Migration Narratives: The SHRAM Blog

Welfare or surveillance? The flip side of migrant registration drives

The recent initiatives by the state governments of Kerala, Jharkhand and Odisha towards compulsory registration of migrant labourers, are ostensibly being undertaken for the purpose of creating better welfare and support mechanisms. For migrant labourers, procuring an identity card is of primary importance to avail of government benefits–yet ‘identity’ in terms of citizenship and policy is most often linked to a place of ‘permanent residence’, and the mobility of migrants complicates this. These registration drives, by acknowledging and documenting the migrant workers’ presence, could serve to legitimize their work and lives in the city. Yet as a recent piece in the Times of India suggests; prejudices against migrants often entail that this compulsory registration may stem from, and translate into, new forms of discrimination.

Police profiling: welfare vs. prejudice

The Kerala Police recently issued directives for thumb impressions of all migrant workers in Ernakulam to be collected, as a measure to prevent crime in the district. This move is a violation of human rights, and locates poor migrant workers from other states as potential criminals simply because of their ‘outsider’ status. This reflects the hostility and inbuilt prejudice of local executive bodies towards migrants.

A major cause for concern is the fact that legislation meant for the welfare of migrant workers is being used as legal justification for this profiling. Times of India quotes an advocate who points out, “There’s a central enactment of 1979 called Migrant Labourers Act and then there’s a statute brought in by the UPA government regarding interstate migrants. Through these Acts, it is stipulated that welfare measures should be introduced for migrant labourers, such as providing night shelters, basic amenities, basic hygiene, medical care, fatal accident care, etc. For implementing these, they have to be provided identity cards. This also has the collateral purpose of preventing crimes. So, for implementing these, it is crucial to confirm their identities. So if the thumb impression is being collected for such a purpose, it cannot be said that it is illegal. Police is empowered to do that.”

‘Identity proof’

The crux of such undertakings is the dilemma of identity documents that migrant, and most unorganized sector workers, face. The Kerala police insisted that fingerprints were being collected as identity documents of migrants were often incomplete or inaccurate. Registration drives at the destination should ideally be undertaken to gather more accurate estimates of migration, and facilitate the connecting of these migrants to welfare measures, which might be hampered by lack of documentation.

Identity proof is vital for citizens to avail of state schemes and benefits; yet paradoxically many such identity cards require the applicant to produce proof of resources that the poor cannot afford (such as, very often, a proof of permanent address). The Aadhar Card was meant to resolve this issue and become a single, nationally accepted identity number/document–yet as a recent report reveals, “almost all the Aadhar numbers issued till date – 99.97 per cent – have been issued to people who already had at least two existing identification documents”–implying that it is still difficult for those who do not already have other documents, and who truly require the card, to obtain it.

Exclusionary Cities

Migration in policy discourse is often posited as a ‘menace’, and as a process to be halted or reversed. Increasingly, a growing anxiety about the apparently rapid pace of urbanization has located migrants as one of the factors causing unchecked and potentially detrimental urban growth.

Amitabh Kundu suggest that this anxiety is misplaced, and that the rate of growth of the urban population due to migration has in fact, declined in recent years. This is because cities have become exclusionary: “We would like our cities to be engines of growth, which means they should attract foreign and domestic investment. So we are ‘sanitising’ our cities.” With slum evictions, street vendors being harassed, and internal migrants being denied voting rights; India’s cities view unorganized sector migrants as outsiders, encroaching on city resources and better placed elsewhere.

Identity and surveillance

There is thus on the one hand a pressing need to legitimize migrant workers’ identities as citizens–and identity cards, whether Aadhar cards, BPL cards, or voter IDs, are all marks or stamps of citizenship and belonging. However, we see that in the case of migrants in Kerala, the documenting and registering of these citizens also brands them as potential criminals; as the outsider or ‘other’. It is vital to guard against this prejudice, and to ensure that this ‘monitoring’ or ‘tracking’ is undertaken for welfare, and does not feed prejudice and discrimination.

Radhika M. Chakraborty

Radhika M. Chakraborty

Radhika M Chakraborty has completed a degree in English Literature from Delhi University and a Master's degree in Women's Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research interests include gender and migration, diasporas, Partition, internal displacement and Sindhi culture.
Radhika M. Chakraborty

Latest posts by Radhika M. Chakraborty (see all)

Previous Post
Next Post

Leave a Reply

Current month ye@r day *