migration studies

Migration in India: A Policy Perspective

By: Ram Babu Bhagat
Head and Professor at International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai

Migration has hardly been recognised as that which shapes social structures, cultures and history. Economic aspects and labour market discourse pervade migration studies as opposed to its roots in social theories.
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Migration has been a historical process, shaping social structure, both caste and class relations, patriarchy and family. It also plays an important role in present day regionalism in India invoking the sentiments of ‘sons of the soil’. The impact of migration on the social and political life of people is enormous. But these issues find little place in research and the discourse on migration revolves around its economic aspects and the impact on labour market dominate current literature.

Migration Studies and social structure

India’s social organisation is known for the institution of caste based hierarchical arrangement of social groups where status is determined by birth. Each social group lived in a spatially demarcated area to be identified with the level of purity and pollution. The lowest rung of the caste hierarchy is the Shudras— the untouchables and now called scheduled castes, occupied the outskirts of villages as they were considered polluted. In fact, historically they have been the agrarian working class in the villages, tilling the land that they did not own. The traditional system of procuring agricultural labour tied to land and landowners similar to the system of serfs in Europe was prevalent in India too. This system of caste relations which was both social and spatial was known as Jajmani System which kept the agrarian labouring classes immobile. On the other hand, the privilege of mobility was confined to the Brahmins (priestly castes) and Vaishyas (trading castes) principally, who moved to provide priestly services and the trade of goods respectively. The traditional Jajmani system has been giving way to urbanisation as opportunity of salaried jobs and wage labour in cities and towns are unfolding (Dube, 1990).

Urbanisation provided immense scope for the scheduled caste people to migrate to the cities and free themselves from the yoke of the caste system.  Dr B R Ambedkar also believed in the emancipatory role of migration to cities for the dalits, while Kashiram felt that caste always remained with the dalits, whether they migrated from villages or not (Narayan, 2014).  However, Prof Joseph from University of Mumbai argues that city offers a space for the development of a separate identity and is also a space of liberation compared to the constricting village system (Joseph, 2007). Although dalits generally live in slums in urban areas, it is still different from villages as an urban way of life based on secondary relations and heterogeneity offers avenues of freedom and mobility.

It would be interesting to know how the propensity to migrate varies by social groups. Broadly, two types of migration could be identified, namely permanent or semi-permanent which is identified based on the change of usual place of residence. This category is also generally considered as typical migration in migration studies. However, there is another type of migration which is of seasonal and temporary nature and the migrant is not expected to change the usual place of residence. National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) (2010) defines a seasonal or temporary migrant as ‘a household member who has stayed away from the village/town for a period of one month or more, but less than six months during the last 365 days for employment or in search of employment. This is also called short-term migration—a dominant form of migration from rural areas which mainly occurs as a livelihood strategy.

Figure 1 shows that permanent and semi-permanent migration does not vary much across social groups but seasonal and temporary migration is higher among the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes—the socially disadvantaged groups. Temporary migration also largely occurs in the rural to urban migration stream. Further studies show that the annual rate of temporary migration is seven times higher than permanent/semi-permanent migration (Keshri and Bhagat, 2013). Studies also point out that seasonal and temporary migration is a livelihood strategy among rural households (de Haan, 2011; Keshri and Bhagat, 2012). The largest proportion of seasonal and temporary migrants is employed in the construction industry followed by agriculture and manufacturing (Fig. 2). There is a dearth of data on the actual magnitude of seasonal and temporary migration and estimates vary from about 13 million, based on the NSSO data to 100 million evaluated by individual researchers (Keshri and Bhagat, 2013; Deshingkar and Akter, 2009). The Planning Commission had suggested that there is a need to undertake state-centric surveys to capture the flow and pattern of migration to the various sectors, particularly the construction sector (Planning Commission, 2013). According to the Economic Survey 2011-12, ‘the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has successfully raised the bargaining power of agricultural labour, resulting in higher agricultural wages, improved economic outcomes, and reduction in distress migration’ (MoF, 2012). Even though the disparity in rural and urban wages has lessened, the share of rural to urban migration witnessed a rise (Hnatkovska and Lahiri, 2013). It is likely that MGNREGA may have impacted the reduction of rural to rural male migration, which has seen a fall more than that of the rural to urban migration.

Patriarchy, gender and migration

Migration has been an age and sex-selective process as men are believed to be the breadwinners across many societies. On the other hand, the institution of patriarchy determined women’s migration resulting due to marriage and the movement of family. But in the recent times, there have been many social and economic changes such as globalisation, changes in the structure of labour force and rising education leading to the growing share of women among both international and internal migrants. However, in India, gender relations are shaped by the institutions of family and marriage, deeply embedded within the institution of caste. The mobility of women was controlled and carefully planned within this system either through the normative structure such as a patrilocal residence or in the name of safety and security of women. In the more patriarchal society of north and north-west India, village exogamy is practised combined with the practice of child and early marriages which subjected them to subordination and exploitation. Purdah (veil) system was practised in this part of the country which perpetuated their dependency and curtailed their freedom (Dyson and Moore, 1983).

Women’s agency if measured through independent movement on account of employment is seriously limited in the Indian situation as less than three per cent women migrants reported employment as a reason for migration (MoSPI, 2010).  It seems that women’s agency plays a little role in the process of migration. This might reinforce patriarchy if men have greater access to the job market in the urban areas compared to women. Further, women migrants are generally employed as domestic servants as well as construction workers. Women migrants are also found working as sales workers, beauticians, hairdressers, call centre workers and more. However, the paid domestic work was the most gender distinctive feature of urban wards labour migration by women (Mazumdar, Neetha and Agnihotri and 2013). Studies also show that illiterate women have higher propensity to migrate than illiterate men (Singh, Keshri and Bhagat, 2016). Thus the emerging labour market seems to be segmented with women migrants relegated to low skilled, less paid and less secure jobs of informal nature. This reveals that the cities have emerged as exclusionary, whilst the patriarchal pressure to migrate constantly result in the restraint of migrant women to their home. This results in increased disempowerment and vulnerability of female migrants, who direly require protection and safeguards.

Migration policy

It can be argued that the prevention of migration will be inappropriate as it plays a vital part in development and fulfilment of human aspirations. A prevention of migration may even be counterproductive (World Bank, 2009; UNESCO, 2013; Foresight, 2011). The UNESCO publication underlined that the policies and programmes for the integration of migrants at the destination remain weak or even non-existent and proposed ten key areas for the inclusion and protection of their rights. Migration policy, however, should not only be viewed merely as part of labour policy, but needs to be embedded in the right-based framework.  As evident, the case of India is different in the sense that a vast number of migrants belong to scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and poor. Further, Indian Constitution guarantees right to move as a fundamental right under Article 19.  Social security is a very important aspect of migration policy as approximately 90 per cent of the workforce is employed in the informal sector. Although poverty is a yardstick of many policies and a large segment of migrants is indeed poor, the consideration of poverty as the only status is not adequate. Socio-economically vulnerable migrants need to be protected against exploitation, long working hours, low wages and restriction of movement after working hours. Access to decent living conditions should also be included in migration policy ensuring that migrants are not denied access to housing and basic services.

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Migration should be viewed as a livelihood strategy to urban centres of millions of Indian people and also for many to fulfil their aspirations. In migration policy, a framework should be developed to minimise the negative aspects of migration and efforts should be made to harness the potential of migration for human development.


de Haan A., 2011. Inclusive growth?  Labour Migration and Poverty in India.  ISS Working Paper No. 513, Institute of Social Studies. Available at: https://bit.ly/2HbYwfB

Deshingkar P. and S. Akter , 2009. Migration and Human Development in India, UNDP Human Development Research Paper, 2009/13. Available from: https://bit.ly/2JlqOcQ

Dube S.C., 1990. Indian Society, National Book Trust, New Delhi.

Dyson T. and Moore, M., 1983. Kinship structure, female autonomy, and demographic behaviour in India, Population and Development Review, 9 (1): 34-60.

Foresight 2011. Migration and Global Environmental Change: Future Challenges and  Opportunities, Final Project Report, Government Office for Science, London. Available at: https://bit.ly/2ILMmzQ

Hnatkovska V. and Lahiri A., 2013. Structural transformation and the rural-urban divide,

Department of Economics: University of British Columbia. Available at: https://bit.ly/2sthRnZ

Joseph M.T., 2007. Migration and identity formation: a case study of Dalits assertion in Aurangabad, Migration and Mission in India, Ishvani Kendra/ISPCK, Pune.

Keshri K. and R.B. Bhagat, 2012. Temporary and seasonal migration: regional patterns, characteristics and associated factors,  Economic and Political Weekly, 47 (4): 81–88.

_______________, 2013. Socio-economic determinants of temporary labour migration in India”, Asian Population Studies, 9 (2): 175–195.

Mazumdar I, Neetha N. and Agnihotri I., 2013. Migration and gender in India, Economic and Political Weekly, 48 (10): 54-64.

Ministry of Finance (MoF), 2012. Economic Survey, 2011–12: MoF, Government of India, New Delhi.

Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), 2010. Migration in India 2007–08:NSSO. Available at: https://bit.ly/2LbXuTl

Narayan B., 2014. Kashiram: Leader of the Dalits, Penguin.

NSSO, 2010. Migration in India 2007–08, Ministry of Statistics and Programme  Implementation, Government of India, New Delhi.

Planning Commission, 2013. Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012–2017), Economic Sectors, Vol II: Planning Commission of India. Sage Publication India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi.

Singh N., Keshri K. and R.B. Bhagat, 2016. Gender  dimensions of migration in urban India. S. Irudaya Rajan (ed.) India Migration Report 2015: Gender and Migration,  Routledge, New Delhi. 176-190.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2013.                 Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India, UNESCO, New Delhi. https://bit.ly/2LwRztc

World Bank, 2009. World Development Report: Reshaping Economic Geography, The World Bank, Washington, DC.

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