Uncovering the struggles of India’s internal migrants

June 2, 2023
5 mins read
Image: Wikimedia Commons

‘Kaun nagariya mein tohra baserwa, hamare gail kab abage batohiya, Fijiya ke tapuya rupiah hi rupiah, baithle jahajwa mein kismet bidesiya’

(Which town is your home; when will my husband come? There is a lot of money on Fiji island, my husband battles with fate on the ship.)

‘Dilli mein na rahab na saiya dilli sahariya mein’

(I will not live in the city Delhi.)

In the heart of Mahipalpur area in Delhi, a small house resonates with Meena’s unfulfilled dreams. The half-painted walls reveal her longing for stability, while the exposed bricks speak of her nomadic existence. Tired and uncertain, Meena yearns for a place where she can escape the constant cycle of transience. Words from the above Bhojpuri folk songs convey Meena’s emotions.

Meena and her husband, migrants from Bihar who arrived in 2021, find themselves trapped in the unpredictable grip of Delhi’s hustle and bustle. In Mahipalpur, amidst the bustling chaos, Meena’s discontent lingers. She yearns for a different life, but the prospect of leaving raises daunting questions. Even the simplest acts, like purchasing groceries, are tinged with transience. Instead of buying staples for a week, Meena and her family cautiously opt for a mere two-day supply, always uncertain of when they will be compelled to leave once more. Like a faithful companion, the train has become an emblem of their nomadic existence. Exhaustion consumes her, and she dreams of a place where the burdens of tomorrow do not weigh upon her thoughts. Unable to access healthcare or support, Meena and her husband silently endure the hardships, their dreams overshadowed by the harsh reality of their migrant life.

Migration patterns unveil stark disparities in India

The economic survey from 2016 to 2017 shed light on the striking economic disparity in India. The data revealed a glaring contrast between the relatively less developed states, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and the more prosperous ones, like Goa, Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka.

According to the survey, states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are grappling with a high net out-migration. Economic woes and limited opportunities in these regions have compelled a significant number of individuals to seek better prospects elsewhere. Meanwhile, the relatively more developed states have become magnets for net immigration, attracting individuals in search of brighter futures.

The national capital region, Delhi, emerged as the foremost destination for migrants, accounting for over half of all migrations recorded in the year 2015-16. Its allure as a bustling economic hub and a center of opportunities has been undeniable. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar combined accounted for a staggering half of the total out-migrants, pointing to the severe challenges faced by these states.

Meena, a migrant from Bihar resides in Mahipalpur, Delhi. Image: Akansha Deshmukh

Pandemic Unleashes Disruptive Migration Patterns in India: Over 84% of Temporary Visitors Uprooted

However, our investigation takes a more current turn with the Migration in India Report for 2020-21, released by the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation in June 2022. The report offers a glimpse into the effects of the pandemic on migration patterns, underscoring the human impact of this global crisis.

During the period of July 2020 to June 2021, approximately 0.7% which is 1,13,998 of India’s population was categorised as “temporary visitors.” These individuals were defined as those who arrived in households after March 2020 and stayed continuously for a period of 15 days or more, but less than 6 months. Astoundingly, over 84% of these temporary visitors reported moving due to the pandemic, indicating the widespread disruption it caused.

Delving further into the statistics, During the period of July 2020 to June 2021, the migration rate across India stood at 28.9%. This rate indicates the percentage of people who moved from one place to another within the country during that time. Specifically, the migration rate was 26.5% in rural areas and 34.9% in urban areas, highlighting the varying levels of migration between these two settings.

Notably, females accounted for a higher share of the migration rate, with 47.9% overall. This gender disparity persisted across both rural and urban areas, with 48% and 47.8% migration rates, respectively. In contrast, the migration rate for males stood at a mere 10.7%, with a stark divide between rural (5.9%) and urban (22.5%) areas. Such imbalances warrant closer examination, as they raise questions about the underlying causes and potential inequalities faced by different segments of the population.

Further analysis of the reasons behind migration reveals a striking disparity between the motives of male and female migrants. Across both rural and urban areas, with 48% and 47.8% migration rates, respectively, female migrants reported moving primarily for marriage, reflecting deeply ingrained social norms and expectations. On the other hand, nearly half of the male migrants (49.6%) embarked on their journeys in search of employment, highlighting the pressing need for economic opportunities.

These migration patterns unveil a complex tapestry of socio-economic factors at play in India. The stark differences between the states, the pandemic’s impact on movement, and the gender dynamics inherent in migration paint a picture of a country grappling with multifaceted challenges. 

A female migrant worker captured during her work, head-load on her head, a traditional tool used for carrying sand, cement, and other construction material. Image: UnSplash

Migrants in India: Urgent Need for Data, Policy, and Support

According to Devendra Singh, formerly with UNFPA (2015-2021), now a visiting Senior Fellow at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Delhi, the truth is that India, a country known for its significant migrant population, lacked accurate data on their numbers and living conditions. According to the Census of India in 2011, the country had a significant internal migration population of approximately 450 million individuals during that period. In contrast, the Economic Survey of 2017 reported a smaller figure of 60 million migrants who moved across state boundaries, with an average nationwide migration flow of just 9 million people. This data underscores the substantial magnitude of internal migration within India and highlights the distinction between inter-state migration and overall internal migration.

However, only in 2019 were the migration tables released, a dismal eight years after the census. This failure in data collection highlights a deeper problem – the government’s lack of preparation and understanding of migration dynamics. The consequences of this negligence were felt during the pandemic, as migrants were left without health and social security provisions, standardised wages, or affordable housing. The portability of state-specific benefits remains elusive, rendering them even more vulnerable.

As demographic transitions and economic disparities persist, migration is expected to surge further. However, instead of proactive planning, policymakers have shown complacency. The long-awaited report by the Working Group on Migration in 2017 under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation remains untouched, reflecting a lack of urgency.

To address this grave situation, collaborative efforts between origin and destination states, facilitated by the central government, are imperative. A comprehensive understanding of migration flows is essential for informed decision-making regarding housing, infrastructure, healthcare, and education. Portability of identity proof and entitlements must be ensured, while support systems for families left behind should be established.

According to Singh, National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) must take the lead and form a High-Level Task Force to develop a white paper outlining current and future scenarios, policy frameworks, and mechanisms. Furthermore, the establishment of a separate ministry or independent department dedicated to migrants is crucial, armed with its own mandate, resources, and manpower.

Male workers being transported in a truck, seated at the rear in India. Image: UnSplash.

Leaving Home for Hope

There exists a web of interconnected factors driving this mass movement of people within the country. Economic disparities, lack of opportunities, and the search for a better livelihood emerge as dominant catalysts, compelling individuals to leave their homes and venture into unfamiliar territories. Amidst the backdrop of this human exodus, there are systemic failures and gaps in governance. Inadequate social security measures, a lack of affordable housing, and limited access to healthcare and education compound the hardships faced by these migrants. The ramifications of such neglect ripple through generations, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and marginalisation.

The migrant worker walks on unfamiliar soil, their silent footsteps narrate the tale of sacrifice and toil


Akansha Deshmukh

Akansha Deshmukh is an independent investigative journalist based in India.

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