We normally encounter this in the digital domain, when certain content is blocked or filtered thus denying us access to information. And if nothing else, it does disappoint us for a moment that we are denied access. Now imagine facing this barrier every day of your life; not in the digital world but in the real physical world. Not allowed to rent a place for you, not allowed to buy a phone, not allowed to open a bank account. For more than 100 million people in our country access to these very things, that we take for granted, is denied.
As a cluster manager at iVolunteer, I get to visit and interact with the staff and beneficiaries of many rural NGOs. During one such visit, I had the pleasure to meet the staff of Aajeevika Bureau, an NGO working to ensure secure and dignified lives to seasonal migrants by providing lasting solution to the economic, social and legal problems of migrant workers. They work with migrant from Southern Rajasthan, from where close to 11 Lakh people migrate seasonally every year.
The hardships around migration are very severe. The migrants usually have no documentation and identity proof and as a result many a times they fall victim to abuse and exploitation at the destination by police. No ID also means they cannot open bank accounts, they cannot buy a sim card and they cannot rent a house themselves. Food is costlier as they don’t have access to the PDS. Usually, 4-6 workers share a tiny room and a common bathroom. Workers on construction sites live at the site itself, braving inclement weather and sleeping on hard surfaces. There is usually no drinking water or toilet facility at the worksite.
Being unskilled means they have to work more while they get paid less. They have no bargaining power and no chance of moving up the work ladder. No bank accounts means there is no secure place to keep money. They usually keep money with the contractor who often cheats them on their deposit. Furthermore there is no secure way of remitting money home, they again rely on friends going back or the contractor.
But then why do people migrate? Do they always migrate by choice? More often than not, it is a livelihood strategy to make ends meet. Southern Rajasthan – particularly the districts of Udaipur, Rajsamund and Dungarpur – are one of the poorest. They are hilly, characterized with low rainfall and thus allowing only single crop farming (largely corn). The land holdings are less than 1 hectare per household, which is not sufficient for one household to sustain for a year. The majority of the population that we are talking about belongs to schedule caste and tribal groups who have been traditionally exploited through underpriced labour and often bondage labour. As I also observed during my Dahod trip, lack of opportunities locally resulted in an inherent trigger for migration.
Migration has off course been the center of rural development policies since long. Most often when we come across government policies on rural development, they speak of “reversing” the rural-urban migration. But maybe it’s time to accept migration as a viable livelihood strategy and work towards making it more “accessible” than putting in measures to curb it and in the process make that 100 million workers faceless and invisible.
Measures for curbing migration have only made the act of migration more problematic. As Rajiv Khandelwal, director of Ajeevika Bureau says “When we started very few people were thinking of managing migration, all policies focused on reversing migration”. Aajeevika Bureau started in 2005 with the vision of addressing the unique issues of migration and thus giving security and dignity to the migrant labour workforce and their families.
They started with providing them Ajeevika Bureau attested ID cards. In the absence of any form of ID, this gave them a sense of belonging. That they were part of this NGO. That they belonged. Rajendra, Ajeevika Bureau’s program coordinator in Gogunda, fondly mentions how the workers call Ajeevika’s center as “their own center”. Through a lot of advocacy efforts, these IDs are now attested by the village panchayat as well. They are accepted as valid IDs to open bank accounts and also to vote!
In order to address financial hardship, Ajeevika started, giving loans to migrants with a small interest rate of ~2.5%. Apart from loans they are also increasing access to insurance, pensions and other financial products to the community. They have also started a skills training institute that provides training to workers in trades such as mobile repair, masonry, tiling, plumbing etc.
Informal labour has no recourse to legal aid as usually there are no written documents. Ajeevika has been training labourers into better working practices by providing attendance diaries, which can be used in case of a dispute. They also arbitrate to settle disputes between workers and contractors/employers. Many a times, Rajendra says it only needs someone educated to speak on behalf of the migrant! At the destination they create informal networks of workers that act as platforms to share problems and act as a pressure group on employer, if required. At source, Ajeevika assists the families of the migrant to provide some financial stability at home by linking the women with NREGA and other government schemes. This reduces the dependence on the migrant and thus allows him to complete his migration cycle
Apart from services to migrant workers and their families, I believe, a big contribution by Ajeevika Bureau has been formalization of data regarding migration and advocacy towards migrant rights. Instead of seeing migration as an issue that needs to be curtailed, they view it as a livelihood option and work towards making it less problematic. Their success shows that maybe it’s time for the policy makers to pause and rethink their presumptions about rural-urban migration. The policies need to accept migration as viable livelihood strategy and should focus on making it work for the people.
Note: A detailed article on this visit is available at: