The issue of migrant workers has been prevalent in India for almost two centuries. Several decades ago, famines caused people of Odisha to flee from their land, and to rehabilitate themselves in West Bengal and Assam. Both states are rich in agricultural land and that suited migrants.
Migrant workers still continue to traverse from their home state to others, where employment on farms is assured. They are invited to work in farmlands to sow and cultivate wheat and paddy. Some 500,000 migrant labourers are engaged in Punjab; some are seasonal workers, while others become residents of the state. Then there are those who, instead of buying land, take some land on rent and continue cultivating. They sell the produce, pay rent to their landlord, save some of their earnings and eventually buy land for themselves. Some of them and their families have even remained there for decades.
There have been cases of migrants arriving in Kerala from West Bengal, sometimes to the tune of two million people. The migrants are confronted with the problem of language barriers, so they usually stay in, and mingle with, their own community.
Seasonal migration for work is a reality in rural India. Migrants move to urban areas for a plethora of reasons, such as excessive poverty and lack of local options.
New corridors in India have opened where large scale movement of workers takes place from Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and even the North-east.
Another news agency states that migrants constitute the highest percentage of India’s unorganised work force. These people are devoid of professional skills, education et al, which results in migrant workers being caught in the web of exploitation, which compels them to work in places offering much lower wages. This may well happen when the distance from their home state to the new state increases. It makes them vulnerable and their situation precarious, since the government of that state may not provide them with legal or social protection.
The Inter-State Migrant Workers Act 1979 was introduced to safeguard migrants; however, due to lack of precise data, it has not been possible to implement this act effectively. The problems continue because migrants are unable to participate in the country’s electoral system and are denied their fundamental right to vote.
In contrast, if we view labourers who have migrated to Assam’s tea gardens, the scenario is completely different. They left their home state due to extreme hardships. However, they were provided housing, subsidised rations and free medical care. These rights have developed over the decades and the governments of Assam and West Bengal have appointed labour commissioners, who monitor the workers’ standard of living and the facilities granted to them. They enjoy voting rights and some of their representatives are also appointed to different departments of the government’s administration.
They have adopted Assam and West Bengal as their home and most of them have lived there for almost two centuries. This is a useful example, which should be studied well and applied to other states to increase the standard of living of migrant labourers and their families.