The people our netas don’t see: Migration, not MGNREGA, is India’s most successful anti-poverty programme


Forget MGNREGA, the government’s flagship anti-poverty programme. Migration is India’s largest and most successful avenue – though not an official policy – of reducing poverty. Alas, the lockdown just killed the migrant economy and sent millions back to their villages into impoverishment, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s expanded MGNREGA will not erase.

Census data shows that individuals migrating for work rose from 30 million in 2001 to 41 million in 2011. This was the very period when India’s GDP growth skyrocketed to 8% and poverty declined sharply (by 137 million during 2005-12). Assuming each individual migrant supported four more people back home, 164 million people benefited from migration.

Assuming the same rate of increase in the 2010s, the number of individual migrants would have risen to 56 million by 2020, and their beneficiaries in the villages to 224 million. Census 2011 revealed that 65 million “moved with the household”. Almost all such moves would be work related. By 2020, their number would be close to 100 million assuming the trend of the earlier decade continued.

Note that a significant number of people have migrated abroad, mostly to the Gulf, and would not show up in census data. But millions of workers fall into this category and total forex remittances to India have been around $80 billion a year. However, the remittances are not all from poor labourers – some are from software engineers and other well-off migrants.

We need to wait for Census 2021 to get the actual data, but even a dilution of the 2001-10 trend would still mean an enormous increase in migrants, with or without families. In recent field trips to Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, I have rarely come across a village household that does not have at least one migrant member in towns who is supporting the family with remittances.

Compare these statistics on migrants with the number of people who are likely to benefit from MGNREGA. In 2020-21, 37 million families will benefit from MGNREGA, according to data from the ministry of rural development, MGNREGA website. The federal government budgeted to spend on MGNREGA Rs 60,000 crore last year and has proposed to spend another Rs 1,00,000 crore in the current year. In short, migration benefits a much larger number of poor than MGNREGA, and the sums remitted are much larger than MGNREGA outlays.

Far from recognising the potential of migration in reducing poverty and making it easier for migrants to assimilate in their new destinations, Indian policy makers seem to think migration is a tragedy. One of MGNREGA’s aims is to reduce migration. Now, there can be cases where migration is a forced tragedy, but it mostly represents people seeing greater opportunity. They find more work in urban areas than in MGNREGA, which is supposed to guarantee 100 days, but often yields less than half that number in many states.

Welfare programmes, such as the MGNREGA or the leaky public distribution system, increase the participant’s dependence on the state. Migration increases migrants’ atmanirbharta or self-reliance. Female agricultural workers from rural Bihar can double their daily earnings by migrating to Patna. Likewise, male agricultural workers from Bihar can increase their daily earnings 66% by moving to rural Punjab, and higher still by moving to major cities like Ahmedabad, Surat, Delhi or Mumbai.

As expected, the first order of benefit from migration goes towards lifting migrants and their families out of poverty. Temporary migration of Bihari farm workers to Punjab for the sowing and harvest seasons means they bring back improved knowledge of how to grow high yielding crops. They also bring back a capital surplus that opens new opportunities for families earlier at subsistence levels. Out migration from rural UP or Bihar reduces the supply of agricultural workers in these states, increasing wages and lowering poverty there. It also ameliorates worker shortages in the destination economies, raising productivity.

India has a huge migrant economy. Migrant workers crowd into townships, small cities, mega cities and in prosperous rural states. Yet, before Covid-19 they were invisible to most people. This explains why, when the government announced a total lockdown for 21 days, no officials anticipated the size or depth of the problems of migrant return.

Why did no one think of migrants? One possible reason is that our policy makers focus on vote banks. Unfortunately, migrants do not belong to any because very often they are not even registered to vote in their new abodes.

A study by Aajeevika Bureau in five states, Bihar, UP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat found that 60% of migrants and 83% of long distance migrants had not voted in the last election because they were away from home. Hence no political parties are prominent in championing their cause. Remarkably, respondents in the Aajeevika Bureau study were on average working in their current location for 10 years. Even long-time migrants find it difficult to register themselves as voters in the cities, and remain excluded from the electoral system.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, pundits attributed Modi’s stupendous victory in UP (winning 71 out of 80 seats) to migrant workers, who brought tales of Modi’s good governance in Gujarat to fellow villagers in UP, convincing others that Modi will bring sabka vikas – prosperity to all. Next time around, migrant workers will remember different stories.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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