Reasons like perennial flood, displacement by natural disasters and jobless growth have forced the people in Assam to flock the cities giving rise to increased regional imbalances and other problems. Assam, no longer can be complacent about the increasing menace. And efforts and measures in the key sectors like agriculture, unemployment and disaster management are needed to address this situation, writes Manoranjan Pegu.

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Image only illustrative. Migrant workers in Dehradun. Image source. Author

Niren Gam, aged 25, from Dhemaji District in Assam, came to Pune in 2009 when his crops were washed away by the floods. He had to leave behind his old mother and three younger brothers. A matriculate with basic work skills, he moved from factory to factory and worked on odd jobs; sometimes as a security guard, sometimes a contractual laborer or many a times just a daily wage laborer. But the work was never easy. ‘We work mostly in 12 hour shifts but many a times, I have to work for about 15 hours. There are no days off’. For a month’s work, Bori barely managed to earn about 3000-4000 rupees and paid almost Rs. 500 a month as rent for a room, he shared with four other men.

Niren is not alone in the city. There are many like him who come to the city with dreams of earning money and to look out for odd jobs in the city. They work as security guards, cooks, salesman and many of them also engage in daily wage labour. And Pune is not the only city where they have migrated to. They have also flocked a considerable number of other cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Trivandrum, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Bangalore etc.

Making sense of the mad rush
Migration as a phenomenon though relatively new has emerged considerably among the Assamese people. The Assamese, who purportedly till yet had a self-sustaining life, have been forced to migrate to other places to earn their livelihood. This new phenomenon of course is but obvious, considering the perennial floods and loss of crops. Agriculture no longer is a viable option for livelihood in Assam. Thus, the Assamese people are left with no choice but to flock the cities in lookout for an earning to support their families back home.

Assam historically has been a destination for immigrants from Bangladesh and other parts of India. Sushanta Kumar Das, an eminent scholar says, “Assam’s immense economic potential, coupled with the reluctance of the indigenous people to do toilsome and hard work, and absence of capital and entrepreneurship made such immigration imperative”. More than 70 per cent of the population depends on agriculture in Assam. But agriculture today is faced with massive problems like decreased landholdings, lack of irrigation facilities, primitive means of cultivation etc. Though there has been a considerable increase in the cultivated area from 34.6 percent to about 44 percent, the average size of operational holding in Assam has declined from 1.47 hectares in 1970-71 to 1.30 hectares in 1985-86. This indicates the impact of the growing problem of fragmentation and sub-division in land holdings. Thus, in a state where more than 64 percent of the total workers are agricultural workers, the failure of agriculture remains a worrisome phenomenon. And the biggest challenge today is to ensure how agriculture can be made more attractive for these small and marginal farmers- which constitute the biggest section among the migrant population.

While according to Professor R. Goswami, lecturer in Cotton College, Guwahati, “The reason behind this migration is a pressing one – survival. The alarming aspect of this migration is that, it is mostly the youth in their 20s and 30s who prefer to migrate. Many of them come back with serious health complications or diseases which is not good for the coming generation”. On being asked what according to him could be a probable solution to the problem, he opines, “There can be no one way approach to deal with such a massive problem and it would need a wide range of policies and programs to deal with it. One important aspect in it could be creating a larger job market in Assam”. The towering tide of unemployment has social, economic and political ramifications. Despite rapid acceleration in the growth rate in India; the pace of creation of work opportunities has not kept pace with the growing requirement giving rise to high rates of unemployment levels. Again the rate of job-seekers is on a constant rise. In Assam only, out of 12,86,388 job seekers registered in employment exchanges, only a 0.17 percent were able to get placements. Besides, there is huge under-employment or disguised unemployment existing in the rural areas of the state, which is putting a heavy pressure on the rural economy of the state. Thus, the jobless youth is resented and has practically nothing to fall back upon. Thus, they choose the inevitable option of quitting their schools or colleges and take the road leading to the cities.

Understanding Migration
Humans have always migrated from one place to another. Though there were historical reasons like search for resources, food etc. most of them were mostly done voluntarily. Today it has undergone unprecedented changes and has become more complex, thereby raising interesting academic debates on it. Factors like displacement by a development project, loss of primary source of income, failure of agriculture etc., interplay with various other reasons to push people away from homes. The “United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families” defines migrant worker as follows, “The term “migrant worker” refers to a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national” Migration is an important phenomenon and has many dimensions to it. Migration, on the one hand helps people from underdeveloped areas to come to the developed areas and earn their livelihood, while on the other it also brings in extreme exploitation.

There can be various classifications of migration. If classified under choice; there are two types of migration-voluntary, when the migrant migrates to another place at his/her own wish and is generally done to fulfill educational and job commitments. The other type of migration is distress migration – when the means of sustaining oneself exhausts in a certain place, then an individual is forced to migrate to another place to earn a livelihood. In this case, the sudden upsurge of migration that has emerged among the Assamese can be identified as forced. Constant floods have ravaged the areas where the Assamese reside and agriculture has been destroyed and thus the Assamese have been forced to migrate to other places in look out for work. People primarily migrate to earn a livelihood. The movement of the upper class is to improve their standard of living and earn more. On the other hand, poverty also forces people to migrate, albeit for survival. Agriculture, which depends largely on monsoon, does not provide for the cash requirements. Thus more often than not the men in the household migrate – either seasonally or permanently. In the former case, they return at the time of harvesting, carrying with them the money earned. In the latter case, the men return home in the light of any emergency or a festive occasion. For the rest of the year they keep sending the little money they manage to save back home, on which the family in the village sustains. Migration has today become a way of life for many people who travel from place to place in search of better wages.

The debate about migration today is centered on rural-urban migration and scholars tend to concentrate increasingly on it. There are varied theoretical classifications to the menacing phenomenon. While neo-liberalist terms it as ‘rational decision’ by free willed individual; the structuralist thinkers view it as the ‘only choice left to be made by the people for their survival. Whatever be the interpretations, there is an increasing need to take concrete attempts to address this ever increasing crisis.

Implications of Migration
It is argued that if the process of migration stops then the development of the country shall also cease. Then what is it that makes migration as a phenomenon to be scared of? Why should migration not be encouraged? There might be various theories and answers to the above question. Many might argue for it and many against. But without doubt, it can be agreed that the migrant laborers are the most exploited lot.

Migrant laborers have always been a marginalized section – owing to the antagonism of the people of the state they migrate to. This has been very apparent in states like Maharashtra where a migrant labour (especially migrants from UP and Bihar) is looked at with hatred and equated as a person depriving the ‘sons of the soil’ with jobs in their own state. We have also witnessed the same in Assam in 2003 when various Bihar migrants were attacked because they were seen as a threat to the jobs of the Assamese people. What follows is that a migrant labour is generally treated with disrespect. Ethnic clashes and fight for survival soon follows where a lot of them also lose their lives.

Migration among the Assamese (or for that matter any type of migration) is a multi-dimensional phenomenon with various socio-political implications. The migration is often driven by an intention to survive and thus there are various factors that influence the migratory process. The contractors (Thekedaar) play a major role in the migration process as he is the one who recruits the migrant worker or get him/her employment. He goes to the village or get in touch with a villager and influence them to come to the city to perform jobs. He assures them employment and place to stay in the city. People also migrate if he/she has a kin who is already working in the city as it eases the process of migration and also the migrant feels safe and secure in an unknown city. Sometimes the contractors also contact workers who have previously worked under him and directly hires from the village. Thus follows a vicious cycle of migration.

Migrant laborers are generally preferred over the local workers and it makes it very easy to get jobs for the migrant labourers. But the preference is done with an agenda. The migrant workers provide for cheap labour and also can be easily exploited. In fact such is the extent of the exploitation that the labourers who usually come in look out to better their standard of living is often pushed towards extreme poverty and deterioration. The exploitation takes various forms and shapes. The migrant workers are paid very low wages which again are paid in lump sum amount after months of work. Thus it becomes extremely difficult for the workers to sustain themselves in the city. Lakheswar, another migrant from Jorhat District of Assam, who works as a security guard of a pharmaceutical company informs, “I am yet to receive my wages for two months. As we live on a daily hand to mouth existence, delays in payment of wages create numerous problems for us”.

The migrants are also completely dependent on the contractor for their shelter and residence in the city. Most of the times the shelter provided by the contractors are in slums where existence becomes a nightmare. Niren lives with five other friends in a single room. There is no enough space to sleep or for the basic minimum needs. It also formed the kitchen during the day and after the cooking is done the utensils are cleaned and stocked up in a corner of the room and it forms the sleeping space. Niren, who belongs to the Miri tribe in Assam sadly admits, ‘All my life, I have slept mostly in open spaces and have grown up in green fields. But today, I am forced to adjust to such a small room for the sake of survival of me and my family”.

The story of exploitation does not end here. Migrant labourers generally wait at Nakas for prospective employers/contractors to come and hire them for work. Nakas is a term referring to a place, where the migrant labourers looking for daily work usually gather in the morning before being hired. Instances of exploitation by the police are rampant. They are treated with indignity at the workplace- by the contractor as well as the employer. And the migrant workers are not protected under the law; especially the seasonal migrants. Thus the Assamese who are essentially seasonal migrants are in extreme stage of vulnerability. In fact there have been a few cases in my village where quite a few of them returned empty handed where they have been cheated by the contractor. Critical questions on how to deal with migration, and what is to be done to generate more livelihood options at the villages remain unanswered.

What can be done?
Dealing with the increasing rural urban migration needs coordinated efforts both at the local and the national level. But perhaps even before dealing with the problems, the existing knowledge gaps on internal migration need to be addressed first. Few very important causes of migration in Assam are; 1) natural disasters especially floods, 2) failure of agriculture, 3) decreased land holdings due to poor implementation of land reforms 4) forced displacement both by natural disasters and development projects, 5) lack of jobs 6) poor implementation of government schemes 7) lack of irrigation facilities etc. Addressing the above mentioned causes will go a long way in decreasing migration in Assam. Concrete steps like monitoring and evaluation of social security and employment guarantee schemes, making efforts to deal with floods, use of modern technology in farming, making provisions for availability of high and fast yielding crops to escape the flood seasons etc. can be taken to mitigate the above mentioned problems.

While the problem can be addressed at the source, constructive efforts also need to be made at the site of destination. Strengthening the social security schemes for migrant labourers and ensuring that their rights are not violated by the employers and contractors can go a long way. Moreover comprehensive registrations of the migrants both at source and destination should be carried out to keep track of them. The companies and other factories employing workers should be asked to strictly abide by the safety regulations and make comprehensive provisions for the benefit and welfare of the workers. One very important step can be allowing the workers to come together and organize themselves to fight exploitation. This in turn means building organizations for this purpose and use of the available legal and political spaces to create a situation where migrant workers can organize themselves. Trade union rights should be respected by the government and also various stake holders like trade unions, workers, employers etc. should be involved in the planning process.

Manoranjan Pegu
February, 2012

Research material for this article was obtained from a number of public reference sites that include Planning Commission documents, Assam census data, journals, and press reports and personal experiences of the author.