Recent reverse migration to Assam in the wake of Covid lockdown has brought the state under focus as a new source of inter-state out-migrants, a bulk of whom are seasonal migrants involving dalits, tribals and muslims at a time when state politics largely revolves around the immigration and question of nativism, almost to the exclusion of every other issue of importance. With election less than a week away, one only hopes that electorates rise above divisive politics to demand greater accountability from the political leadership to turn around the state’s sagging economic fortune which drive such out-migration.

In a news that caught the national imagination in the midst of Covid lockdown, Jadav Gogoi, 42 year old migrant labour from Assam set out on an arduous journey of 2,800 km from Vapi, Gujarat to reach his home town Raha in Nagaon district, Assam after hitchhiking and walking for about 25 days (Nath 2020). Gogoi was one among a long list of migrants from the state who endured such torturous journey during the period of unplanned lockdown.

Till the end of June, 2020 as many as 184 Shramik Special trains run to the region, carrying approximately 1.3 lakh passengers (Chakraborty and Longkumer, 2020). In addition, as many as 77,000 people returned by other modes of transport. An NDTV report published on May 11 reported that Assam has more than 6 lakh migrants stuck in different parts of India (Choudhury, 2020).

Such large-scale reverse migration to the state in the wake of Covid lockdown has brought to the fore growing outmigration from the state as an economic phenomenon, which has not received adequate attention in the state in popular imagination, media and academia. Official documentation on the nature and magnitude of out-migration from the state is conspicuously absent.

Such apathy towards growing out-migration from the state as an economic phenomenon is in stark contrast to the issues of ‘illegal immigration’ which has consumed much of political space in the state over the past five decades. The bogey of illegal immigration has been raised every now and then by political parties, regional and national, to suit their agendas, almost to the exclusion of any other issues of economic importance.

Last Assembly election, the ruling party came to power with the slogan of securing ‘Jati, mati and bheti” (Community, land, and base) of the people without any compromise (Salam, 2016). With the upcoming state election slated to commence in the last month of March, the issue of ‘illegal’ immigration and citizenship has already raised its ugly head in the hustings, taking communal colors at times.

Such contrasting attitudes towards immigration and outmigration are perhaps driven by the impression that the latter is always a positive development for the state. However, recent evidences on distress driven reverse migration that emerged in the wake of Covid lock-down has brought to focus the flip side of outmigration from the state, many of which are undertaken in less than ideal conditions.

Migration trend documented in the disparate sources points towards growing out-migration from the state. A Case in point is Internal Migration data compiled by Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT) for Kerala which shows that approximately 7 lakh of total 34 lakhs inter-state migrants working in the state belong to Assam (Bashir, 2019).

People from char areas in the state have been migrating to work in brick kiln industry in neighbouring states – West Bengal and Bihar (Chakraborty and Longkumer, 2020). However, systematic documentation of outmigration from the state is conspicuously absent.

A recent report prepared for United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) by Prof Ravi Srivastava and his team at Institute of Human Development (IHD) who draw upon Population Census and India Human Development survey (IHDS), among different databases, is one of the most recent and comprehensive account of internal migration at the state level.

A careful look at the estimates reported in UNPFA report provides an indication of growing outmigration from Assam. Comparison across states in decadal changes in inter-state migration over two rounds of population census for 2001 and 2011 highlights that Assam has higher net out-migration than some larger states known as traditional pockets of inter-state migrants such as MP and Rajasthan. Inter-state migrants over the two decadal census show migration from Assam to be close to 9 lakhs, higher than some states known as traditional pockets of migration such as MP (2.23 lakhs) and Rajasthan (4.97 lakhs).

However, in census exercise, the respondents are asked about their absence from home with a longer reference period of more than six months, thus missing out on short term or seasonal migration. Burgeoning literature on migration in India indicates that seasonal migrants are most vulnerable workers placed at the bottom of the labour hierarchy who lack at the destination rights and entitlements available to the most citizens in the country. They are , however, invisible in official discourse because of the seasonal nature of their migration, oscillating between source and destination or between different destinations.

Much of these seasonal migrants do not fit the description of a typical migrant in mainstream development economics, which, as visualized by Arthur Lewis and Todaro and Smith later, treats the decision to migrate as voluntary, driven by higher actual or expected earnings in the destination. UNPFA report relies on India Human Development Survey, conducted by University of Maryland and National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), to provide a recent update on internal migration within the country, including seasonal migration.

Though conducted almost decade ago, the second round of IHDS survey, which entails a sample of 42,152 households, is the most comprehensive and latest source of seasonal migrants in the country. The sample for Assam in IHDS-II includes over 4500 households, larger than size of the National Sample Survey sample for the state. Estimates from IHDS survey data show that seasonal migrants account for 45% of total migrants in Assam, highest among all major states (S. Rukmini, 2020).

The conditions under which such seasonal migration takes place hardly entail any positive effect on the migrants. Recently published special issue of Indian Journal of Labour Economics under the editorship of Prof Srivastava on Labour Migration and Development highlights that source areas of such seasonal migration are typically the regions where agriculture and rural livelihoods has become unsustainable.

High level of rural poverty serves an initial condition for emergence of such region as outmigration pocket. The pattern of recruitment of seasonal migration is very organized, with middle men or contractor, who belongs to the same social groups as the migrants, mediating the recruitment process on behalf of firms (Srivastava and Sutradhar 2016).

As a mediator of the firms, the contractors also make advance payments and fix wages at level higher than those than exist at the source areas but are fixed often in violation of minimum wages at the destination. Such organized recruitment patterns facilitate their movement over long distances, mostly across states (Shah and Lerche, 2020, Mishra, 2020, Srivastava and Sutradhar, 2016). Relying on IHDS survey data, UNFPA report highlights that such organized recruitment patterns facilitate movement of bulk of seasonal migration towards outside the state.

When the sample households were asked about seasonal migration for work with a recall period of the past five years, the survey yields total short term migrants at 4, 17,183, of which more than 50 % move out of the state to earn their livelihoods. Most of these seasonal migrants from Assam belong to the disadvantaged social and religious groups.

SC/STs accounts for 50% of the sample of total seasonal migrants from the state that contrasts with their share of 19% in the state’s overall population. While OBCs account for 17% of total migrants, Muslims account for one-third of seasonal migrants who mostly live in char areas, where lives and livelihoods are challenged by uncertainties and problems of accessibility and connectivity due to recurring flood. Two-thirds of the seasonal migrants from the state report educational attainment of high school or below, underlining the low level of skills of the migrants.

Such distress-driven growing out-migration from the state in the recent period coincides with the state’s growth pattern. As per information available with the Assam Economic Survey 2017-18, per capita income at the state and national level are diverging over time, with state per capita income for 2015/16 recorded at Rs 28634 (1999-00 base prices) that compares with Rs 47035 at the national level. The economic condition in rural areas is even worse.

A recent World Bank Report titled “Assam: Poverty, Growth and Inequality” reports that at 34%, the state has one of the highest rural poverty among all major Indian states. Two rounds of NSSO consumer expenditure survey highlights that the rural poverty reduction in the state is only 2% over the past two decades, slower than most other states in India.

Worryingly, the rural people feeling their native places for freedom hardly find much in terms of livelihood in the urban sector within the state, which has reported decline in the share of industry in the state GDP from 29% in mid 2000 to only 23.37% by 2017-18 (Assam Economic Survey). Periodic Labour survey 2017-18 reports unemployment for the state at 7.9%, higher than 6.1% reported for the national level.

In such dire straits, it is no surprise to see the state joining the ranks of poorer states in Northern, Eastern and Central region of India as emerging source of inter-state outmigration, a bulk of which is seasonal in nature that largely involves dalits, tribals and Muslims from the state.

With state election slated less than a week away, one only hopes that electorates rise above divisive politics to demand greater accountability from its political leadership to stop the state from earning the ignominy of another important source area of seasonal migrations.

(The author is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, Christ University, Bangalore)  

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