The story of economic migration in India is decades old but policymakers need to realise that the script has been changing. No longer is it solely a case of men travelling out of villages to cities in search of work, as women and children wait at home. A new paper reveals that the number of women migrants in the country has been rising over the last three decades, both in urban and rural areas. According to the 64th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS), carried out in 2008, 45.6 per cent of women in urban India were migrants, up from 38.2 per cent in 1993.
The reasons for this mobility are chiefly economic, says the paper, which also analyses data from the National Family Health Survey IV and the Census. As the average age of marriage and pregnancy rises, women are more open to entering the workforce. They are also being pushed into seeking work — sometimes any work — by deep agrarian distress, and the inability of men to find employment. (As the NSS data for 2008 also reveals, the percentage of male migrants in the age group of 15-59 years, has come down, from 32 per cent to 31 per cent.) This mass movement of women — some of whom are travelling alone,to unfamiliar places and hostile societies — has important implications for policy. More than ever, it becomes important to secure public spaces for women, to create an enabling infrastructure that allows them to make this difficult transition. That implies spending public resources to arrange dedicated transport and well-lit bus bays, but also points to a need for a deeper change. While the rise in the number of women economic migrants is, on the face of it, welcome, the fact is that they form the precarious, last rung of the workforce of the unorganised sector. Many of them are forced to work in construction sites and as household help for low wages and often on terms loaded against them. Governments, therefore, need to come up with solutions that address both the street and the workplace — ensure that they are safe from stranger violence as well as harassment from employers.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the lack of women in the Indian workforce. The first step, however, is to acknowledge this swathe of Indian women, who are weighed down by domestic and familial responsibilities, but who have struck out on their own for a better economic life. Government and industry must now be able to work together to push them on the path of upward mobility.