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In Conversation with Dr. Benoy Peter – National lockdown and Migrant’s Problem

Dr. Benoy Peter is the Executive Director at Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), an independent non-profit organisation advocating for and promoting the social inclusion of migrants and other socially disadvantaged populations in India. Dr. Benoy is Ph.D. in Population Studies (Migration) from the International Institute for Population Sciences, India and has nearly two decades of progressive experience in assignments ranging from grassroots programme to policy and advocacy, particularly in the area of Migration/Displacement, Public Health and Social Inclusion. He is also a member of the Working Group on ‘Labour Migration to Kerala’ constituted by Kerala State Planning Board for the formulation of the Thirteenth Five Year Plan (2017-2022).
In this interview with the IJLPP he discusses lack of proper data on migrants, major thematic international and national policies and the way ahead. 
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The Economic Survey 2016-17 had estimated that at least nine million people migrate annually within the country. That’s a fact in existence even before lockdown. Most of the migrants have poor living conditions, have no stable livelihood and no guaranteed social security. Thus, you have such a large population with such grave problems, still they remained unnoticed in lockdown considerations. Where does the gap lie according to you?
Dr. Benoy Peter: The nine million by the Economic Survey 2016-17 is highly underestimated. The matter of the fact is that, there is hardly any reliable macro data about migrant labourers in India. The gap lies in our understanding or capacities in responding to labour migration. The last study of temporary labourers by National Sample Survey Organisation was during 2007-08. The Census does not capture the temporary/circular/seasonal migration. Whatever minimal it captures come out at a time when it is outdated. The 2011 Census data on migration was released in 2019. Labour migration has not been a policy priority in India. As a result, only limited information about migrants is available. In the absence of evidence, even development aid agencies do not find migration as a funding priority. Neither is labour migration a CSR priority in India. Without funding, the capacity of CSOs in India to respond to the challenges faced by migrants is limited. Besides, there are only very few CSOs working with migrants. It is this callous unconcern about internal labour migrants by all of us that resulted in our poor preparation to effectively respond to the challenges faced by migrants during the lockdown. 
The issue of migration during the corona pandemic has been a worldwide concern. International organisations such as the World Economic Forum or major civil society groups like IDMC have highlighted how the migrant population is the most vulnerable. Do you feel countries have failed to work collectively or on risk of repetition from the first question, has the modern nation state ignored this classification resulting in the domestic failure?  
Dr. Benoy Peter: Migration has recently emerged as a major issue in the international politics. While technology has made sources and destinations closer, xenophobia has been on the increase. One can easily find it reflecting in the global politics. The presidential elections in the United States, the Brexit, Nitaqat, the case of Rohingyas, the NRC debate in India, everything point towards this. Universally, migrants are perceived as the ones who bring diseases, take away all the money from a place/state/country and responsible for crimes in the city. But these are mere perceptions. The lessons learned from pursuing the MDGs also very clearly points out that the world has failed migrants. If one examines the profile of migrant labourers within the country it can be easily noticed that it is highly skewed towards the Adivasis, dalits and religious minorities. It is also skewed towards the poor, landless or less educated from rural India. These are the people whom we have been constantly ignoring. However, there have been collective initiatives by the countries to safeguard the interest of the migrants. The Sustainable Development Goals underline the importance to address challenges faced by migrant workers. The New York Declaration, The Global Compact for Migration (GCM), all are combined efforts of the nation states towards promoting the welfare of migrants. However, we have been slow. The COVID-19 pandemic is a wakeup call for all of us reminding us that we should no more leave this population behind.
Now with the central government having assisted the migrants to move back to their home states and many migrants having used their own means to go back, will the relaxation of lockdown normalize the situation for them? Or will the same pattern appear? 
Dr. Benoy Peter: While the central government has made provisions to run trains, the workers have to pay for the tickets despite they being jobless for almost seven weeks. Not only the central government or the receiving/sending states, as a responsible society, we did only very little compared to what we could have done. In no way the relaxation can normalise the situation for the migrants. The lockdown has had a catastrophic negative impact on the migrants. Majority of them who are engaged through informal arrangements are less likely to benefit from the MHA directions to provide wages and waive rents during the lockdown period. The loss of livelihoods is going to have a long lasting impact on rural India, particularly the high outmigration areas. The remittances have stopped and it not only impacts the households of the migrants but the entire village economy that indirectly benefits from the remittances. The impact of it will be reflected in the household consumption, resulting in aggravating malnutrition, deepening of poverty and compounding the rural indebtedness. This in turn can augment the distress migration from rural India. Also, we still do not have a grip on the trajectory of the COVID epidemic in India. A rural epidemic could be catastrophic and is likely to exacerbate the miseries of Indian villages. We just heard from the Prime Minister that, the country will have to enter into a fourth phase of lockdown from May 18 onwards. After lockdown, some states have already announced that they will extend the working hours or suspend select labour laws. This will result in a more exploitative work environment for the migrants.
If we are to look into the legal framework, there is only one law to deal with inter-state migration viz., Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. There are few high court judgments on migration related to communal violence. But the executive action has more been done on an ad-hoc basis. Similar trend can be seen in the present situation. What all can be done on the legislative as well as institutional front to ensure social justice to migrants?  
Dr. Benoy Peter: To be frank, there is no dearth of legislation even to protect the informal workers. However, most of it remains only on paper owing to weak labour administration and poor enforcement. The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act 1979 is one of such laws that by and large remained on paper for the past several decades. Most of the inter-state migrant workers do not benefit from the law. Besides, to come under the purview of this law, a worker needs to be recruited by a licensed contractor at the source state to be employed in a destination state. Increasingly labour migration is being driven by social networks. The workers who move from one state to another on their own are not covered under this. This act is getting amalgamated in the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Code under the labour reforms where 44 labour laws are getting merged into four codes. In OSH code, the migrant workers do not even form a chapter at present. With the codes weakening the current systems for inspections and enforcement, migrant workers will find themselves in a more precarious situation. To add to this, in the post-lockdown scenario, many states have already announced freezing the labour laws that protect the rights of the workers. The COVID-19 experience is an opportunity for India to reimagine the social protection for migrant workers. Migration is a fundamental right of a citizen of India according to the Article 19 of the constitution which provides freedom to travel, work and reside in any part of the country. The Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) should ensure that migrants who make vital contributions to building the cities are not excluded in public provisions. 

 

Moving beyond the question of pandemic, what are your final thoughts on what practices should India choose to ensure better condition of migrants? Any lessons from the past which India still struggles to learn?  
Dr. Benoy Peter: Migration has been a major means of empowerment and social emancipation as evident from all over the world. India has the largest diaspora all over the world and is the recipient of the largest international remittances. The country has immensely benefited from migration and the social as well as financial remittances by the international migrants. The people who make internal moves are substantially larger than international migrants. It is important that India gives up its sedentary bias in policies and recognize migration as a solution than a problem. This can get rid of a lot of current barriers that migrant workers face at the destinations. Such a transformation in policy framework can facilitate the transformation of not only India’s urban centers but also rural economies through social and economic remittances of migrants. However, we should promote safe migration, where migration is out of choice but not due to distress or desperation. This calls for substantial investments in rural development so that migration is one of the many choices of a potential migrant. Also, migration is a win win for the migrants as well as the receiving communities. We realized how indispensable migrant workers are to the receiving states from the kind of desperate requests by select states like Karnataka, Haryana and Punjab made to Uttar Pradesh recently to help them receive/retain migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh. While people migrate to urban centers, their living and working arrangements and access to entitlements are poor. As a result, the workers pay a heavy cost given that the precarious living and working conditions and poor access to public services.  This situation needs change. The labour codes need to be revisited to ensure that it is also in favour of the workers as it is to the industries. Ensuring portability of entitlements, collaborations between source and destination states to ensure safe migration of the workers, providing access to legal aid and justice, initiatives to foster financial inclusion of households with migrants, facilitating seamless access to public services, etc. are some of the measures for fostering the inclusion of migrant workers.

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[This interview was drafted and edited by Mr. Pranav Tanwar, Consulting Editor,  IJLPP]

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