People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 44

November 03, 2013


mobility and changing character of Contemporary Working Class


Archana Prasad


TWO recent reports on patterns of internal migration and slum dwellers in India point to the fast changing demographic character of the working population in the country. While it is well known that the patterns of agrarian distress have fuelled an exodus from the countryside, the scale and the social character of this workforce has been revealed in the report of the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) on Internal Migrants and Social Inclusion as well as by the newly released data on slums in the Census of India, 2011. These reports show the level of economic distress faced by the labouring population and reveal the long term impacts of neo-liberal policies. They also highlight the changing character of the rural and urban working class which needs to be mobilised to challenge contemporary neo-liberal corporate capitalism.




About 30 percent of India’s population were of the internal migrants as enumerated in the Census of 2001. This figure dropped to 28.5 percent as estimated by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 2007-08, but is expected to increase to 33.3 percent as per the population projections of the Census of India, 2011. A study done for the UNESCO has estimated that in 2011 there will be about 400 million internal migrants in India. However, this may well be an underestimation because the short duration seasonal migration, which forms the foundation of the labour market, has not been adequately estimated in any of these reports. According to one scholarly estimate, such rural to urban seasonal migrations may include almost 100 million people, many of whom belong to the dalit and adivasi social groups.


This seasonal migration is largely a result of the devastation of rural life and livelihoods in the last two decades. This reflected in the increase in family migration rates were almost 36 per cent in the 2007-08 in the NSSO survey, an increase of two percent since 1999-2000. However, this migration rate was largely seen as a result of the migration of women due to changes in their marital status and not due to any search for employment. This major conclusion of the NSSO is refuted by the UNESCO survey which argues that the considerable increase in the migration rates of women may not only be due to marriage. While women may have migrated to urban areas after marriage, they also take up employment once they have migrated, in order to ensure the daily needs of their families. Hence the question of the estimation of employment and work of women is closely related with marriage related migration.


A re-tabulation of the data of the NSSO migration survey, 2007-08, by the authors of the UNESCO report shows that migrant women have high rates of employment even though employment may not be the main reason for their migration. About one fifth of the migrant women were doing casual labour and about 43.7 percent of them were unemployed. A large number, 36.7 percent, also reported regular service (largely consisting of nursing and domestic work). This showed that married women who may have otherwise chosen to stay in rural areas when their husbands migrated for employment were choosing to move to the cities with their husbands in order to seek employment. This is particularly the case after the continued rural distress in the post-reforms period.




We thus need to have a more accurate picture of the patterns of mobility. This is because short duration migration is not considered or projected in the Census. Such migration has, however, been estimated in the latest NSSO surveys where the short duration migration increased from 12.4 million to 15.2 million people between 2000 and 2008. This means that there was an increase in the short duration migration (two to six months) by half a million people per year. Of these, 85.1 percent were males who migrated to the urban areas. While in terms of macro trends, female short duration migration from rural areas was more limited in character, the interesting part of the story is that more than 60 percent of the 2.8 million female migrants came from the scheduled castes and tribes in 2007-08. This figure is considerably higher than that of schedule caste and tribe male migrants who formed 38 percent of the total male migrant labour force. This indicates that the level of adverse integration of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in the non-agricultural labour market was higher than that for other social categories.


Another aspect to be considered about this pattern of migration is its rural/urban character where short duration migrants retain their seasonal links with their rural employers and often work as self-employed agriculturalists on their own lands for at least a part of the year. In this sense they are neither full time urban workers nor they are full time rural workers. Rather their experience of both rural and urban work frames their actions and also their limited political participation in the affairs of both the village and the town.


This factor has to be taken into account while making demands for social protection and formulating schemes which require a proof of permanent residence. The invisibility of the migrant worker in both the macro data and the political scene is a result of its mobility and its tenuous social ties with its urban and rural settings.


One of the problems in analysing the macro data presented above is that its estimation of worker mobility is incommensurate with the rates of urbanisation and urban employment patterns as enumerated by the Census of India 2011.




One of the characteristic features of this Census has been the pointers towards the emergence of new urban centres. Its recent slum data also show the demographic changes that are taking place in an expanding urban working class. This expansion of urban employment and urban centres may indicate that both short and long duration migration are grossly underestimated in the migration data presented above. The data show that there has been a rapid expansion of formally notified slum areas from 1743 to 2613 settlements between 2001 and 2011.


However, these legally notified slum areas tell only a part of the story. Most of the working class populations live in ‘recognised’ slums that are yet to be notified or in ‘identified slums,’ i.e., settlements which have slum-like characteristics but are identified only by Census enumerators and not by the government as yet. In other words, the Census of 2011 attempted to document all worker settlements in urban areas. It showed that the number of slum dwelling households had increased by 44.2 per cent between 2001 and 2011. This enumeration shows that approximately 36 per cent of all slum dwellers live in non-recognised colonies and therefore they have no visibility or rights in government policy. Only 34.4 percent of the slum dwellers live in notified and authorised slums which have a modicum of some basic amenities.


Interestingly, the decadal growth rate of female slum dwellers is almost 5.7 percent higher than that of male slum dwellers. This once again points towards household migration because of rural distress.


Another characteristic that emerges out of the data is the diverse social composition of the slum dwellers. The decadal increase in the slum dwelling population among the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes has been increasing at a higher rate than that of others, i.e., 38 percent for the scheduled castes and 51.8 per cent for the scheduled tribes. Thus the scheduled castes constituted 20.4 percent of the urban slum dwelling population in 2011 as compared to 18.5 percent in 2001 and the scheduled tribes constituted 3.4 per cent of the urban slum dwelling population in 2011 as compared to 2.5 percent in 2001. Such an increase is significant because the overall proportion of slum dwelling population within urban areas has remained constant at 17.4 per cent in the entire decade.


Further, the proportion of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe women has been increasing at a higher rate than that of men. The proportion of scheduled caste women has gone up by 40.3 percent in between 2001 and 2011 whereas for scheduled tribes it has gone up by 50.4 percent. These proportions are far higher than the overall decadal increase of slum dwelling population by 34 percent.


These data show that the urban and rural workers are increasingly relying on their mobility in order to access the labour market. However, such mobility does not ensure that they are either recognised as workers or get the rights of a worker. Further, the transformations of such a working class have diverse sociological characteristics and are mediated by several sectional and patriarchal relations. In order to ensure the unity of all workers, it is essential that all the workers be registered and the specific issues of migrant workers be taken up by the larger movements of workers.