Uttar Pradesh’s missing voters: Agricultural labourers move due to low incomes; Muslims, SC/STs in search of jobs

Uttar Pradesh is the heart of India’s socio-political life. The state’s population size, location and diversity means that come election season, all eyes are on it. Keeping track of the burning issues and concerns of  voters of every caste and creed is essential for understanding and winning national elections. With 80 Lok Sabha MPs, the pulse of Uttar Pradesh’s political life is a good proxy for the pulse of India’s political life.

A common dictum among demographers is that the population levels of any place is affected by three factors: Birth rates, death rates and, finally, migration. Uttar Pradesh is the source state for the highest number of migrants in India. This includes both migration within the state — between districts —  and out of state (to both national and international destinations).

This fact has fallen through the cracks of the mainstream narratives about Uttar Pradesh. But given the significant impact of migration on socio-economic conditions of migrating communities and households, it is important to explore and understand migration in Uttar Pradesh.

UP labour migration trends and impact

Labour migration from Uttar Pradesh is dominated by low skilled males from rural areas. They typically come from households with small landholdings and work as agricultural labourers to supplement their income.

Today, agricultural income alone is inadequate for meeting basic needs of rural households. As a result many labourers are less interested in agriculture and keener on construction, carpentry or masonry and other types of casual work in the informal sector.

But inadequate employment opportunities and industrial backwardness within Uttar Pradesh, along with the growing price of essential commodities, have made migration an appealing and necessary prospect. Workers can get more opportunities and higher wages in destinations such as Delhi, Maharashtra and Gujarat within India and the Gulf countries.

State Place of Residence Place of Last Residence Total Number of Migrants Reason for Migration: Work/Employment Male Female
Uttar Pradesh Total State Total State 59135168 3742219 3057816 684
Uttar Pradesh Only Rural Only Rural 35781913 827241 530950 296291
Uttar Pradesh Only Rural Only Urban 2028007 102047 79911 22136
Uttar Pradesh Only Urban Only Rural 7173225 1439872 1309711 130161
Uttar Pradesh Only Urban Only Urban 8479780 1020353 889498 130855

Uttar Pradesh is among the top 5 remittance receiving states in India and according to Dr RB Bhagat, the head of Migration and Urban Studies at the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai, “Recent research shows migration and remittances significantly reduced poverty in Uttar Pradesh.” The majority of remittances is used for meeting daily expenses and consumption needs, followed by medical expenses, schooling and education

But while migration contributes to rising household income and better education and health outcomes, it has also increased the intra-household and inter-household income inequality, and adversely affected the established family and social structures.

Minority dreams: Migration among Muslims, SCs and STs

Historically in Uttar Pradesh, the privilege of mobility was confined to the Brahmins (priestly castes) and Vaishyas (trading castes). But today a large number of labour migrants are members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Hindus and Muslims from these communities comprise migrants. Overall, temporary and seasonal mobility is higher among Scheduled Tribes than other caste groups in rural areas.

Before the advent of migration, rural SC households often had no other source of income and their families were completely dependent on prevalent caste hierarchies for their agriculture-centric livelihoods. But remittance-based income has disrupted these socio-economic structures: As households depend less on agriculture, they are also less reliant on established caste structures.

In addition, studies in Uttar Pradesh have revealed that almost a third of Muslim households have a migrant. While most leave to seek better employment opportunities, some also leave due to riots and other forms of communal violence.

A 2010 Pew study revealed that religious minorities make up a larger share of India’s international migrant population than they do among the nation’s domestic population. Muslim leaders fear that decades of heavy migration has led to a “brain drain,” and the loss of “leaders and torchbearers” in India’s Muslim community.

The eastern Uttar Pradesh-Gulf connection

According to the latest Ministry of External Affairs data, Uttar Pradesh is the top origin state for migrant labourers in the Gulf. In countries such as Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, blue-collar work is no longer dominated by Keralites, but by workers from eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Eastern Uttar Pradesh is the most populated and least developed region of the state. Azamgarh and Jaunpur districts, both in eastern Uttar Pradesh, have the highest male out-migration rate from rural Uttar Pradesh. It is no coincidence that Jaunpur is the district with the least land per capita among all the 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh.

Uttar Pradesh population below the poverty line 2012: District-level breakdown

Image courtesy: World Bank 2016

Image courtesy: World Bank 2016.

Many workers are recruited through informal networks: friends, family and local agents, not certified and monitored by the government. These workers have to pay lakhs, often raised by debt, to secure their paperwork and pathways to the Gulf.

The informal recruiting channels rely on visitor visas to get workers into the Gulf: making them “illegal migrants” in the eyes of Gulf authorities. Often these jobs are not what workers were promised at source and the workers have limited or no recourse for help, and worst of all cannot change jobs or report their employers due to their “illegal” status.

Interviews with these emigrant workers reveal a desperate state of affairs: Wages are either paid late or often left unpaid, they are provided with negligible health or life insurance and their living conditions are unhygienic and cramped.

Conversations with recruiting agencies based in Uttar Pradesh, who do not want their identities disclosed, confirm the existence of these problems, but blame informal recruiters and stringent government regulations. According to these agencies, earning in dirhams and riyals and the wage gap between Uttar Pradesh and the Gulf are huge attractions for workers.

Despite the financial pressures and risks of migration to the Gulf, many young men from backward and poor families of eastern Uttar Pradesh have enriched and uplifted themselves due to migration. Through remittances they are able to buy property and increase their families’ assets.

However, Gulf countries are now facing economic recession and have enacted measures discouraging immigration from India. Despite Uttar Pradesh’s lead in the emigration rankings, the overall national emigration trend is on the decline.

This is a worrying trend, as a combination of unemployment and rural agrarian distress will only increase the desire for migration in Uttar Pradesh. In fact, Dr Bhagat’s recent research shows that “international migration from Uttar Pradesh is rapidly increasing unlike other states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.” It is unclear whether these factors will lead to more informal and riskier forms of emigration to the Gulf, or whether we’ll see the emergence of new international destinations like Europe and South East Asia.

Voters on the move: What does it mean come election time?

In 2018, five districts of Bundelkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh were drought-hit and 27 districts across Uttar Pradesh were hit by severe floods. Despite the relocation promises of the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, people chose to migrate out of the state: about 55 percent farmers from Bundelkhand migrated (permanently and seasonally) due to drought.

Migrant issues have never been considered key in Uttar Pradesh elections, but with the increasing importance of migration for households, political parties would do well to address their concerns and aspirations. This is especially relevant for the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party with their increasingly mobile minority voter base: Remedies such as lowering the cost of migration, safeguarding women left behind in villages, protecting migrant voters in their destinations through the portability of benefits and schemes, and supporting return migrants will have mass appeal, especially in districts in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Although parties will have to work harder to encourage migrant voters to come back and vote in the Lok Sabha elections. According to Dr Bhagat, “There are about 4 million labour migrants from Uttar Pradesh working mostly in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi. Many of them will not be able to vote in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections because they have to return to their respective constituencies to vote. Many have constraints of time, cost and loss of wages and salary. Inability to exercise the right to vote is a serious challenge which need to be addressed through the portability of voting right irrespective of the place of migration.”

In addition, a 2010 study by Ajeevika Bureau revealed that migrant workers are less likely to participate in Lok Sabha elections compared to state and panchayat-level elections. Nonetheless, migration is undoubtedly an increasingly important aspect of Uttar Pradesh socio-political life. Many voters aspire to migrate and these aspirations need national political attention.

The author is the founder and lead at India Migration Now, a Mumbai-based migration data, research and media agency. Follow their work here: @nowmigration

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Updated Date: Mar 13, 2019 10:42:25 IST

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