ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Marginalised Migrants and Bihar as an Area of Origin

Avinash Kumar ( teaches at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Manish Kumar ( is a research scholar at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Outmigration from Bihar in search of livelihood has been normalised over several decades, with Bihar being one of the topmost states of origin for the migrants. Unemployment rate in Bihar remains higher than the country average. Agriculture has become unviable over the years due to low yields, increasing landlessness and lack of financial support by the state. The return migration to the state in the wake of COVID-19 necessitates that the state generate farm and non-farm employment to address the crisis situation.

The working and living conditions in which migrant workers, who carry out back-breaking work to support the Indian economy in the cities, have hardly remained hidden from the public view. The plight of these workers became a subject of international attention after a nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020 at 8 pm (to be implemented after four hours). Not only did the state demonstrate total neglect of the marginalised migrants, but it also rendered them stateless, further exposing them to a world of infections, insecurity, and humiliations. With no state support and the loss of employment, the lockdown initiated a painful process for the migrants.

According to a recent survey conducted between 8 and 13 April 2020, 90% of migrant workers in various states did not get paid by their employers, 96% did not receive ration from the government, and 70% migrant workers did not get cooked food (Hindu 2020). Thousands of migrant workers across the country started to walk hundreds and thousands of kilometres to reach their native places. According to the World Bank, in just a few days of the lockdown, around 60,000 people had moved from urban centres to rural areas (Economic Times 2020). Soon, news reports started pouring in that several migrant labourers and their family members, including children, lost their lives on their way back, either out of hunger or road accidents (Rawal et al 2020).

Rural economies such as Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh are agricultural-based regions with the majority of the workforce dependent on related occupations. However, because the agricultural productivity of these regions has remained low, these states have failed to sustain the local population. Hence, the workforce from these regions chose to migrate to towns and cities in search of livelihoods. One of the other main reasons for migration has been the problem of landlessness.

Outmigration from Bihar in search of livelihood has been normalised over several decades. But amidst the COVID-19 crisis, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Nitish Kumar expressed its inability to bring back the migrants stranded across the country despite the decision of the centre to ease the lockdown to facilitate the interstate movement, many expressed their anger on social media (Financial Express 2020). It was only much later that these migrant workers could go back to their native states in Shramik special trains (Dutta 2020). Surprisingly, it was the migrant workers who had to foot the bill by paying the increased ticket price for their journey back home (Pandey 2020).

Given the plight of migrant workers amidst the COVID-19 crisis, we have attempted to understand why Bihar, despite registering a higher growth trajectory in the last 15 years, has continued to remain one of the topmost areas of origin of migrant workers. We also analyse whether the much-celebrated growth story of the NDA government in Bihar also includes measures to address the causes of outmigration from the state.

Migration Trends

The history of migration from Bihar dates back to the colonial period when the British used to send workers from this region to other colonies. However, migration continued from the state even in independent India. It was in response to the increased demand of labour due to the green revolution in the north-western part of the country in the early 1970s. Later in the 1980s and 1990s, migrants moved towards cities on the western coast and the southern part of the country from Bihar. This soon became a widespread phenomenon, cutting across the hierarchy of caste and class. The occupations in which they got involved in the big cities, like those of construction workers, security guards, rickshaw pullers, etc, remained highly caste and class dependent. Over the years, it became an accepted fact that remittance played a critical role to support livelihood in the state (Chanda 2011).1

The Census 2011 is the latest official data on migration in the country. However, the Economic Survey of India 2016−17 had reported that there were 60 million interstate migrants in the country. Another study suggests that the short-term migrants, who work in the informal economy of India, are around 60−65 million (Srivastava 2020). In the case of Bihar, a study finds that almost half of the households in Bihar have at least one migrant person (Times of India 2020).

According to the Census 2011, there are approximately 55 million interstate migrants in the country, that is, people whose state of residence is different from the state of enumeration. The top five destinations include Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Haryana. Together, these states attract almost half of the interstate migrants. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh are among the top five origin states for interstate migrants (Table 1). The top five origin states account for 30 million interstate migrants, that is, 55% of the total.

According to the Census 2011, 7.5 million migrants reported Bihar as an origin state. The maximum number of migrants cited “search for work/employment” as their reason for migration, followed by “moved with household.” Among the preferred destinations for migrants, Jharkhand is at the top with 18%, followed by Delhi with 15% (Table 2). However, the reasons for migration to different states are quite different.

Since Jharkhand and the most substantial part of Uttar Pradesh share the same cultural background with Bihar, marriage is one of the most important reasons for migration to these two states. Also, since Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in 2000, it has also remained a significant employer of workers from Bihar as it retained the maximum number of industries. The census also reports that migrants from Bihar prefer Delhi the most for their work/employment. Delhi is also a preferred destination for education (Table 3). Out of the total migrants who have left Bihar citing work/employment as a reason, 18% reached Delhi, 13% Jharkhand, 12% West Bengal, 12% Maharashtra and 7% Gujarat. These five states also see the same trend in the category of “moved with household” as a reason for migration.

The National Sample Survey (NSS), 2010 had recorded 4.7 million migrants from Bihar in 2007−08. So, it indicates that in the next four years (until 2011) while the population of Bihar increased by 38%, the migration from the state grew by 59.6%. The higher growth rate of migration than the population growth reflects the shrinking work opportunities or work environment in the state as one of the possible reasons. 

Reasons for Outmigration

The extent of employment generation at the origin has a direct influence on migra­tion.2 Lack of employment opportunities has the potential to push working mass outside the state in search of income sources. Bihar is a landlocked state and traditionally it has been an agriculture-dominated economy. However, the state in the last one and a half decade has not witnessed any expansion in the agricultural sector. The area under major crops has almost remained stagnant and there is hardly any significant change in the yield rate. The yield rate of paddy in Bihar is 28 quintals per hectare, whereas the median value for the country is 40 quintals per hectare. Similarly, the yield rate of wheat in Bihar is 27 quintals per hectare and the median value for the country is 31 quintals per hectare (GoI 2019). The fact that the yield rates of major crops in Bihar are well below the national average, clearly indicates that the possibility of agricultural expansion exists, but the state government has hardly taken steps in that direction.

Thus, due to the low yield rates combined with the risk of frequent flood, agriculture over the years has become a less preferred employment sector of the rural households in Bihar. According to NSS 2014, in 2012−13 more than 50% (that is, 7.1 million) of the total rural households in the state were agricultural households. But according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017−18, only 35% (out of 17.9 million rural households) were self-employed in agriculture and 10% were casual agricultural labour. The figure of agricultural households of 2012−13 includes all those who were self-employed in agriculture and the households earning more than `3,000 from agriculture in a year. The comparison of 2012−13 and 2017−18 data proves that even with a broad definition of agriculture-dependent households in the later period, there is a decline from 50.5% to 45%.

The fall in the share of agricultural households in rural Bihar is also because of increasing landlessness in the state. In 2003−04, 38.8% of the total households in the state had no agricultural land (Rawal 2008). To address the situation of landlessness, the NDA government in the state had constituted the Bandyopadhyay Commission in 2005. The commission submitted its report in 2008. However, under the pressure of lobbies of big landlords, the report was not implemented. The government had explicitly assured the big landowners of the protection of their interests at all costs (Kumar 2012). In fact, landowners, cutting across the party and caste lines, including the ruling parties, led a campaign that land reform of any kind would “lead Bihar towards a civil war” (Kumar 2012).

On the one hand, increasing landlessness in Bihar pushed a large section of the population away from agriculture, and on the other hand, by losing the priority in the state’s finance, agriculture became unviable. By looking at the state’s budget it appears that although agriculture got priority in the first five years (2005−06 to 2010−11) of the NDA government, later on, it lost its priority in the policy framework. The share of agriculture in the total revenue expenditure was 2.3% in 2005−06 that gradually increased to 5.3% in 2010−11. Afterwards, the proportion declined until 2018−19. The budget estimate for agriculture in 2019−20 is slightly more than the last year. The share of agriculture in the total capital expenditure remained quite negligible in the first eight years in the reference period from 2005−06 to 2019−20. A few spikes that are visible in Figure 1 either coincide with election years or with the post-flood years. The physical outcome, if any, from any such improvement in the capital expenditure on agriculture requires some more time to become visible.

Considering the limited growth of agriculture, as explained above, one would then expect that the state government would necessarily strengthen its non-agricultural segment in order to employ the displaced workforce from the farm sector. However, the performance of Bihar in this area is no different than the farm sector. The unemployment rate of Bihar has gradually increased in the period under consideration. It is also important to note that urban unemployment has always been greater than the rural unemployment (Table 4). In 2017−18, the country as a whole has witnessed a massive rise in unemployment, and so has Bihar. However, what is extremely worrying is that the unemployment rate in Bihar (7.2%) was higher than the average for the country (6.1%), according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey, 2019.

There are three visible trends in the state concerning the number of factories (Figure 2).

Between 2005−06 and 2009−10, there is no significant growth in the number of factories, but suddenly, this number rises in 2010−11 and 2011−12 to finally become stagnant after that. The drop in the urban unemployment rate in 2011−12 is also because of the rise in the number of factories in the state. The number of workers in the factories also increased proportionally between 2005−06 and 2011−12, and then declined. This trend reflects that even when the number of factories increased, it hardly made any significant impact on employment generation in the state. In the period between 2011−12 and 2016−17, the number of workers per factory declined from 34 to 28. A labour surplus state such as Bihar requires those sectors that can primarily address the employment crisis. Merely having more number of factories without adequate employment generation thus failed to absorb those leaving the farm sector, forcing them to migrate to other states.


Thus, although the continued outmigration from Bihar is the direct result of the enormously unbalanced human development in the country, the NDA government in the state has hardly made attempts to address the economic and political reasons underlying this sad situation. It is clear from the arguments made above that the prime reason for such heavy outflow from Bihar is the absence of employment opportunities, both in the farm and the non-farm sectors. However, amidst the COVID-19 crisis, those who are hit the most belong to the poor and socially backward vulnerable households. The state has not only abdicated its responsibility towards providing employment opportunities to its citizens but also turned a blind eye towards them in this time of crisis.

All households that are facing reverse migration in Bihar, need immediate ­opportunities to earn cash. The state needs to create opportunities of work for them, expand the scale of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act worksites, and also consider initiatives like cash transfers for at least six months. It needs to provide dignity to its labour force. This certainly also would require the support of the central government that goes beyond the mere rhetoric of Atmanirbhar Bharat.


1 Remittances in Bihar in 2007–08 accounted for approximately 5.5% of the gross domestic product. The only state with a higher figure for remittances than Bihar is Kerala, which receives large remittances from migrant workers in West Asia.

2 In some cases, the objective to achieve upward mobility is also considered as one of the reasons for migration.


Chanda, A (2011): “Accounting for Bihar’s Productivity Relative to India’s,” working paper, International Growth Centre,

Dutta, A (2020): “At 38,000, UP and Bihar Receive Most Number of Migrants through Special Trains,” Hindustan Times, 7 May,

Economic Times (2020): “Lockdown in India Has Impacted 40 Million Internal Migrants: World Bank,” 23 April,

Financial Express (2020): “‘Not Enough Buses!’ Why Bihar Won’t Bring Back Its Stranded Migrants Despite Centre Easing Travel Restrictions,” 30 April,

GoI (2019): “Agricultural Statistics at a Glance −2018,” Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Government of India.

Hindu (2020): “96% Migrant Workers Did Not Get Rations from the Government, 90% Did Not Receive Wages during Lockdown: Survey,”
20 April,

Kumar, A (2012): “Fallacy of the State in Bihar,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 47, No 44, pp 23−25.

Pandey, T (2020): “Paid for Train Tickets with Final Savings, Say Migrant Workers from Bihar,” India Today, 7 May,

Rawal, V (2008): “Ownership Holdings of Land in Rural India: Putting the Record Straight,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 43, No 10, pp 43−47.

Rawal, V, K A Manickem and V Rawal (2020): “Are Distress Deaths Necessary Collateral Damage of Covid-19 Response?,” Impact of COVID-19 Policies in India, 14 April,

Srivastava, R (2020): “No Relief for the Nowhere People,” Hindu, 4 May,

Times of India (2020): “50% of Bihar Households Exposed to Migration: Study,” 15 February,


Updated On : 15th Jun, 2020


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