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Disenfranchised citizens, unfree labour: The social and political exclusion of India’s internal circular migrants

Too often excluded from political representation and social protection, Indian ‘circular migrants’ need a better deal, argues Indrajit Roy.

Photo by Antonio De Lauri. All rights reserved.

Elections are a regular occurrence in India. In 2014, the country went to the polls to elect its national government. Last year, in 2015, as many as four states witnessed elections to elect state governments, including high-profile ones in Bihar. This year, another four states have gone to the polls, while next year a further three are expected. Nevertheless, the high-decibel campaigning in all these elections has ignored one substantial issue for a significant segment of the country’s impoverished population: the social and political exclusion of its internal labour migrants.

Researchers differ on the number of internal migrants in India, with figures ranging from 30 to 100 million. Yet they concur on the fact that vulnerability and insecurity mark migrant lives. Many labour migrants live in fenced or guarded worksites, with conditions similar to those of labour camps. Some live under tarpaulin roofs with poor amenities, working day and night with little by way of ‘overtime payments’. In a study conducted by Professor Ravi Srivastava of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, it was found that 94% possessed no formal labour contract whatsoever. While labour migrants’ inability to vote either in their villages of origin or in the towns of their destination ensures their ongoing political marginalisation.

Labour migrants’ inability to vote ensures their ongoing political marginalisation

In research I am conducting with colleagues at the University of Oxford, in collaboration with the Koshish Charitable Trust, Asian Development Research Institute and International Growth Centre, I have found both precarious working conditions and political exclusion to be common. Our study surveyed nearly 7000 households in Bihar’s Seemanchal region, where elections concluded yesterday. Our findings suggest that nearly 30% of the households, whose members migrate for work outside their rural homes for four-to-six months a year cannot access their entitlements to subsidised food. Under the public distribution system (PDS), their ration cards are invalid in their destinations of work. These migrants depend either on their employer or labour contractor for food provisions or purchase food in the open market. This significantly increases their cost of living and reduces the additional earnings they might hope to remit to their families. The only social support their families possess is the compensation offered by the state in case of death at work. Because migrant workers are mostly in informal employment and dotted across several sectors and industries, they have little organised space to voice their grievances or articulate complaints.

Migrants’ voting rights are also restricted to their villages – what the census calls their ‘usual place of residence’ (UPR) – despite the fact that they give the best part of their working lives to the city. On the one hand, this reduces their ‘value’ to the destination locality’s politicians, who do not need their votes to win elections. And on the other, it sees them excluded from the electoral process entirely when they are unable to go back to their homes during election time to cast their votes. 35-year old Salim Ali (not his real name) is a good example. He works for a few months a year as apprentice to a tailor in north-west Delhi’s Rohini district, but does not live there. Recently, his co-villagers in Araria cast their vote. But he did not, as he could not afford to leave work and go back. And he is not alone – a study conducted by the NGO Ajivika and their partners revealed that over 60% of itinerant migrants were unable to cast their votes in at least one election for the simple reason that they were away from home.

Labour migrants build India from below. And their continued political exclusion does not behove of the world’s largest democracy.

Labour migrants do not only construct buildings, fire bricks, sweep floors, clean trucks, sew clothes and deliver goods. Their iteration across the country makes the very idea of India a concrete reality for the majority of her poor and impoverished populations. They build India from below. And their continued political exclusion does not behove of the world’s largest democracy. But such exclusion does point to the labour unfreedoms that lie at the heart of their incorporation into global capitalism. For on the face of it, itinerant labour migrants circulate freely across the length and breadth of the country. But their exclusion from social and political rights are indicative of the underlying marginalisaton that renders them pliable and dispensable tools in the business of economic growth.

About the author

Indrajit Roy is ESRC Future Research Leader and James Martin Fellow at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the political sociology of transition in the Global South. His research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of sociology, politics and public policy in a comparative perspective.


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