There is no doubt that circular migrants made up a significant proportion of the victims. While the government’s previous responses seem to have yielded little or no results, the government seems to have awakened somewhat from the human tragedy unfolding by announcing a food security aid programme for migrants last week: ₹3,500 crore. Although the government will implement this programme, it is not clear, obsessed with identification and registration, that most circular migrants do not have these documents.

Equally important is the lack of critical data on circular migrants in terms of who they are, where they work, how they are recruited and how vulnerable they are to shocks such as Kovid-19. It is clear that the Indian governments do not have a systematic picture of their existence and have not foreseen the scale of emigration. The crisis should encourage public authorities to collect better data and to work closely with other actors who are listening.

Indeed, in view of the pandemic, it makes economic sense to provide better social protection for Indian migrants. In particular, interstate migrants are unlikely to return home without guaranteed protection.

Just over a decade ago, my colleague and I published an estimate of 100 million circular migrants in India, extrapolating industry estimates. The aim of the event was to raise awareness of the importance of circular migration for the Indian economy at a time when official statistics were criticised for their continued underestimation and the economic contribution of migrants was barely mentioned.

We have produced a number of empirical studies showing that the main subsectors in which migrant workers work are the textile industry, construction, quarries and mines, brick ovens, small industry (diamond cutting, leather accessories, etc.) and processing industry (mining, quarrying, etc.), crop planting, sugar cane cutting, rickshaws, fish and shrimp processing, salting, housework, security services, sex work, small hotels and restaurants/streets and street trading. Our calculations based on these estimates show that the economic contribution of migrants represents about 10% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP).

In a follow-up study, we found that the total amount of domestic remittances to India in 2007-2008 was US$ 7,485 billion. This suggests that poverty and inequality reduce the potential for internal migration as money flows directly to families in the poorest parts of the country.

However, there is a certain reluctance to collect better data on circular migrants and to understand how they are integrated into the economy. This is a shocking situation in a country that works for migrant workers, but it shows the marginalisation of migrants who mainly come from poor and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The question at hand: Will Kovid-19 at least bring about some positive changes?

Who are the Indian migrants?

While the living and working conditions of the average Indian migrant are significant, they are often far removed from decent labour standards and there is little political commitment to improve them. There are no formal contracts, and working and living conditions are determined by contractors, not by the welfare state.

Few workers are aware of their rights as migrants and workers, let alone as Indian citizens. Migrants are an ideal flexible workforce.

According to the 2011 census, 139 million interstate migrants (who moved for reasons ranging from education to marriage and not just for work) have moved. The data confirms the prevalence of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and other Hindi-speaking states as the main sources, while Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana absorbed half of the migrants. (See map.)

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Hot spots for migrants

However, there is still a serious gap as these data simply do not or cannot take into account circular migrants (who move for short periods of time, mainly for labour reasons) due to the complex contracting and placement practices of recruitment agencies such as Dalalas and Tekedars, where migrant workers are never on the employers’ books. Data on the circular migration of women looking for work are particularly weak, as they often work in less visible forms of work or occupations, such as domestic work.

Even in some areas with the highest migration rates in the country, the number of inter-state migrant women is suspiciously low. Take the example of South Delhi, where according to the census there are 1.1 million interstate migrants, but only about 27,000 women migrants, who cited work/employment as the main reason for migration. That’s to say the least.

According to the International Labour Organisation, there are between 20 and 90 million domestic workers in India, many of them migrants. Women’s work is often not recognised, especially in the case of migrants (another reason for underestimating the circular migration of women is the inability to go beyond the primary cause of displacement, i.e. marriage, and to recognise that much work is done after marriage).

Long-term effects

Helping migrants who are in debt and weakened by hunger is vital, not only because it is a moral duty, but also because not doing so would be a disaster for the whole country. We know that when the poor become poorer, there can be serious long-term effects on economic growth. Research has shown that one of the main mechanisms through which inequality affects growth and development is the limitation of educational opportunities for the poorest children, the reduction of their prospects of social mobility and their withdrawal from the caste system.

As remittances will no longer go to rural areas, it will now be difficult for the poor to invest in education and other opportunities to improve their children’s chances.

The government had fundamentally miscalculated the treatment of migrants. There are already signs that migrants have lost confidence in municipal authorities and employers as they continue to leave en masse despite the slow economic recovery. The 11th. For example, 200,000 migrants were said to have crossed the border just before 11 May. Can walk to the border of Madhya Pradesh Maharashtra.

If employers would do more to retain their employees immediately after the start of the blockade, they would be well prepared for a normal recovery in the period after the blockade. Indeed, the experience of the economic downturn in 2008 has shown that industries that have retained their workers are recovering faster. But not all industries are able to retain their employees, as many work with very low profits and government aid came too late.

Surviving migrants are unlikely to forget what happened to them during the pandemic and are unlikely to return to places far from home unless affordable insurance mechanisms are put in place for circular migrants in the informal economy. This means that the Centre must weaken its position in the field of identity and residence documents and system registration.

As remote areas are considered at risk, intra-state migration is more likely to increase and inter-state migration over long distances is decreasing, a trend already observed in the census.


In the absence of reliable and nationally representative statistics on circular migrants, the government will have to rely on estimates of the migrant population from business, NGOs and universities and work with them to provide effective assistance and minimise suffering. There is an urgent need for a minimum bureaucratic response to the current migration crisis that is not limited by proof of citizenship or residence status.

The Government should adopt an approach that provides for the rapid provision of universal services so that everyone, regardless of his or her status as a documentalist, is entitled to assistance in meeting his or her basic food and housing needs.

The participation of NGOs is also important to create a sense of confidence in the provision of aid, as confidence in the government’s social security programmes is at an all-time low. The trillionth economic stimulus package ₹20 has already been nicknamed tera zero for 13 zeros, but the meaning is clear.

In the medium term, there is a need for a better understanding of migrants’ and children’s life experiences of integration/exclusion and the reasons for their migration, which are very diverse. For example, many teenage girls leave the countryside to earn their own income and gain more control over their lives when it comes to marriage and raising children. Domestic work is one of the most affordable forms of work for poor women and girls who have no formal education. It has the potential to reduce poverty through remittances. However, the political rhetoric about their migration tends to portray them as victims without being aware of the consequences of their migration, thus reducing poverty. Despite the wealth of ethnographic research on these issues, the available data does not justify a policy that does not differentiate between the enormous diversity of experiences of different migrant groups.

In summary, circular migration has long been recognised, both in terms of understanding its characteristics and in terms of its enormous role in a country’s development.

Priya Deshinkar is Professor of Migration and Development at the University of Sussex and author of the book Circular Migration and Multi-Location Livelihood Strategies in Rural India, published by Oxford University Press.