3 Strategies for Addressing Indian Migrant Workers’ Challenges

In a few short weeks, we will enter the third decade of the 21st century with a dramatically altered world. Amongst many issues, one wonders how the decade will be for migrant workers and their rights in India. After all, low paid migrant workers have been the backbone of India's urban-centric development story so far. 

During the COVID-19-related lockdown in India, we all witnessed the nightmarish spectacle of millions of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres to reach back to their native villages—jobless and without any financial security. A few months later, we heard stories of real estate developers hiring chartered flights to ferry back workers. It showed how the urban-centric economy of India is dependent on low-paid migrant workers. The government took short-term measures like starting special labour trains; providing food; organizing interim relief in the form of ‘Garib Kalyan Rozgar Yojana,’ guaranteeing rural employment for 125 days in government infrastructure projects. There are also medium-term plans for setting up a 'Migrant Workers Welfare Fund' and enrolling the migrant workers under the ‘Ayushman Bharat’ medical insurance scheme. These are welcome measures to reduce the distress of migrant workers. 

But there are more structural challenges faced by the migrant workers. Due to very little regulation of India's informal sector, even with a job, there is zero guarantee of decent working or living conditions for an estimated 72 to 110 million migrant workers. Many of these workers earn much lower income than the market rates, which often fails to meet the educational, health, housing and nutritional needs of the entire family adequately. Yet, the lack of business cases for smallholder farming and minimal regulations in India on population movement will ensure that such migrations continue in the coming decade.

There is zero guarantee of decent working or living conditions for an estimated 72 to 110 million migrant workers.

The larger question would be whether we have calculated the impact of such migration from rural areas on crop production and food security. As per the estimates, there would be around 150 million migrant workers by the end of the next decade. Are we strategically prepared to secure decent work for them? There are three critical and inter-related areas where collaboration between the private sector, government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) could assist in making the best use of India's demographic advantage and achieve sustainable development—particularly, the elimination of poverty in the next decade.

Mitigating the rural to urban migration trend

First, the migrant workers’ suffering during the COVID-19-related lockdown has shown we need regulations to restrict the unbalanced rural population movement from a select few states and to few specific Indian cities. The solution may lie with the much-misunderstood Hukou system of China, initiated in 1958, for regulating free-flow migration of population. The urban Hukou system today provides numerous social security benefits to the migrant workers, including health insurance, retirement allowances, unemployment insurance, maternity benefits, work insurance and housing fund, provided by the employer. Such progressive provisions in the Hukou system allowed China to effectively manage the world's biggest internal migration of 150 million officially registered internal migrant workers in the last four decades. It helped China to develop several urban centres of manufacturing excellence—something the Indian government seeks to do as well. Through such measures, the Hukou system arrested the flight of farmers from rural areas, thus also addressing food security concerns. In India, we can also develop a Hukou-like system in alignment with the federal structure of the country and implement it through a collaborative approach of NGOs, businesses and government.

Investment in sustainable agriculture and progressive land tenure rules

Second, there is a need to analyze how to reduce distress migration of farmers and agricultural workers from the villages. Smallholder farming is leading to working poverty today due to constraints like depleting water resources, diversion of human capital from agriculture, shrinking farm size, soil-degradation, indiscriminate and imbalanced use of chemical inputs and overarching effects of changing climate. The mindless push by the government and businesses for yield increase using subsidized energy, free water and subsidised fertilizers have made the condition even worse. The NSSO data shows one-fifth of the Indian farmers are living below the poverty line in spite of significant increase in the yields over the years. The overproduction-related oversupply is reducing the prices while increasing the cost of production and creating ecological challenges.

A fundamental change is required through the amendment of land tenure rules to facilitate long-term leasing of land to the corporate sector while protecting the rights of the small farmers. It will go a long way in attracting private sector investment for improving rural infrastructure. But more importantly, private sector investment will allow introduction of disruptive technologies to address water and energy shortage. For example, in one acre, it is possible to set up 500 solar trees in such a manner that even tractors can move through them and farmers can keep growing their regular crops. It does not impact their productivity as there is ample sunlight coming from the sides for the crops to perform photosynthesis. The private sector could buy back the power generated, and the NGOs could provide training and maintenance support. The entire process would generate adequate rural green employment and significantly increase the income of the farmers.

Investment in training and re-skilling the labour force

Third, it appears that India is preparing to replace China as the factory of the world. Many believe that India's low-cost labour gives it an unrivalled edge for integrating with the global supply chain. Already a land pool of 461,589 hectares, which is nearly double the size of Luxembourg, has been earmarked in anticipation of foreign businesses shifting their factories from China. However, India is about to face a very different world in 2021 than that of China in the 1980s. The polluting industries of the West cannot be transferred to India today due to enhanced environmental regulations and free flow of information.

On the other end, automation will make cheap workers increasingly irrelevant, as robots and self-service machines replace many of the tasks currently performed by human employees. Maruti Suzuki India Ltd already has one robot for almost every four workers at its Manesar and Gurgaon plants. Robots can today stitch T-shirts at 22 pieces per second, costing $0.33 Cents per T-Shirt, which is way cheaper and faster than $2.10 in Bangladesh. The construction sector provides jobs to the largest number of migrant workers in India. But it is also changing with the 3D-printing robots that can build large buildings and bridges on demand and then there are demolition robots as well. The autonomous vehicles from Apple and Google will potentially snatch the driving profession from the migrant workers as well. 

As per Oxford Economics, there are already 1.7 million manufacturing job losses to robots since 2000, and as per McKinsey, in the next decade, there may be 120 million Indians displaced by automation. At the same time, technology creates new high skilled jobs as well. It is an area where NGOs could join hands with the government and businesses to train migrant workers with relevant skills and get them employed. The average time for reskilling towards a better-paying job may take two years or longer. But the government budgets prioritize foundational education, with only a small share devoted to adult education programmes. Like the way we are prioritising earliest candidates for COVID-19 vaccines, the same way the migrant workers could be identified who have the risk of losing jobs due to technological disruption. Co-funded models between government and employers or co-funding pre-competitive coalitions of businesses as well as special tax incentives would help in bridging the financial gap.

Decent work for all

Migrant workers in India could become the key to India's development in the next decade just the way they developed China in the last three decades. For that purpose, we need to augment the short-term measures taken by the government and the private sector with more strategic policies. Such decisions will also go a long way in India achieving the Principle 8 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) that states, "Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all."