The e-Shram portal, an initiative of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, came into being as a response to the Supreme Court’s suo moto petition on the migration crisis of 2020.

India saw lakhs of migrant workers walking back to their hometowns due to insecurity, lack of safety nets and bleak livelihood opportunities in destination states. The lack of accurate data on inter-state circular and short term migration in India became evident. While the National Sample Survey Organisation and census represent data on migration in India, they fall short in capturing short term circular migration. This flow of migrants, in turn, form a growing share of the informal and casualised labour workforce in India.

While circular migrants are a visible reality across sectors such as construction, hospitality and domestic work in India, their inclusion in the policy and development imagination has so far remained marginal. The absence of reliable data on migrants furthers their invisibility on paper and acts as a limitation in their inclusion in evidence-based policy.

Noting the plight of migrants during the pandemic, the Supreme Court directed the central government to enumerate and facilitate the registration of unorganised labourers/migrant workers by December 31, 2021.

Data falls short

In August 2021, the e-Shram portal was created with the mandate of registering over 38 crore unorganised workers in the country to create an Aadhar-seeded National Database of Unorganised Workers. The portal aims to bridge the gap in unorganised workers’ access to social welfare and employment benefits by issuing an e-Shram card (or Shramik card) upon registration.

This card assigns each worker a unique 12-digit number, which is envisioned to provide workers access to welfare provisions. A first of its kind initiative, the portal expanded the state’s conceptualisation of unorganised workers by incorporating erstwhile neglected categories of migrant and domestic workers.

Until February, the portal has registered over 25 crore workers. However, the registration remains regionally skewed with five states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha accounting for approximately 62.8% of the total registration.

Until February, the portal has registered over 25 crore workers. Photo credit: Sivaram V/Reuters

The E-Shram dashboard presents publicly available data on the registration across states, including disaggregated data based on occupation, gender, social categories (such as Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Class), modes of registration and income slab. However, the portal currently falls short to provide data on migrant workers that it initially intended to deliver. The labour ministry does intend to link the domestic and migrant workers survey it is conducting to e-Shram. However, action is still awaited.

Academics, policy organisations and grassroots organisations have long signalled the limitation of current data sets to capture the granularity of circular migration movements in the national databases. International Institute of Migration and Development chairman S Irudaya Rajan’s work on migration has pointed to the dearth of data collection on circular and short term migration in India, which accentuates their invisibility in the policy and developmental framing of the states.

Ravi Srivastava, who is the director at the Centre for Employment Studies at the Institute for Human Development in Delhi, notes circular migrants face overlapping precarity due to the compounded socioeconomic vulnerability and lack of incorporation in the social welfare infrastructure.

Here, the inception of e-Shram in the aftermath of the migration crisis was envisaged as a novel opportunity that would provide accessible data on social welfare delivery to migrants. However, the publicly available data on the dashboard has fallen short in meeting the goal over the last few months.

Case for disaggregation

The e-Shram dashboard provides data across occupational sectors such as construction, hospitality and domestic work. However, the dashboard does not represent a disaggregation of these registrations across the vertical of migrants. Noting the indicator of migration status is not an occupational category rather it is an identifier of the worker’s status, data disaggregation across this vertical could aid more concrete understanding and programming towards the need of migrants across the axis of occupation, gender and their spatial presence in different states.

There is a need for the e-Shram portal to provide data on migration, keeping in mind the distinct set of vulnerabilities migrant workers as a subset of the unorganised workforce face. Migrant data disaggregation is also essential on the following grounds:

1. To understand how migrant status intersects socio-economic and demographic positionalities of workers

Migrants exist across the vertices of occupation, gender, income, socio-economic categories. Disaggregated data of migrants across these vertices are needed to unpack the intersection of these vertices better. For instance, cognisance of disaggregated data on migrant women in the occupational category of domestic work could potentially aid the states in recognising the volume of migrants in the occupation segment, thereby enabling them to create an effective strategy for the delivery of social welfare at the last mile. Beyond the occupation category, disaggregation of data on the grounds of migration status could aid policy and advocacy efforts in ensuring the portability of welfare schemes across state borders in India.

2. For centre and state to incorporate migrants in policy thinking and enabling portability of schemes

Since the federal division of labour welfare between the Centre and state government jurisdiction, adequate data sharing on the registration of migrants as a subset can enable states to effectively incorporate migrants in their development outcomes and aid portability of schemes. As it currently stands, it is unclear if states would have access to disaggregated data on migration emerging from the e-Shram portal.

3. To aid the effective programming and delivery of initiatives by non-governmental organisations

Publicly available disaggregated data sets on migration can further aid civil society organisations and grassroots organisations in building and aiding effective last-mile delivery mechanisms in their programmes for migrants. In India’s migration ecosystem, civil society organisations play an active role in enabling and delivering last-mile welfare to migrant workers who are often missed out in the state safety nets.

However, noting the exorbitant cost of collecting data, civil society organisations are often limited in their capacity to ensure longitudinal data sets around migration. Here publicly available data sets on migration can aid adequate knowledge sharing in the development ecosystem via e-Shram.

The e-Shram portal is an important step towards incorporating erstwhile excluded categories of migrant workers in the welfare and development imagination of the state. However, for this initiative to effectively deliver at the last mile and pre-empt further exclusion, there is a need to enable proactively rather than reactive efforts of data sharing on migration.

Noting the multi-stakeholder migration ecosystem in India – where state, civil society organisations, the private sector and other intermediaries play an active role in delivering last-mile welfare – e-Shram needs to serve as a learning and knowledge sharing tool provided data on migration is effectively shared.

Harshita Sinha is a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics. She is also a migration fellow with India Migration Now and Bandhu Urban Tech and has recently curated Voices of Informality, a knowledge platform that aims to bring forth grassroots stories on informality for practice-based action.