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Urbanisation and workers' welfare

Without a uniform policy framework to protect their well-being, migrant labourers toiling in India’s urban townships are being subject to rampant exploitation

Urbanisation and workers welfare

The existing intimate relationship between urbanisation and economic growth is undisputed. It has been documented that the countries which have achieved middle-income levels are those with a minimum of 50 per cent urbanisation and those with even higher incomes are 70 to 80 per cent urbanised. This holds true with India too. As per the 2011 census, though one-third of the Indian population lived in urban areas, their contribution to the GDP was about 65 per cent. According to the World Economic Forum level of urbanisation, India has grown from 27.81 per cent in 2001 to 31.16 per cent in 2011. The UN projections state that by 2050, India's urban population will be 50 per cent of the total. The story of urbanisation, however, goes hand-in-hand with the saga of migrant labour which plays a major role – particularly in the ambit of building infrastructure, production of goods and services and a hoard of other urban economic activities. It has been corroborated by data from the 2011 census that migrants with 10 years stay in urban areas have increased faster by 71 per cent, increase in the number of net rural to urban migrants is 70 per cent -- and 56 per cent of this has been motivated entirely by employment concerns.

Contrary to popular perceptions of migrant labour being the undoing of a government's rural development initiative, researchers find it to be a positive sign and an essential feature of growing economies. Urban India, besides serving as a shock absorber for the rural socioeconomic strife, which of course is a byproduct of poverty and social inequalities, has also simultaneously harnessed a hard-working labour force propelling the urban economy and industrial production. As per the Economic Survey 2017, inter-state labour mobility averaged between 5 to 6.5 million people between 2001 and 2011, yielding an inter-state migrant population of about 60 million, a rise of 4.5 per cent per annum and double the figures of the previous decade. According to conducted studies, more than 100 million migrant labourers live in cities – of whom, around 40 million work in the construction sector, followed by 20 million employed as domestic workers, 11 million in textile industries and 10 million in brick kilns. Street vendors, cab drivers, watchmen, hotel staff, coolies and various other menial jobs are drawn from migrant labour, without whose services life in today's cities comes to a grinding halt. In an economy like ours, where services and industries make the largest contribution to the GDP, such a gigantic productive manpower is a blessing in disguise.

The major source states of migrant labour, in descending order, happen to come from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir and West Bengal, and the destinations unsurprisingly are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala with their rapid economic progress and exponential urbanisation. Delhi itself has more than 5.5 million labourers, around 85 per cent of whom are in the unorganised sector.

Migrant labourers arriving in millions every year from the villages, adding to the manufacturing and service sectors in urban areas, can benefit by growing at a faster speed. Spatial distribution of urbanisation has also been emphasised by economists so that the rural surplus labour can be absorbed to optimum levels. The 100 smart city scheme of the government is appropriately contextual here. However, the vision, documents and roadmaps of urban development and industrial growth can become more pragmatic, aptly in tune with the geographical movement of rural-urban migration.

Economists consider labour mobility as a natural outcome of economic growth, and migrant labour as an essential aspect of agglomeration economies, facilitating a reduction in the cost of production, and growth of consumer and capital markets. FAO (UN) reports that, across the world, the flow of remittances from migrant labour have benefitted the rural economy. Besides addressing the rural-urban divide, labour migration also promotes social mobility and tolerance as cementing factors of national integration. Far from being a problem, migrant labour in India is a solution to many socioeconomic problems in the long run.

However, the potential of migrant labour is hit by the anarchy and vagaries characteristic of the unorganised sector, which largely accommodates them. Problems faced by rural migrant labour are typical, marked largely by exploitation by contractors, sub-human living conditions, 'hire and fire' job insecurity, lack of skill development, among others. Even after staying for 10-15 years, a majority are not enlisted for entitlements like PDS, health, housing etc. Seasonal migrants are deprived of public provision rights when they return home. Slums happen to be their only accessible habitations. Violation of child rights is conspicuous with no crèches, nutrition programs or schools in destination sites. The concept of 'portable rights' has not seen the light of the day. Worse is, they are even deprived of voting rights both in cities and in their native villages. Modern financial facilities and banking services are not within their reach either, due to an identity crisis with respect to KYC.

With millions of labourers migrating to different parts of the country each year, their social and economic security, especially in destinations culturally and linguistically different from their nativity, is a deep cause for concern. They often become soft targets for attacks during unstable law and order situations. Urban development programs do not seem to incorporate issues of migrant labour. Although legislations meant for labour welfare are in force, such as Employees State Insurance Act, (1948), Provident Fund Act, (1952), Family Pension Scheme (1971), Maternity Benefit Act (1961), Payment of Gratuity Act (1972) etc, benefits barely reach the migrants – first, because they belong to the unorganised sector and, second, because they are constantly on the move. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, though well-intended, doesn't address the socioeconomic integration of migrants in urban areas. Kerala made some initiatives in 2010 to address issues like registration of migrant labour, their health, accidental death coverage etc. With the distribution of only 1.89 lakh biometric cards against 25 lakh migrants, the efforts are merely half-hearted.

Dozens of labour laws are in force but they are only regulatory in content and mainly focus on the organised sector – in terms of minimum wages, industrial safety, working hours etc. The larger issues of migrant labour, especially of the second generation, like financial inclusion, housing, health security, education, skill development, among others, have never really been addressed in a binding legal framework for the entire country.

It may not be incorrect to say that a majority of seats for legislative houses being from the rural belt political parties do not find the cause of migrants politically paying. But in the light of UN projections, it will be a mistake to not visualise future India as predominantly urban by the end of this millennium; and, if we fail to address the issues of migrant labour in time, the imminent socioeconomic unrest in the future of urban India can have a catastrophic impact on the political economy as a whole. Migrant labour, a class by itself, concerns all states – both the origins and the destinations. There is a dire need for a uniform policy framework enhancing the socioeconomic absorption of labourers at the destinations and also to protect the rights of seasonal migrants in their native states. Notwithstanding the fact that labour is on the concurrent list, perhaps it is time that a classified central legislation is contemplated, with a binding effect on all states.

(The author is a senior bureaucrat of Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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