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Migration Policy and Politics in India

Garima Maheshwari ( is with the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

India Migrations Reader edited by S Irudaya Rajan, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2017; pp x + 188, 695.

The India Migrations Reader, edited by S Irudaya Rajan, provides a basic conceptual precursor to later works, like Climate Change, Vulnerability and Migration (Rajan and Bhagat 2018) and the forced migration theme of the most recent India Migration Report (IMR) 2017 (Rajan 2018). The two later works aptly contextualise the latest issues of intersections between environmental vulnerability and forced migration, along with issues of entrenched social identities. On the other hand, the India Migrations Reader is based on a compilation of insights from the first five India Migrations Reader series published between 2010 and 2014. Therefore, it provides a complete and essential policy background for researchers who have started exploring the contours of migration and its existing policy framework in India.

When read in conjunction with critical current developments in the Indian migration patterns, the book essentially helps formulate answers to two important sets of questions. These questions revolve around “rights” and give a sense of contesting the logistical and mechanistic construction of migration, as is often done by policy. First, despite basic advancements, why does the Indian migration policy framework continue to remain at a rather incipient stage in terms of covering the vulnerabilities faced by migrant labour? Second, what are the interlinkages between India’s structural political economy of capital and the movement of internal migrant labour, and how does this relationship have an impact on the loopholes that can be exploited in the current legal policy framework of migration?

Given the recent trends of reverse migration that have been witnessed from the Gulf to developed centres like Kerala as a result of the latter’s demographic precipitation as well as its rising number of migrating workers from other states, it becomes all the more important to enable changes within the existing migration policy framework. In order to address the rights of migrant labour, this book provides the necessary exploration of economic and social issues afflicting migration policy and politics in and around India.

State, Migration and Justice

Before launching into the international and internal migration patterns that have an impact on Indian migrant workers, it is necessary to understand the fundamental nature and drivers of migration. Clearly, the migration economy is heavily influenced by economic opportunities as well as increasing forced displacements. While the long-term economic calculus does take into account the aspirations of migrants to settle permanently at the place of destination, this is more often true for the diaspora than for temporary skilled and unskilled migrants who venture out to fulfil their economic objectives. This is especially so in the case of unskilled labour migrating to regions such as the Gulf, where the working conditions and recent laws—such as Nitaqat, discussed in this reader—leave them with little choice but to participate in the remittance economy and eventually return home.

“Precarity” is the operational word for the conditions of such workers who migrate from South Asia to the Gulf. There is little corpus of well-institutionalised laws to guarantee a defence from vulnerability. In a way, the economy spawned by migration has become a semi-autonomous and self-perpetuating entity, where the state has become a direct beneficiary of the remittance economy, but has done little to oil and smoothen the cogs of the machinery.1 This has been explained well in the book, which indicts India’s current international migration policy on a number of grounds. The book reflects on the persistence of rather outdated migration laws, which are not well implemented, and the lack of an integrated forward-looking international migration policy.

As flagged in the reader, the paternalistic notion of “protection” as reflected in the Emigration Act, 1983—guaranteeing “protection by exception” only to those with lesser educational qualifications and economic backgrounds—has paradoxically led to an incentive for adverse selection of the recruitment process itself. Middlemen, employers and keen workers remain poised to exploit loopholes in the system by using the “weakness” card. Clearly, the outdated system is at odds with the products and advancements offered by the modern economy, which could be utilised towards just ends. For the authors of the book, this may mean expanding the ambit of protection to include a number of risk mitigation and insurance products and suitably rewarding skilled migrants, so as to equalise the playing field. Essentially, the state should move away from its current role as a protector to that of a facilitator, giving full space to a competitive environment and a deregulation process spearheaded by non-governmental entities.

While these prescriptions are certainly better than the existing corrupt economy of deliberate adverse selection, they should also be placed in their appropriate political context. Advocating for a facilitating role for the state raises larger questions of justice in the state–market divide. How much ground does one actually cede to the market? To what extent can levelling the playing field actually equalise the capabilities of workers? These questions become crucial in the debates on migration, since rights of the migrant workers and the drivers of migration form a contentious part of the obstructions in the migrant economy. Therefore, there needs to be a subtle acknowledgement of the fact that infrastructural improvements will continue to have their limitations in a liberal policy framework, unless political questions of justice and capabilities are concretely addressed.

A recent illustration of this can be seen in the form of policy initiatives being undertaken for migrant workers by the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala. While the policy initiatives to provide a social security net and inclusion to interstate migrant workers across a number of areas, such as education, inclusion in welfare boards, housing, insurance, etc, have met with some success and are aimed at ensuring their rights, the inclusion of bogus numbers and fake accounts and identities always remains a persistent threat. These are not mere negative spillovers from policy, but actual spoilers arising out of inabilities to address capabilities and political capital within the present policy framework and focusing too narrowly on the participatory management of migrant workers.

This context also needs to be kept in mind while appreciating policy advocacy and analysis surrounding international and internal migration debates. Attempts to address the vulnerabilities of migrant workers have been brought out, in particular, in the case of women workers. Both in terms of international and internal migration, the number of women exceeds the number of men. Women are also more vulnerable to forced migrations such as those arising out of environmental factors.

Paradoxically, as has been pointed out in the reader, the current migration policy framework has been designed with the “male breadwinner” model in mind, where women continue to be highlighted as “victims” in need of state protection. This leads to the perverse outcome of driving them further—in search of better economic prospects, which can be cornered outside the protectionist–statist framework—into the arms of the unregulated private recruiters who exploit them.

At the heart of this economy of exploitation lies the construction of migrants as a repository of human capital. This is certainly how the notion of the diaspora is viewed, even in the reader, which does not escape this subtle assumption. Arguably, this preceding notion of capital then feeds into emotional and national attachments. Unknowingly, the human capital framework has become applicable to the entire spectrum of migrant workers, resulting in particularly adverse and exploitative outcomes for low-skilled migrant labour. Their productive capacities are then viewed as capital to be appropriated. This is something that again needs to be kept in mind while appreciating the policy framework around the diaspora. There are no uniform constructions or solutions to the entire spectrum of migration, and one should not get that sense from reading the policy literature in the reader.

Future Prospects

Through many of its suggestions, especially those mentioned in chapters relating to women migrants, the reader exhorts the need for re-examination of given or easy solutions to migration. For instance, the vulnerabilities faced by women migrant workers, such as trafficking, cannot be controlled further, since it often translates into third-party control over migrant workers. As a consequence, the fortunes of migrant workers are dependent on personalised relationships and the goodwill of private recruiters. This might serve to further reinforce organised crimes, wherein third parties take advantage of clear juridico-materially constructed borders. This is interconnected with how the adverse political economy of migrant exploitation begins at the recruitment stage and shows how it is compounded thereafter. It reflects how the migration economy, despite its economic advantage and legitimacy, is languishing in a feudal set-up.

There are no easy market or governance solutions, unless the role of state intervention is complemented with the reform of this archaic framework. As seen in the reader, this would make more sense when advocacy concentrates on the need for migration policies in host countries as well. Given the current global backlash against migration, it would be difficult to negotiate a blanket agreement on such policies in a multilateral forum. On the other hand, bilateral agreements based on mutual self-interest may stand some chance of guaranteeing host country policies for migrant workers. This would clearly target specific groups only, but would lead to positive outcomes if the country of origin is dynamic in its approach.

The reader also mentions economic predictions based on the perception of rising economic growth and better outcomes. The narrowing of the gap between rich and developing countries would change migration patterns in the near future. In skilled sectors, such as information technology, where wage differentials between the rich and less well-off countries would narrow with rising labour productivity, the enticement of better growth prospects may compel prospective migrants to stay at home.

With the shift of productive capacities towards Asia, South–South migration is likely to see a hike alongside changing lifestyles and increased automation in the North. Labour-saving devices are also expected to hit labour demand in many countries. This means countries will have to search for alternative economic arrangements within their own borders.

However, this is not a given and not all of these arrangements are forthcoming. The obstacles faced by interstate migrant workers in India show how difficult it is to overcome the ease with which the migrant is painted as the “other” within the country’s borders. While Kerala is attempting to introduce progressive policies now, it has traditionally witnessed conflicts with both migrant workers from other southern states, such as Tamil Nadu, and, more so, with the less aware and more vulnerable workers from northern and eastern states in India. The reader discusses how the process of informalisation after 1991 has further increased the vulnerability of contract workers, especially of migrant workers, who face their own specific set of problems.

While contract workers may get some access to the political domain through unionisation, migrant workers are usually deprived of this too. This is due to temporary/seasonal migration trends, and the inability to organise workers and disinterest on the part of the local trade unions too. Often, the unions can be seen as embedded within society, with their caste and kinship networks and concomitant prejudices; in this case, determining who participates in the market, and who gets to fight for resources and under what conditions.

The problem with the approach is the mindset that views migration as a social obstacle and a logistical burden, despite knowing how much it contributes to economies where the native population itself leaves a gap in manual and associated works. The reader, despite focusing on rather negative sources of global stability that might ease migration trends, also touches upon the positive idea of migration as a livelihood or adaptation strategy in the case of forced environmental events like climate change and agrarian distress. This provides the space to carry forward the argument. As such, it should be viewed as a part of migrant workers’ agency and an agent’s rational economic choice; although this was dismissed by one of the chapters, putting forward the explanation of forced migration.

As mentioned in the last chapter, the positive aspect of migration being a part of mobility contributes to society’s development pathways. It also feeds into the advancement of global goals like the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which have been touched upon in the reader. The crux and focus on human mobility and, in the Indian context, the right to free movement should be made the basis for lending more teeth to migrant rights, being particularly sensitive to gender and caste identities within them.


The India Migrations Reader provides a comprehensive review of the policy literature and debates on subjects of international and internal migrations. Some of the chapters also touch upon critical political and social contexts that influence policy constructions as well as migration patterns. While studying its recommendations, there is a need to keep in mind the necessity of critically viewing state–market interactions, the construction of migrant agency, and spillovers of vesting them with human capital. This will help contextualise the recommendations in a better way that may sometimes move from the state to the market without sufficiently accounting for justice implications.


1 One of the useful prescriptions to make the role of the origin country more productive—as flagged in the reader—could be to encourage “replacement migration,” where the example of Poland seeking to attract workers from India has been cited due to low-skilled Polish migration to western Europe and the United Kingdom.


Rajan, S Irudaya (ed) (2018): India Migration Report 2017, New York: Routledge.

Rajan, S Irudaya and R B Bhagat (eds) (2018): Climate Change, Vulnerability and Migration, New York: Routledge.

Updated On : 18th Jul, 2018


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