State, markets and civil society have failed migrant workers

India’s growth story rides on the distress migration of the poor and yet this large and growing segment of our population is completely overlooked, says Rajiv Khandelwal, founder of Aajeevika Bureau. In this interview Khandelwal suggests a possible course of civil society action and state policy for migrant workers
aajeevika bureau
Rajiv Khandelwal is the founder and director of Aajeevika Bureau, a specialised public initiative based in Udaipur that provides services to thousands of migrant workers from impoverished rural areas who enter urban labour markets for seasonal employment. Aajeevika Bureau is an attempt to address the problems associated with exhaustion of rural resources and the inevitability of migration among rural youth. 

Khandelwal’s team at the Bureau has designed a number of innovative solutions for migrants, including registration and photo ID services, vocational training, employment counselling, legal aid, financial services, and destination support. The Bureau also actively seeks to influence policy around rural migration and has presented strong alternatives to the government, donors and research agencies. 

Aajeevika Bureau’s work has been picked up by a number of organisations in high-migration states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar and Maharashtra.

In this interview with Infochange, Khandelwal explains what India’s growth story means for internal migrants who have both fuelled and fed off the country’s development. He suggests a possible course of civil society action and state policy for this large, growing, yet overlooked segment of our population.

Some highlights of the interview are: 

How have the state, markets and civil society shaped the discourse on internal migration?

I would say that migrant workers are neglected by all three major columns of society.

The state has largely ignored migrant workers, mainly because it perceives internal migration, or the relentless shift of people from villages to cities, as a problem. In fact, a lot of the state’s programmes are driven by the agenda to keep people in villages. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, for example, is built around the need to help people find local employment. Little is said about the fact that the NREGS does not fully answer people’s need to migrate.

NGOs have divided their work into rural, urban, farmers, artisans, women, children, and so on. Very few NGOs actually define migrant workers as a segment requiring attention. NGOs’ work with unorganised sector workers in the labour market is actually very limited. Even NGOs based in urban areas that receive large waves of migrant workers barely recognise these groups as candidates for support — they are seen as mobile or unavailable. Large trade unions too have left out unorganised sector workers because they are difficult to bring together and mobilise and do not represent significant political gains for them.

Large corporations and the urban industrial economy, I think, are enjoying the benefits of this neglect of migrant workers. In the scenario of deregulation and lax labour laws, they reap the dubious and short-term benefits of a casual and informal workforce.

On whom does the onus lie to ensure that internal migrant workers are not excluded from policy responses and protective measures?

I think the onus has to mainly lie with the state. There is a strong argument, and I agree with it, that in the case of workers in the informal economy, where the relationship between employer and worker is not very clearly established, the state should be seen as the principal employer. It is the state’s responsibility that workers in the informal economy are protected and given services and social security benefits.

With increasing numbers of migrant workers, I also see a significant role for trade unions and NGOs. Large numbers of rural people now live in cities, even if seasonally. India will be poor in its cities, not just in its rural areas anymore. The focus of civil society attention has to start shifting similarly. They have to start seeing migrants as major candidates for services, support and advocacy.

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