From a State of Low Return
Aajeevika Bureau Makes Migrants Move

Rajiv Khandelwal, Aajeevika Bureau

The communities that inhabit the dry, hilly, rain-fed and drought prone tracts of India have long learnt to manage two diverse realities that mark their lives. The first is their struggle to work their unproductive land despite small landholdings and frequent failures of rain. The second reality is that every year thousands among them will move away from their villages to search for a living. This is how they will earn their incomes, possibly save some of it, and bring it back to their homes as much awaited cash.

This is not a unique or exceptional scenario. Pockets of fragile natural resources and low agriculture production across the country have become large-scale exporters of labour, forcing people to move to better-endowed regions of the country. Often the only resource the rural migrants bring to urban settings is their physical labour and a desperate quest to earn and return. Sectors such as construction, mining, transportation, vending, hotel and restaurants, vending, small manufacturing and food processing are their major employers. In the more prosperous, irrigated areas, agriculture too is a major magnet for unskilled labour.

Migrant workers earn poorly, have few prospects for advancement and are routinely subject to unfair labour practices. Not surprisingly therefore the labour and employment opportunities available to the migrants are usually short-term and highly prone to fluctuations in the market. Wages tend to remain poor in the case of casual labour in cities or farm labour in rural areas. Working and living conditions are appalling and the incidence of disease and injury is high. Coming from a background of low quality rural schooling that has provided few basic skills, tribal and rural poor migrants are unable to enter those sectors of the labour market that require at least some minimum level of education. Therefore the large employment opportunities in urban services are largely unavailable to rural migrants.

Yet migration is inevitable for the very survival of millions of rural communities. Land offers little scope for employment. Non-farm, industrial growth is hugely imbalanced thus making it almost essential the rural poor to exit their villages to find work in distant locations.

What is the meaning of sustainable development for those regions for whom the potential of natural resources is nearly exhausted? What skills and knowledge enhancement can concurrently improve the livelihoods of migration dependent households? These are the core questions that concern Aajeevika Bureau in its growing work with seasonal migrant workers of Rajasthan.

Aajeevika Bureau — An Initiative to Support Migration
Aajeevika Bureau was established in 2004 as a facility dedicated to provide services to rural migrants of Southern Rajasthan — a predominantly tribal region in western India. The populations of this hilly region traditionally depend on subsistence cultivation. Often faced with drought and crop failures, the livelihood of the region’s population is turning to seasonal wage labour away from the villages — mainly in cities, farms and factories of Gujarat where cheap labour is in ample demand and migrants from across the country find economic refuge. However opportunities in cities of Gujarat require skills, confidence and networks on the part of migrants. The mandate of the Bureau is to assist migrants in starting up higher on this spectrum of advantage.

The major goal of Aajeevika Bureau is the achievement of significant improvement in livelihood opportunities of poor migrant labourers from Southern Rajasthan. The Bureau’s provides new opportunities for skill upgradation and employment and helps to contribute to a skilled and confident migrant labour force that is able to negotiate higher returns in the labour market. The Bureau also works towards reducing the hardship associated with migration and for creating a more positive and protected environment for migrant labour.

Aajeevika Bureau works both at the “source” blocks in South Rajasthan as well as in selected, high intensity migrants’ “destinations”. The Bureau works in 4 blocks of Udaipur and Rajsamand district and in two destination centers viz. North Gujarat and Ahmedabad.

The photo ID service is a highly visible and popular service of the Bureau.
The Aajeevika Advantage
What are the services being offered by the Bureau to rural migrants from South Rajasthan?
Registration is the entry point for the migrants into the Bureau’s set of support services and thus far over 5000 migrants have been registered by the Bureau. Registration creates a valid identity of the migrant who may go through multiple locations and employers looking for work. The photo ID service is a highly visible and popular service of the Bureau. The card is being used as an introduction to the individual’s bona-fide for the employers, peers and even police.

Skill training provided by the Bureau offers an opportunity to migrant youth to join better employment opportunities and in improving their confidence in the labour market. The Bureau has conducted several rounds of training for migrant youth in the construction sector — masonry, plumbing, electricity work, welding, fabrication and carpentry. Hotel and restaurant services form the other major area of training for migrant youth. Training has also been conducted in other high potential services such as driving, equipment repair and domestic services. The Bureau is also facilitating on-site, on-the-job training thus making learning more rigorous.

Skill training, personality grooming, placements service, legal aid and counseling are some of the services that Ajeevika Bureau provides to migrants.

Since the Bureau began to organize trainings, nearly 500 youth have been trained. While technical skills form the bulk of the training content, participants are also equipped with knowledge that enables them to gain confidence in urban settings. Typically the training modules have included literacy and numeracy skills, health and hygiene, labour laws and workers’ rights, information about the market, work ethics, financial management and personality development.

The Bureau’s has also initiated a placement and exchange service for rural migrants coming through its offices. Rural youth trained by the Bureau are offered placements with companies, contractors and establishments. The Bureau’s placement services are operating briskly with about 600 placements achieved by mid 2007. Several contractors and establishments looking for specialized skills call upon the Bureau looking for new recruits.

This Bureau has been paying greater attention to providing support services to migrants’ families on the premise that improved such services will result in conditions more favourable to stable employment of the migrants. The services to migrants’ families include communication assistance, linkage with government schemes and provision of emergency assistance to dependents during the migrants’ absence.

The Bureau provides legal aid and counseling services in response to the steady inflow of migrants’ complaints and cases involving fraudulence and malpractice. For some cases the team has turned to legal advise or has moved the case to the labour court or police. Workshops that focus on legal and labour rights of labour have become a regular feature at the Bureau’s block level centres.

Challenges and Change
In its efforts to offer migrants more secure and sustainable returns to their labour, Aajeevika Bureau faced several early challenges. Its major clients are poor, mainly tribal youth who have recently become migrants or are about to enter this market. They have typically dropped out of school early; have almost no ability to take risks and are totally dependant on what they can earn for themselves. Skill development for this category of migrants who have no resources to invest in acquiring skills means that they need to be trained fast without compromising quality and rigor. Currently, most of the training is residential and carried out in urban areas at costs that are beyond the means of virtually all participants. The Bureau is exploring ways to concurrently reduce costs and improve cost recovery, but for the moment, the training must be subsidized.

Keeping in mind the very limited time that the migrants can find, the training has to be short and on a fast track– in fact none of the training programmes has been more than a month long. Also the training cannot dwell too much on theory and class room based learning — it has to be oriented to getting good site practice and experience as that what seems to finally count at the time of employment.

Perhaps the most important learning has been that training by itself is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for more stable and remunerative migration. Of all the services offered by the Bureau, placement services and employment counselling to migrants are an absolute must. In absence of this support the trainees have little chance of finding a suitable position and are likely to lapse back into unskilled modes of employment or return to their villages to continue living in poverty.

Poverty creates conditions of chronic instability in long term employment. Attrition rates are high and trained youth have a high risk of dropping out altogether from the skilled job market. In the initial days the Bureau teams were surprised to witness wilful drop out of trainees from what appeared to be excellent job opportunities. Migrant labour, particularly from tribal groups, would shirk from the regimentation of more formal types of employment because of the restrictions this imposes on their mobility.

Employment in the unorganised, informal sector is expanding more rapidly than in formal/organized sectors. Informal labour markets are commonly exploitative of migrant labour. In this setting, the Bureau is frequently called upon to assist victimised migrants through arbitration, legal aid or even police intervention. There is little doubt that workers will become more politically aware and want to organize. The training provided by the Bureau may well provide migrants with skills that will enable them to operate more effectively in this realm, but that is not the primary focus of such training. For an organization whose effectiveness is related to being able to serve as an intermediary between the labour and the employer, this poses a real dilemma that we must resolve on a case by case basis with our goal and objectives clearly in mind. The answer may lie in leaving the more purely advocacy and political roles to other organizations and allowing the Bureau to continue to focus on improving migrants’ basic competencies.

On balance, migration does create new behaviour and progressive mindsets among people and communities. It gives rise to new aspirations among those who have known little other than poverty in their home areas. In its work with migrants the Bureau often encounters successful cases of rural to urban mobility — from absolute poverty to a life of a certain economic dignity. Migration does offer promise, but for this to be fully realized by significantly greater numbers of migrants requires services, skills and support. This is what Aajeevika Bureau is aiming to provide to thousands of rural migrants of Rajasthan.

For more information contact:
Rajeev Khandelwal
Director, Aajeevika Bureau
283 Fatehpura, Near Old Chungi Naka
Udaipur 313004; Ph: 0294–2454092

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