Regional pattern of temporary labour migration in India

Regional pattern of temporary labour migration in India

By: Kunal Keshri
Temporary labour migration is a survival strategy of the rural poor in India—more prevalent in the country’s northern and eastern states. However, intra state differences exist with pockets of poverty even within prosperous states, from where socially and economically disadvantaged groups migrate. The phenomenon calls for effective social protection programmes to augment the inadequate livelihood opportunities and negligible access to health care for temporary labour migrants.
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Being a spatial phenomenon, the major contribution in migration research has been made by geographers rather than by demographers. Most of internal migrations are labour centric with a significant proportion migrating on a temporary basis. Research suggests that temporary labour migration plays an important role in household survival and is used as an income diversification and risk-coping strategy in agrarian economies such as India. Prevailing uneven regional development impels temporary intra and inter-state mobility of labour in various parts in India. For instance, women’s labour mobility from Jharkhand and West Bengal in the transplanting season (boro) as well as the harvesting season (aman) of paddy crops (B Rogaly et al., 1998, ‘Workers on the move: Seasonal migration and changing social relations in rural India’; Gender and development) and the seasonal migration of tribal groups from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat to work in sugar mills have been well documented in literature (P Deshingkar et al., 2009, ‘Circular migration and multilocational: Livelihood strategies in rural India’, Oxford University Press). Temporary labour migration is thus predominantly a rural phenomenon dominated by rural to urban migration. Persons belonging to poor and disadvantaged caste groups (scheduled tribes and scheduled castes) with low educational attainments have a high propensity of engaging in temporary labour migration (Keshri and Bhagat, 2012, ‘Temporary and seasonal migration: Regional pattern, characteristics and associated factors’; Economic and political weekly).

By definition, temporary labour migration or circulation is a move made for a short period with the intention of returning to the usual place of residence. Temporary absence from the place of origin of the migrant is a required condition for analysis and duration of six months is generally considered the limit for temporary stay. An important group of temporary labour migrants consists of seasonal migrants, who combine activity at several places according to seasonal requirements. The temporary labour migrant in this study is defined as a household member who stayed away from his or her village or town for one month or more but fewer than six months in the last 365 days for employment or in search of employment.

In India, several empirical studies have enriched migration research. Nonetheless, most of them are micro studies limited to few villages or small geographical regions, which do not provide any regional picture of temporary migration through the country. Few studies have presented patterns and determinants of temporary migration at national and state level (ibid.). But these estimates are aggregates of the country or state that conceal the intra-state or regional differentials. It is therefore, important to explore the regional pattern at intra-state level. The Unit Level Data of the 64th round of National Sample Survey (NSS) (Report No. 533: National Sample Survey Organisation, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India), conducted in all the states and union territories between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2008, provides an interesting opportunity to undertake a study on the geographical pattern and intensity of temporary labour migration.

The NSS collected socioeconomic and migration-related information from 572,254 persons of 125,578 sample households, published in 2010. Migration rates, calculated to study the prevalence of migration are not necessarily based on inflows or outflows; rather these are estimates that show how many persons per thousand are making a temporary move from a particular region. It is important to note that the data on temporary labour migration is collected at the place of origin.

Temporary labour migration rates across the NSS regions have been calculated to highlight intra-state variation. There are 88 NSS regions delimited in the country, which may be assumed as geographical regions. The NSS region, essentially an intermediate unit between the district and the state, typically consist of several districts within a state with similar agro-climatic conditions and socio-economic features.

Regional Pattern of Temporary Labour Migration in India

There are 13,076,510 temporary labour migrants in the year preceding 2007–08 (reference period of the survey) and the migration rate at the national level is 20 migrants per thousand. The regional pattern of temporary labour migration shows that it occurs over a vast geographical stretch under varied socioeconomic milieu (Fig 1).

Beginning from the north, it is observed that temporary labour migration rate of mountainous region of Jammu and Kashmir is almost half (11 migrants per 1000) of the outer hills and Jhelum valley (20 migrants per 1000 each). Further down, an insignificant migration rate with less intra-state variation is found in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. Moving towards the south-west, it is observed that the southern region of Rajasthan maps the highest migration rate (48) followed by its northern (32) and western region (29). Gujarat, interestingly shows a higher temporary labour migration rate (34 migrants per 1000) than the national average of 20 migrants per thousand. Region-wise estimates in south-eastern Gujarat, reveal that its tribal belt with a history of seasonal migration, has a significantly high migration rate of 68 migrants per thousand. The remaining regions—Kutch and Saurashtra, have a moderate migration rate (25 each), while its northern plains have very low migration rates (6 and 2 respectively).

Fig. 1: Temporary labour migration rate (per 1000 population), India, 2007-08
Fig. 1: Temporary labour migration rate (per 1000 population), India, 2007-08

Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India, displays broad variations at regional levels. The migration rate ranges from as high as 45 migrants per thousand in the southern region (Bundelkhand) and 25 migrants per thousand in its eastern parts to as low as nine migrants per thousand in the northern Upper Ganga Plain. The high migration rates may be attributable to the economic backwardness of the southern and eastern regions as documented elsewhere (World Bank, 2008: Report 43573-IN). Bihar interestingly, one of India’s predominant economically backward states, marks the highest temporary labour migration rate in India (50 migrants per 1000) yet is characterised by negligible regional variations.

Among the north-eastern states where each state, except Assam, is comprised of only one NSS region, Nagaland has a significantly high migration rate of 48 per thousand. In Assam the highest migration rate is observed in central Brahmaputra Plains (33) followed by the western plains (15), while other regions have lesser intensity of temporary migration. Meghalaya has a moderate migration rate of 18 migrants per thousand. Significantly high temporary labour migration rate can be observed in West Bengal in its eastern plains region (60), which is dominated by the paddy cultivation that requires a large amount of labour, as documented in micro-level studies. Jharkhand, which also has a very high intensity of temporary labour migration (36 migrants per 1000), displays a considerable intra-state variation in two of its regions. The relatively less urbanised and underdeveloped region of Hazaribagh Plateau has almost twice (46) the migration rate as compared to the developed reaches of Ranchi Plateau (24).

In Odisha, the highest temporary labour migration rate is observed in the southern region (39) which consists of India’s most backward district trio Koraput, Balangir and Kalahandi, while its other regions have a moderate to very low level of migration. In Chhattisgarh only Mahanadi basin shows a high temporary labour migration rate (24). Madhya Pradesh, one of the high temporary migration intensity states, has large-scale variations in migration rates, with the highest in the southern region (51) to the lowest in the south western region (20). It could be noted that all the hilly and plateau regions namely Vindyan Plateau (38), Central Plateau (33) and Malwa Plateau (29) have a very high prevalence of temporary migration; while the south western region is relatively more developed in terms of mines, industries and urbanisation and is also dominated by non-tribal population.

All of the south Indian states, including Maharashtra, have very low temporary migration rates at aggregate level but there are some pockets with moderate to high level of temporary migration rate within these states too. For instance, the inland central region in Maharashtra shows the highest migration rate (29) while in Karnataka it is highest in inland northern region (24). In Andhra Pradesh, both the coastal regions show moderate intensity of temporary migration while in the remaining regions it is less. Insignificant intra-state variation is observed in the migration rates in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Although temporary labour migration appears to be mainly a north Indian phenomenon, some backward interior regions of south Indian states have a significant prevalence of temporary labour migration which appears to defy the overall development status of their states. These pockets of high temporary migration prevalence have also been documented in micro level studies. For example, there is evidence of large-scale seasonal labour migration of the tribal population from south eastern Gujarat to nearby rural and urban areas despite the high growth status of the State (Krishna et al., 2003, ‘Falling into poverty in a high growth state’, Economic and political weekly). Studies have also shown that Gujarat has a history of seasonal migration from its dry, hilly, and tribal dominated areas. The adjoining region of Rajasthan too has attracted several village level surveys due to its diverse ecological and human landscape, with rugged Aravali ranges housing concentrated pockets of poor tribal communities. In 1996 Haberfeld et al.,1999, (‘Seasonal migration of rural labour in India’; Population and policy review) conducted a field survey in the Dungarpur district of Rajasthan and found that seasonal migration was used as compensating mechanism to reduce their disadvantageous status.

There has been a long history of seasonal migration of workers from Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern plain region of West Bengal. It seems temporary labour migration has increased in these areas in last decades—accrued to the increase in rice production in the 1980s and the 1990s. In fact government’s rural employment programmes, particularly Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, have not been very successful in reducing migration from rural areas (S L Rao, 2009, ‘The national employment guarantee act and migration policy: Lessons from Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh’; Oxford University Press).

With a few exceptions, all these centres of high temporary migration are hilly and dry areas, in the interior of the country, with a high proportion of tribal population (Bihar may be an exception but the whole state is backward). Most importantly, these regions consist of some of the most backward and poorest districts of the country.



It may be inferred that temporary labour migration in India is mainly distress driven and poorer people migrate for employment from backward regions irrespective of the level of economic development of the state concerned. Thus, it may be interpreted that the fruits of development have not reached certain regions, marginalising people and forcing them to migrate. This warrants local employment generation and effective social protection programmes to address the issues of inadequate livelihood opportunities, access to health care, and providing education to the children of temporary labour migrants.

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