this has helped to shape the economic and cultural aspirations of the ‘New India’ that is constantly being celebrated in the English media. This vitality, which has been aided by the levelling access to mobile communication among almost all income groups, has created among some a heady feeling of positive change aided by the movement of people.

But this is only one—and in fact a relatively minor—part of the Great Indian Migration. There is another kind of mobility of Indians, which also reflects the current dynamism of the economy and the shifting trends in society. But it is a darker process, often more perverse and painful, always more fraught and fragile, indicating in depressing ways the continuing failures of our development projects and how little we have actually achieved for most of our citizens. In fact, the nature of our economic growth—which incorporates people in the process even while excluding them from the benefits of growth—may be forcing more of them to be mobile at great human cost.

Despite the paucity of official data that can capture it, we know that short-term migration for work has become an important feature of the lives of working people across India. Much of this is not new. But there are new features: the increasing incidence of women travelling—on their own or in groups—to find work; the greater willingness of many people to travel long distances for short-term work or even without the promise of any work; the sheer extent of mass migrations from certain areas; the growing likelihood of finding evidence of some migration in almost every part of India.

While some migration in recent years has been because of pull factors, a substantial part is distress-led, driven by the collapse of rural employment generation, the economic difficulties of cultivation, displacement because of development projects and natural disasters and climate change, and also inadequate employment opportunities in most towns and cities.

Most public interventions make this process even more difficult and traumatic. Our public service provision is entirely residence-based: the public distribution system for food, the ICDs, public healthcare and education all require proof of residence in the area. So migrant workers without such proof cannot access public facilities for healthcare, or buy their food requirements from the ration shops, or put their children in local government schools, or even access the local anganwadi for their legally recognised requirements.

We also make mobility more difficult for the poor in other ways. There are no public help centres to redress grievances such as non-payment of wages or terrible conditions of work or even physical violence. Local officials typically view migrants as vagrants and take aggressive attitudes towards them. And they become periodic targets of violence spurred by political groups who mobilise the resentment of local unemployed youth against "outsiders".

There are also no public strategies to assist the families left behind by migrant workers, including women. The social dislocations caused by such departures can be huge, for families and community life. So why are our official policies so migration-blind? One big reason is that the elites barely notice it, except when it appears in the form of cheap labour to provide services. Yet, as long as we fail to address the causes and the features of this larger mobility of the greater number, we commit the entire society (including ourselves) to a more uncertain and possibly less viable future.

(Ghosh is a professor of economics, JNU)


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