Where are the Domestic Migrants Headed?

8 min readMay 29, 2023


The original version of the article was published on 10th March 2023 in “The Daily Guardian”

Women migrants have regained less than 65% of their pre-pandemic incomes. Source: The Wire

A large part of the Indian economy is based on the informal sector with informal labour or employment functioning as its base. With increased access to transportation and communication coupled with an increasing demand for a greater labour force in these sectors has shifted labour away from agriculture and towards industry and manufacturing. The concentration of industries and manufacturing units in certain parts of the country has further led to the rise of labour migration. Apart from this, the concentration of educational opportunities in prime cities and relocation needs owing to social factors such as marriage have also contributed to inter and intra-state migration in India.

The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the extent and scale of migrant labour in India and their plight. According to a research paper published in 2021, nearly four crore migrant labourers were affected by the COVID-19 lockdown in some form. Anywhere between 50,000 to 60,000 migrant workers moved back to their native places within a few days of the lockdown. Job loss due to the shutdown, cash crunch and fear of the disease exasperated an already fragile situation. The above developments call for a more nuanced understanding of the nature of the migrant population in India, difficulties faced by them and what can be done to address their concerns. We take a look at the major domestic migration trends in India, the problems faced by migrants, and what can be done to make sure the benefits they give to the economy through their contributions go back to them in some form.

The Big Picture: Inter Vs Intra-State Movement

According to the Census 2011 data, the number of internal or domestic migrants in India was around 45.36 crore then. This roughly translates to around two-fifths or 37 per cent of the country’s population including both inter and intra-state migrants. In the 10 years from 2001 when the last census was conducted, while the population grew at 18 per cent, the share of domestic migrants in India’s population jumped by a staggering 45 per cent. This is also commensurate with the rise in India’s workforce. As more and more people enter the labour market, the share of domestic migrants- both inter and intra-state- has also increased indicating an economic or employment-based factor a driving force behind the domestic migration of a large number of people.

Interestingly, a breakdown of the total domestic migrant population in India reveals that a lion’s share of this migrant population is intra-state migrants or people who move within the state in which they were born. Intra-state migrants formed 88 per cent of the total migrant population of India, leaving the inter-state migrants, those who moved to a different state than their state of birth, at just 12 per cent.

More recent figures from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2020–21 shows that intra-state migration was still as high as 87.5 per cent of the total migrant population in India, including international migrants. Only 11.8 per cent were migrating to a rural or urban area of a different state.

Rural to Urban Migration: Myth or Reality?

Another key factor that sheds light on the type of migration within the country, while looking at domestic migration is the rural-urban patterns of movement. Urban areas are large recipients of migrants whereas rural areas witness out-migration trends. People in rural areas comprise 68 per cent of the out-migrant population in both inter and intra-state migrant populations. Rural areas send out near about 58 per cent of the out-migrant population when it comes to inter-state migrants whereas they receive 59 per cent of the in-migrant population when people move within a state.

Moreover, when it comes to in-migrant population trends, urban areas receive a majority of the share of inter-state migrants at 72 per cent. Rural areas, on the other hand, receive more migrants from within other rural areas of the same state, with the share of the population of such intra-state migrants as high as two-thirds, according to Census 2011.

If people are moving within the state, as low as 18 per cent of the migrants moved from rural to urban areas, according to the Census 2011 data whereas this share more than doubled to 37 per cent when it comes to people moving from rural areas in one state to urban areas in another state.

Decoding migration trends from urban to rural areas, according to the Census data, only 9 per cent of the urban population moved to a rural area within the same state. In the case of inter-state migration from one state’s rural area to another state’s urban area, the share was even lower at 7 per cent.

Clearly, there has been a one-directional trend wherein migration within the country is directed from urban areas to rural areas, more so in the case of inter-state migration due to varying reasons.

Gender, a Deciding Factor in Migration and Other Reasons

When taking into consideration the gender aspects of domestic migration in India, it’s noteworthy that women are more inclined towards intra-state migration whereas men form a larger share of migrants who moved from one state to another. Marriage is the primary reason for migration within a state, especially among women and is second only to ‘other’ reasons for intra-state migration. A majority (51 per cent) of the women who migrated within the state did so owing to marriage whereas only 2 per cent of the males migrated intra-state due to marriage. Intra-state migration for men is owing to ‘other’ factors with as many as 50 per cent of males migrating within a state due to other reasons.

PLFS 2020–21 data showcases similarities in reasons for migration for men and women. According to the data, nearly 87 per cent of the females migrated due to marriage whereas only 6.2 per cent of males migrated due to the same reason. For males, employment was the primary cause of relocation with nearly 23 per cent moving in search of better employment.

Inter-state migration is driven more by factors such as moving with the household and work or employment-related factors, with marriage falling at a close third. Interestingly, 42 per cent of females migrated from one state to another due to marriage, whereas 46 per cent of males did so due to work or employment-driven decisions.

Data also reveals that post the 2000s, migration accelerated for females at a much faster rate than for males. In the 2000s, female migration for work grew far more rapidly than the female workforce and grew at nearly twice the rate of male migration.

Regional Patterns in Movement of Domestic Labour

Movement of domestic migrants, both inter and intra-state also shows clear regional patterns. Inter-state labour migration trends are primarily driven by movement from populous and poor states to more developed states. According to the district-wise migration data from the Economic Survey 2016–17, city districts such as Gurugram, Delhi and Mumbai, Indore, Bengaluru and Chennai, receive the highest influx of domestic migrants.

On the other hand, 39 districts of Uttar Pradesh including Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor and Moradabad, along with a few districts in Uttarakhand, Bihar and Jharkhand witness a majority of the out-migration, especially of males to other states. As per the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation’s 2017 Report of the Working Group on Migration, 17 districts account for the top 25% of India’s total male out-migration, ten of which are in UP, six in Bihar, and one in Odisha.

According to the Economic Survey 2015–16, Delhi received more than half of the migrant population in 2015–16 while Uttar Pradesh and Bihar together account for half of the total out-migrants.

Poor educational facilities and lack of employment opportunities, apart from marriage and family are the major reasons for inter and intra-state migration in India. Economic factors such as the search for better livelihood opportunities became an important factor behind movement of people within states and between states after the 2000s as the economy started to open and more avenues for employment and work came up.

Making Lives of Migrants Easier

A large part of the domestic migrant population in India, both inter and intra-state, is mainly from the low-income groups. Most of them come from marginalised communities such as Dalits, tribals, and minorities, making them further vulnerable to exploitation. Poor wages, absence of social security and the informal and temporary nature of their employment make them dependent on government support for basic necessities such as subsidised f oodgrains, LPG, and public healthcare facilities. However, access to these services is dependent on the availability of documentation and identification proofs. Poor living conditions, lack of proper accommodation, need to frequently change residence and absence of inter-state portability of verification documents limit their ability to access welfare services. Furthermore, the informal nature of their employment makes them vulnerable to exploitation with limited access to legal recourse. The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore this grim picture of India’s labour migrants.

Several recommendations have been made in the past to address the concerns of domestic migrants in India. Political inclusion of migrant workers to allow them to vote remotely or in their current area of residence, inter-state coordination mechanism to share data on the movement of migrants, universal application of identification documents to access social welfare schemes, bettering the labour code to formalise the employment are some of the measures that will set a strong foundation to address concerns of domestic migrant workers.

Between 2001 and 2011, rural to urban migrants in India jumped from 5.2 crores to 7.8 crores. Increased mobility has facilitated the movement of people from one part of the country to another in search of better opportunities and improved standards of living. The benefits that the domestic migrant population brings to the economy cannot be stressed enough and calls for better measures to address the concerns of this section of the population, an ever-growing base across regions in the country.

Damini Mehta/New Delhi

Contributing reports by Ratika Khanna, Neha Rai and Nelabh Krishna, Researchers at Polstart.

From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.

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Polstrat is a political consultancy aiming to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.