One of the greatest revelations of the current pandemic is that it has shown us how badly India has neglected its migrant worker class.
The last few weeks, we have seen poignant images of migrants going back to their homes with whatever ways and means they could – on foot, in buses and now in trains. The estimates on current migration vary from 50 lakhs to 3 crores. The very fact that there is a wide range in the numbers shows the brazen neglect our migrant population has faced.
Watch: Explained – Indian Migrants across India
Urbanization happens as a nation develops
With time, people move in search of greener pastures to make their lives better – to places where there are better opportunities. With better availability of land, labour and capital in a locale, people starting migrating towards it as it offers them better livelihoods. This is the concept of urbanization. The people who migrate towards urban areas are called migrants. Migration is both temporary and permanent – in India, migration is largely seasonal and temporary. Our labour working in construction moves in and out of the area depending on the work.
India currently is 33% urbanized and will move to 40% levels by 2040. China is currently 40% urbanized and a few Latin America (LATAM), North America and European nations are already at 70%. In the Indian context, as per the National Sample Survey (NSS), around 35% of the urban population consists of migrants. Migration can be intra- and interstate. Bihar and UP are the major sending states while Delhi NCT, Gujarat and Maharashtra are receivers.
Since a large part of our workforce consists of migrants, they are essentially the backbone of the economy. Our governments have, however, not given them their due.
Why nobody is taking care of the migrants?
Though there is a population influx from rural to urban areas, the urban constituencies are underrepresented in the electoral process. Urban areas constitute around one-third of India’s population now. However, we don’t have the same proportion of urban constituencies in the country. There are estimates that our urban representation of constituencies is still around one fifth. This lack of representation leads to less development of the urban centres since our governments are not incentivized to develop these areas.
The way some of our migrants live is appalling, with many of them sharing a single room and dozens sharing a single toilet.
Also, many of the migrations are seasonal with people moving to cities for a few months and back to their home states for the rest of the year. Since they don’t want to lose the benefits available in their home states, they don’t register in the urban domicile. Coupled with this, the process of registration is cumbersome and requires multiple follow-ups. A daily wage earner does not have the means and the time to follow up on their registration to vote. This deprives them of their say in the democratic process. A politician faces a dilemma of whether to court local natives of an area or the migrant class. Since the migrants are not adding any votes to a politician’s tally they end up getting ignored by the political class.
Watch: India’s COVID Democracy Crisis: Lockdown of Labour and Liberties
The Way forward
Proportionate representation of our urban constituencies and encouraging voting in the place of livelihoods is the way out to improve the lot of India’s migrant workforce.
Watch: India’s Internal Migrants – Overcoming barriers of Human mobility and development
Demographics of a nation change with time and constituencies on the ground should reflect this trend. Delimitation as per census (which happens every decade) is the best way to reflect these true realities. Only 4 delimitation exercises have taken place till now – 1952, 1962, 1972 and 2002. A gap of 30 years was given between 1972 to 2002 to not penalize states which were implementing population control measures. However, post-2002, getting the next delimitation at 2031 is not acceptable – it leads to misrepresentation of demographic realities. Though interstate delimitation is a complex issue, we can at least delimit our constituencies within the states in the short term to reflect true migration.
A key impediment for migrants to not register in their destination constituencies is their unwillingness to forego benefits at home. With one nation, one ration card scheme this can be taken care of. Also, the government should use mobile to the fullest extent possible to make registration of new voters a paperless and windowless process.
In the long run, we should also look at the concept of foot voting over ballot box voting, as described by Ilya Somin in his book ‘Free to Move’. Ilya argues that in ballot box voting, the voter has very little chance of making a difference and has strong incentives to remain ignorant about the issues at stake. On the other hand, foot voting is expressing one’s preferences through one’s actions, by voluntarily participating or withdrawing from an activity, group or process. People who engage in foot voting are said to ‘vote with their feet’.
Voting with their feet encourages citizens to move to areas with enhanced job opportunities, thus encouraging migration, and incentivizes the local governments to adopt pro-development policies.