Issues in Migrant Social Protection

The Bihar government gained nation-wide attention for providing monetary aid to its stranded migrant workers in different states through its corona sahitya app.[1] There were similar efforts by the Uttar Pradesh and other state governments to provide temporary monetary relief to the migrants to tide over their economic distress. However, the efforts came too little, too late and were mired in structural difficulties due to the absence of data on these migrants and their invisibility from national statistics, despite the economic contribution of the migrants summing up to 10% of Indian GDP.[2] The history of circular migrants has been ridden with that of exploitation and subsistence living. Throughout this essay, we critically analyse the success of Bihar’s monetary assistance programme to migrants, the reasons behind lack of safety nets for the migrant population in host destinations and suggest a way forward in terms of a social protection floor.[3]

A recent study by LSE found that 52% of urban workers went without work or pay and received no financial assistance for over a month. Bihar’s emergency assistance programme has been cited as a rare example of sub-national government’s efforts to identify, onboard and disburse payments to the migrants during the ongoing pandemic. This was a commendable feat because there was no existing database of migrants for a targeted delivery of cash transfers. A database was created for registered beneficiaries (stranded migrant population country-wide) using a digital first identification and payments approach to transfer funds quickly efficiently.[4] The database was also used to repatriate migrants from all over the country to Bihar in special Shramik trains, with assurances of full reimbursement for the train tickets. This showcased clever harnessing of existing information on migrant database and marked the importance of organised data in efficient welfare service delivery. This also motivates the adoption of a National Social Protection policy for the migrant workers based anywhere across the country.

However, laudable as it might be, the Bihar government initiative was not bereft of complications. Ground research by think tanks such as India spend has revealed that many stranded migrants were not able to access the cash transfer as they did not hold Jan Dhan accounts in Bihar (Indus Action Rapid Survey, April-May 2020). Most of the migrant workers held Jan Dhan accounts in host destinations, leading to their automatic exclusion. For others, it was the inaccessibility of an internet enabled smart phone which hindered their registration process. Research also revealed that those taking special trains back to Bihar have had to pay more than 50% of the relief extended under the assistance programme on an average. A lot of the migrants were not even aware of the train ticket reimbursement and bore the financial burden under dire circumstances (India Spend, June 2020.)[5]

Identification, transfers and last mile delivery

Any cash transfer programme needs clear eligibility conditions and documentation. Without that, the administrative machinery slows down, especially in handing pay outs to the segment population, eroding trust in the welfare service delivery of the state. For example, the corona sahitya programme required the migrants to produce proof of residence outside of Bihar and details of bank account registered in Bihar. Qualitative data [6]shows that both the eligibility conditions were difficult to meet, especially for the urban informal sector workers. There has been a popular opinion among experts to temporarily relax documentation requirements to access benefits, develop a system to track biometric failure and determine ways to directly provide cash to citizens.

To assess the extent to which vulnerable citizens received benefits under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, Indus Action conducted a rapid survey between April 6 and May 30th, covering 5,242 families across 11 states. It was found that Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar had among the lowest rates of receipt of Jan Dhan transfers in the relief package at 42%, 49% and 55% respectively.[7] Hence, the existing digital infrastructure for cash transfers is inadequate in meeting the needs emergency response to the scale of the pandemic. Moreover, account dormancy was another issue which caused a lapse in last-mile cash delivery. Many Jan Dhan accounts were inactive, requiring updated KYC to receive compensation. This posed a huge challenge for the migrants to obtain a one-off grant. The costs clearly outweighed the benefits. Another Rapid Assessment survey was undertaken by the Rapid Community Response to COVID-19 coalition, highlighting the last-mile glitches in the distribution of government cash transfers during lockdown. The survey covered 50 districts across 8 states (Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Rajasthan) with a total of 10,992 women Jan Dhan account holders. On the issue of receiving Rs. 500 as compensatory payment into their Jan Dhan accounts, 66% of the women responded with a ‘Yes’, while 15% said ‘No’. 19% of the women said they ‘Did not know’.[8]

Social protection and migrant vulnerability

Migration is a vulnerable process with migrant families requiring special focus and attention in policy. The neglect of migrant population is evident in the lack of a data estimates, estimating their population. The last such estimate was released by NSS in its 2007-08 report, which stated that the number of internal migrants were 326 million (census-adjusted). However, the Census and the NSS undercount poorer migrants in the informal sector, and short-duration seasonal and circulatory migrants (Internal Migration in India-UNESCO workshop Report, 2011).[9] It has been a longstanding issue that migrants and their settlements are not enumerated within the national-level census (Srivastava, 2012).

The census fails to capture the dynamic migration flows, making the issue of social protection and social assistance difficult for the migrants. With the employers and state failing to meet their basic needs, circular migrants often depend on informal networks to fulfil their housing, sanitation, food and healthcare needs. They include landlords in unregulated markets, petty contractors, local shopkeepers, public toilets etc. Most of these local actors operate in ‘migration hotspots’, each furthering his livelihood at the cost of migrants. The landlord, for example, compels the migrant to buy groceries from a shop run by him. At each level, the interaction between workers and local agents constitutes an unregulated informal economy in itself, with the exploitation of the former (ibid).

Issues in extending social protection

The Indian urbanisation process is termed as a ‘messy and hidden’ process (Ellis and Roberts, 2015). The workers are primarily circular migrants who have been pushed out of their villages due to distress and are poorly absorbed in the urban areas. Neo-liberal economics demands a pool of impoverished workers which can subsidise the formal economy by accepting informality as ‘formal employment’ becomes too expensive and troublesome. Urban growth has therefore been exclusionary and exploitative, reproducing poverty and social inequalities in host destinations (Thomas et al., 2020). 

According to the ILO, social protection refers to social insurance and extension of services to the informal sector. However, social protection must also include economic security i.e. measures to improve real income and reduce vulnerability (Unni and Rani 2002). Despite the importance of social protection to the urban poor, especially the vulnerable migrant population, successive governments have not put in place a system to ensure portability of migrants’ entitlements. From migrants’ perspective, claiming a right on the entitlement becomes difficult to prove in view of their identification process as rightful claimants to the benefits. A large number of social protection programmes of national and sub-national governments require registration of eligible beneficiaries and issuance of beneficiary cards to them (Report of second NCL, 2002, cited in Srivastav, 2011). The issuance of identity cards and registration has been a part and parcel of many schemes and programmes for informal sector workers (Srivastav, 2011). Many non-governmental organizations include issuance of identity cards as part of their migrant support initiatives (Deshingkar, Khandelwal, and Farrington 2008). This has been useful in extending rights and dignity to the migrant workers. However, registration and identity cards do not ensure portability of entitlements.

The National Coalition for the Security of Migrant Workers signed an MOU with UIDAI for the inclusion of migrants in various Aadhar schemes. However, issues cropped up with the identification and targeting process of the UIDAI.[10]

  1. A large number of circular migrants belonged to atleast two locations while the UIDAI links each individual with only one address. This fails to recognise the inherent nature of multi-locational migration in India and assumes one permanent movement. Therefore, targeting of benefits through Aadhar could become a source of exclusion for needy migrants if benefits are distributed only through this channel.
  2. it is not clear that the UIDAI will eventually be as inclusive in its registration process as it has repeatedly asserted (Ramanathan 2011).
  3. Issuance of ID card alone does not solve the problem of beneficiary entitlement as political realities are starkly different. Entitlements can only accrue to the migrants if they are portable (as discussed above) and the administrative machinery is efficient and quick in disbursing them. To give one example, the Reserve Bank of India, while accepting Aadhar as one of the identity proofs, has asked the banks to independently verify address (cited in Ramakumar 2011, p. 10). These complicated procedures may not stand the test of verification with the migrant population who not only struggle to produce formal documents but might be ill equipped to produce them due to non-domiciled presence in host destinations.

Further, it is difficult to imagine that migrants with their ‘outsider’ image would be able to avail the benefits with as much ease as the local population. This arises due to an inherent and sedentary bias in policy making.

Financial inclusion to alleviate migrant vulnerability

In a lot of cases, migration begins with an advance against wages to support the migrants’ family in source destinations.[11] These advance settlements are always wrought in fraudulent means. Furthermore, a large number of the migrants are unskilled and engage in high-risk occupations at destinations (Deshingkar et al. 2008) yet, very few are covered by formal insurance services. Highlighting the vulnerability associated with informal migration, Thorat and Jones (2011) discovered that the form of savings most migrants adopted was that of ‘saving down’ i.e. availing advances in lieu of future labour, thereby making the process of ‘saving up’ more and more difficult. When basic income and life insurance are missing, one can only imagine the extent to which a full-blown pandemic wrecks havoc in their lives. Lack of domicile identity keeps them away from availing benefits of formal financial institutions, requiring strict KYC compliance. Erratic remittance flows and limited access to saving instruments result in cash flow volatility due to poor financial inclusion, placing migrant households at high vulnerability.[12] Initiatives like the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, the Swavalamban pension scheme and the Swabhimaan financial inclusion programmes have been operationalised to meet the risk management needs of the migrants. However, the actual impact of these social protection programmes has been unclear. Given the high level of informality in the Indian labour market, there are very limited social protection measures on offer by contractors and employers in the informal economy.

India has the second largest domestic remittance market in the world (Tumbe 2011). Out of the domestic remittance flow, only 30% is routed through formal channels (ibid). A synthesis report on remittance needs and opportunities in India commissioned by GIZ and NABARD studies 4 migration corridors and their linkages to bank accounts (Thorat and Jones 2011). It revealed that 86% of respondents in Rajasthan-Gujarat corridor did not have bank accounts. Of the remaining, 10% had bank accounts that were dormant. In addition, several respondents were also unaware of the no-frills account and among those who were aware of it, did not know where to avail the service. Moreover, respondents expressed discomfort in dealing with banks as in most cases bank employees were found to deal insensitively with them.[13] The banks therefore did not have regular data on remittance flow or financial services accessed by the migrants.

Informal remittances are usually subject to risk of theft in the absence of access to formal banking services. According to the study by Thorat and Jones (2011), at least 16% of respondents from Rajasthan reported having experienced theft in informal remittances. Most of the informal sector migrants rely on agents and contractors to cope with their socio-economic risk mitigation. The agents become the middlemen in transferring money back home. This causes a nexus of exploitative relationship between the worker and the contractor. Therefore, informal methods of remitting money gain precedence over formal ones (Thorat and Jones, 2011). There are noticeable gaps in financial service delivery such as lack of access to banks and convenient remittance services, increasing dependence on informal networks for cash remittance and risk mitigation. Data from migrant workers in Andhra Pradesh, Samal (2006) suggests that internal remittances can have a positive impact on wealth creation and asset accumulation of migrant households provided institutional arrangements providing credit, access to social security and information flows exist.

Given the vast diversity of migrant population, coming from different regions and belief systems, the unique social security requirements of migrants have been ignored within the domain of financial inclusion. According to a study by the Aajeevika bureau, the financial needs and risk management instruments for the migrants, using a life-cycle approach needs to be addressed by the existing financial inclusion models. In this perspective, we highlight the emerging models of social protection and financial services operationalised by civil society organizations which adopts a holistic approach to migrants’ socio-economic security. Notable among them is the Aajeevika Bureau-a specialized public service organisation to provide solutions to seasonal migrants. They offer services such as identity and registration, skills training, legal aid and collectivisation for migrant workers through field offices. They also focus on 3 key elements of migrant vulnerability: financial planning and management of cash flows, asset allocation and wealth creation and protection from and diversification of risks.[14]

This dynamically takes care of multidimensional financial and social risks faces by the informal migrant population and must be echoed in the National draft Migration Policy of the country.

Policy Recommendations

The recommendations of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) on social security for informal workers took cognisance of structure of migrant mobility and the social security schemes both at central and state levels. It extended a recommendation for a National Minimum Social Security Scheme which could be fully portable in three main senses:

  1. Scheme consisted of a National Minimum Social Security Package for all workers consisting of a slew of benefits like life cover, family health cover, retirement benefits etc, adopting a life-cycle approach to the social protection needs of the migrants. This was to ensure that the package is portable across location and sectors.
  2. Each worker was to be registered under this scheme and such registration was to be mandatory. They would then receive a smart identity card with a unique social security identifier. Smart cards would also be issued to the family members of the worker so that they can avail family benefits in the absence of the worker.
  3. Workers can pay their contribution anywhere from across the country and their families could receive benefits anywhere on the basis of single registration. There was a proposal for an institutional and organizational structure to ensure portability of benefits through an integrated IT network.[15]

There is, therefore, an enhanced need for a digital identity card that can ensure portability of social benefits as the design and delivery system of public services in urban cities usually require a domicile status, much to the exclusion of the circular migrants. Migrants can just touch their ID card to the cardholders and all data related to their current dwelling place will be made accessible to the state, who can then maintain an updated database of all the migrant population it houses. Once all relevant details of the migrants have been identified, the database can then map the migrants to relevant social security benefits he is eligible for, skill development training, recruiters looking to employ workers etc. It will also minimise the exploitative intermediaries like labour contractors whose presence in the labour market often comes at an exploitative cost to the workers.


Deshingkar, P. Khandelwal, R. & Farrington, J. 2008. Support for migrant workers: The missing link in India’s development. Natural Resource Perspectives 117. UK: ODI

Ellis, P. & Roberts, M. 2015. “Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability.” South Asia Development Matters. Washington,DC: World Bank Group.

Kejriwal, S. 2020. BloombergQuint Opinion, “Is Jan Dhan Money Actually Reaching People?” May 12, 2020

Mishra, C.M. 2020, India Spend, “Bihar’s promise of Rs 1,000 aid is little solace to millions of returning migrant workers” May 30, 2020.

Mukherjee, A. 2020. “Digital Cash Transfers for Stranded Migrants: Lessons from Bihar’s COVID-19 Assistance Programme”, Center for Global Development, October 14, 2020.

NCEUS (National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector), 2006, Social Security for Unorganized Workers, New Delhi: Government of India, May

Ramakumar, R., 2011, ‘Identity Concerns’, in Frontline, 2 December

Ramanathan, U. 2011, ‘Enrolment Saga’, in Frontline, 2 December

Samal, Chandan K. 2006. Remittances and Sustainable Livelihoods in Semi-Arid Areas. AsiaPacific Development Journal 13(2): 73-92. “40% Of Jan Dhan Account Holders Could Not Access Govt’s COVID-19 Relief: Survey” June 29, 2020

Srivastav, R. 2011. “The Missing Link”, Internal Migration in India Initiative National Workshop on Internal Migration and Human Development in India 6–7 December 2011 Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), UNESCO Report, New Delhi.

Thomas, C et al.,2020.Unlocking the Urban: Reimagining migrant lives in cities post covid-19, 2020, Aajeevika Bureau

Thorat, YSP. & Jones, H. 2011. Remittance needs and Opportunities in India. Synthesis Report: GIZ and NABARD.

Tumbe, C. 2011. Remittances in India: Facts and Issues. Indian Institute of Management Bangalore Working Paper No. 331. Bangalore: IIM.

Unni, J. & Rani, U. 2002. Social Protection for Informal Workers: Insecurities, Instruments and Institutional Mechanisms. Geneva: ILO.


[2] Deshingar;

[3] Social protection floor recommendations, ILO

[4] Center for Global Development, October 2014




[8] Total sample size=9,740 responses

[9]Srivastav, The Missing Link :



[12] ibid

[13] ibid


[15] The above recommendations have been taken from the UNESCO Report, 2011 (Srivastav, 2011)

Nishat Anjum
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Nishat is Masters in Economics at JNU with a keen interest in the development and Political economy. She has done her graduation in BSc. Economics from St. Xavier's, Calcutta. She is interested in Policy Research and likes to blog on economic issues especially on Heterodox school of economics.

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