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India's internal migrant workers get poorer

Experts urge the government to help 'second-class citizens' get a fair share of economic prosperity

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India's internal migrant workers get poorer

Indian migrant workers carry raw bricks at a factory in Lalitpur in Nepal in 2017. Thousands of impoverished people migrate to Indian cities and to neighboring Nepal seeking work. (Photo by IANS)

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India needs to revise its labor and economic policies to include millions of migrants in its economic progress to reverse the widening rich-poor gap, experts told a New Delhi consultation.

Labor migration issues since 1991 were discussed at the Aug. 18-19 consultation that sought ways to include millions of interstate migrants in India's economic development.

"Internal migrants in India are excluded from economic, cultural, social and political life and are often treated as strangers and second-class citizens," Ellina Samantroy, a professor at V.V. Giri National Labour Institute, told the gathering of 100 participants.

India needs to find some mechanism to include them in the progress of India, otherwise the gap between rich and poor will be widened, she said.

The richest 10 percent of Indians own 80 percent of the country's wealth, while half of India's 1.2 billion people subsist with barely 4 percent of national wealth, with those at the bottom of the pyramid going hungry, according to a 2016 report by Credit Suisse.

The richest 10 per cent have been getting steadily richer since 2000, according to Credit Suisse's 2014 data.

"Our development model centers on mega cities and ignores villages, social inequality, social justice and the widening of the gap between the rich and poor," said Jesuit Father Denzil Fernandes, who directs the Indian Social Institute that organized the consultation.

India's economic policy, implemented since 1991, has opened its market for liberalization, privatization and globalization, leading to migration and distress, he said.

Increasing poverty and unemployment because of reducing farmland resulted in large-scale migration to cities and towns, where most are forced to live in slums in abject poverty, the priest said.

About nine million people migrate from one Indian state to another each year, according to the Economic Survey of India 2016-17.  It is nearly double the rate of interstate migration recorded by the 2011 national census. 

The National Sample Survey of 2010 estimated that every 16th person in urban India was a slum dweller. According to the 2011 census, 68 million people live in slums, representing 20.1 percent of the urban population.

Two major processes of exclusion of internal migrants are discrimination against the poor in urban planning and their categorization as outsiders, said Teena Anil, who has conducted case studies of migrant laborers in New Delhi.

"Their right to the opportunities of the cities, including government employment, are often denied with the political defense of the sons-of-the-soil theory," Anil said.

However, nearly all sectors employ migrant workers through a complex system of contractors and agents who are well positioned to exploit migrants, said Sweta, a researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University who goes by one name.

Ojasvi Goyal, a researcher at Delhi University, said most migrants are also victims of alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence and illiteracy.

"There's an urgent need for the government to help them with peer counselling projects, to check child labor and get rescued children admission to schools," Goyal said.

She suggested the government develop a system to register every migrant and issue them with identity cards, police protection and shelter so that they don't become people without addresses in their own country.

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