Is the movement of people from the poorest parts of India to the poles of economic growth a sign of distress or dynamism? Or is it both? This is the kind of question which makes the day of the argumentative Indian. But those voting with their feet care little about how they are described. Or what parochial politicians think of them. Migrant-bashing is a popular sport in parts of India, as in many other countries, but the desperate and determined continue to move in search of a better life and opportunities.
This has been known for quite some time. Almost a third of Indians, or over 300 million people in the country, are migrants. Though people are on the move in increasing numbers – from the village to the city, from one town to another, from one state to another, thousands of miles apart — internal migration is nowhere at the top of the policy discourse in India. There is hardly any meaningful national discussion about policies and practices required to handle this seismic development. Typically, the migrant makes news only when the migrant-basher swings into action.
The latest statistics from the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), however, should serve as an alert. Insufficient attention to the dynamics of this migration and interventions to deal with the challenges it throws up has been costly. Some telling indicators: While there has been an overall reduction of 57 per cent in annual new HIV infections (among adult population) during the last ten years, and there is a declining trend in adult HIV prevalence in the six states (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Manipur & Nagaland) once viewed as the hot beds of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the country, HIV is now making its presence felt in places where it was not a concern earlier. One major factor driving this trend is migration. Currently, the six high HIV prevalence states account for 31 per cent of new infections; the northern and central states of Bihar, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal make up more than a chunky 63 per cent. Many of the states confronting the spread of HIV are among the poorest in the country, with abysmal infrastructure, pools of illiteracy and weak institutional capacity to deal with the challenge. The human flow from these pockets to the richer and more developed parts — Maharashtra, Gujarat, southern India and states in the north like Haryana, Punjab and Delhi — have opened up opportunities as well as challenges.
That people seek out greener pastures hardly comes as a surprise. Way back in 2004, I remember meeting Ram Karan, a thin, young man whose weary eyes belied his 28 years in a dark, little room in Piplej, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Unable to eke out a living in Rampura, a drought-ravaged village in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, he had left for neighbouring Gujarat. Ram Karan knew someone who worked in a textile factory in Piplej who helped him get a job. There was no monthly salary, no holidays. The remuneration was based on the number of items he stitched. Ram Karan’s home – where I met him – was a tiny cubbyhole shared with three other migrants. Everyone slept on the floor. For entertainment, the young men watched ‘blue’ movies on a rented television set. I remember him telling me that it was a lonely life. But as he and the other young men said: “We have to carry on.” When they were tired, after a grueling night shift, the young men confessed to buying sex. What about condoms? The young men laughed. “When you are that fatigued, you often forget ….” one of them said to me. The young men were left to their devices. Their employers did not bother about their medical condition, nor did the health system.
This was eight years ago. Things may have changed. Ram Karan’s story, however, is emblematic of the vulnerability of many young people in desperate and not-so-desperate situations who are on the move today.
Migration is an integral part of development. The rising contribution of cities to India’s GDP wouldn’t have been possible without migration and migrant workers. But many migrants and their families still lack formal residency rights and access to basic amenities. Keeping them in that situation, as a part of an underclass, is putting them – and us – at great risk.
The author is a Delhi-based writer