Geographies in Depth

India has 139 million internal migrants. They must not be forgotten

A migrant laborer bathes near a hotel construction site on a cold winter morning in New Delhi

Seasonal migrants dominate the low-paying, hazardous and informal market jobs in key sectors in India Image: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

Krishnavatar Sharma
Co-Founder and Director, Aajeevika Bureau
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Geographies in Depth?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Migration is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


This article is part of: India Economic Summit

According to the State of World Population report, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and the number is steadily growing every year. India, where the majority of the population is still dependent on agriculture, is no exception to this trend. As per the census, the level of urbanization in India has increased from 27.81% in 2001 to 31.16% in 2011. Urbanization in India is a consequence of demographic explosion and poverty-induced rural-urban migration.

The Economic Survey of India 2017 estimates that the magnitude of inter-state migration in India was close to 9 million annually between 2011 and 2016, while Census 2011 pegs the total number of internal migrants in the country (accounting for inter- and intra-state movement) at a staggering 139 million. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest source states, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal; the major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

Not so smart cities

To address this issue of growing urbanization, the government of India launched the “100 Smart Cities Mission” in 2015 among other urban development projects. It has also pledged massive investments in the smart cities project. In the last few years, smart cities have become a prominent buzzword among technologists, urban planners, the government and the private sector.

While smart cities may or may not find solutions to the issues of urbanization in India, they have already left behind a major chunk of its population: the poor and marginalized. Among these poor and marginalized lies the doubly peripheral and ignored section of seasonal migrants. When urban planners discuss the issues of urbanization and provide smart solutions, they completely miss accounting for migrant workers as part of the city.

To devise policies and provide services for seasonal migrant workers, the state needs to have a realistic statistical account of their number and an understanding of the nature of their mobility. Unfortunately, the Indian state fails on both accounts. Official agencies tend to underestimate short-term movements, and thus play down or miss seasonal migration altogether, which according to recent field studies account for the bulk of migratory movements for work. Further, census data is collected after a gap of 10 years and is “stock data”, unable to capture the sharp increase in mobility that has occurred in India.

Vulnerabilities faced by seasonal migrants

Seasonal migrants dominate the low-paying, hazardous and informal market jobs in key sectors in urban destinations, such as construction, hotel, textile, manufacturing, transportation, services, domestic work etc.

They have poor access to health services, which results in very poor occupational health. Since they cannot afford private hospitals, they often go back to their villages once they fall sick. This affects their employment opportunities, as well as the loss of wages. A large number of migrants find work as unskilled labourers since they enter the job market at a very early age, experience no upward mobility and remain stuck in the most unskilled, poorly paid and hazardous jobs for their whole work-life span. As depicted in the graphic below detailing the economic lifestyle of migrant workers in south Rajasthan, this has severe inter-generational implications, transferring vulnerability, poor health and low level of skills from the parents to children.

Vulnerabilities of the migrant workforce

In an unorganized and chaotic labour market, migrant workers regularly face conflicts and disputes at worksites. The common issues they face are non-payment of wages, physical abuse, accidents and even death. The existing legal machinery is not sensitive to the nature of legal disputes in the unorganized sector. Many informal sector disputes never make their way to labour courts or keep languishing in courts for lack of proof.

The cities were built on the hard labour and exploitation of migrant workers, but they never entered the consciousness of the architects; instead, they are considered part of the problem in cities. The political class ignores them because they don’t count as votes, especially in the case of inter-state migrants. Due to their mobile nature, they don’t find any place in the manifestos of trade unions. They spend their whole day on worksites and silently sneak into perilous shelters at night, without the cities even noticing them.

Ahmedabad's migrant army

Ahmedabad, which is the seventh-largest metropolitan area in India with a population of over 6 million, is an important economic and industrial hub. There are approximately 1.3 to 1.7 million labour migrants in the city. They come from all directions in north, west and eastern India. Over the years they have come to be identified with specific sectors – tribal migrants from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan form the construction workforce; seasonal migrants from Bihar are head-loaders and cart pushers; migrants from Uttar Pradesh dominate as factory workers and drivers; Oriyas are mostly associated with plumbing work, and the diamond cutting industry is made up of people from Saurashtra. A large majority of them hail from historically marginalized groups such as the SCs and STs, which adds an additional layer of vulnerability to their urban experiences.

These seasonal migrant workers have carved spaces for themselves in the most inhospitable places in Ahmedabad. The choices are varied: rented rooms, open spaces, slums, pavements, worksites, etc. While the rented rooms are severely congested, open spaces are insecure arrangements exposed to the public gaze and eviction drives by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. The most vulnerable of these are the seasonal migrant workers who live on the worksites themselves – while it helps them save money, it also makes them available for work 24 hours a day.

Migration from different parts of the country to the city of Ahmedabad has formed numerous channels of exploitation. Recruited from villages through an elaborate network of contractors, migrant workers end up being a vulnerable workforce that can be subjugated and disciplined easily. The system has become so openly abusive and brutal that migrants find it easier to find work in other states rather than in their own. The contract labour system and a loose monitoring and regulating state apparatus has only helped strengthen these unfair models and practices in the migrant job market.

Building visibility for migrant workers

In the absence of state apparatus, Aajeevika Bureau has devised innovative ways to provide a host of services and solutions to migrant workers in Ahmedabad. Through its Shramik Sahayata evam Sandharab Kendras (3SKs), it has delivered services to migrant workers and developed on-the-ground networks to address their issues.

It provides registration and photo IDs to migrant workers that are helpful in emergencies, employer verification,and at banks. Since the migrant workers have limited access to formal financial services, Aajeevika has partnered with the State Bank of India to provide assistance. Aajeevika has successfully provided registration and photo ID proofs to 16,904 seasonal migrants in Ahmedabad.

Aajeevika also provides legal education, counseling and mediation through its lawyers and paralegal workers. A total of 552 legal cases and wage-related disputes have been registered, out of which 345 have been successfully solved. A total amount of INR 64,29,236 has been settled in favour of the workers. On-the-job training is provided to migrant workers in construction, factory work and hotel sectors, catering to their specific needs. This helps to raise wages, enables better placements and improves their self-esteem and dignity. Over 1,000 young people received vocational training, and 690 placements have been made over the last decade in Ahmedabad.

It also runs Amrit primary health clinics through which it organises health camps, provides consultation, drugs and referrals. Similarly, creches for children of migrant workers, especially at construction sites, are also being run. Aajeevika Bureau has also created platforms for collective action, problem-solving and advocacy.

The challenges are still complex and the lack of recognition for migrants is still to be fully addressed. Unless we view migrant workers as a dynamic part of a changing India, we will not be able to solve the problem of urbanization.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Geographies in DepthJobs and the Future of WorkUrban TransformationEconomic Growth
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

EU falling short of digital transformation goals, new report finds

David Elliott

July 19, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum