Falling total fertility rates in states such as Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala and Punjab mean that in the coming years, the states will have to depend more and more on migrant workers. A decline in TFR means a fall in the number of children in the age group of 0-4 years – which is 5.6% of the total population. Children in the age group of 0-14 years form 19.1% of the population.

“Persons in the working age in these states will be less, and sectors like construction, factories, hospitality, among others, will depend on migrant workers,” said P Arokiasamy, former professor of Mumbai-based International Institute of Population Studies.

A few days back there was a migrant workers’ crisis in Tamil Nadu. Spooked by rumours that a few workers were attacked after fake visuals of such attacks were shared on social media, many workers in the textile towns of Coimbatore, Tirupur, packed their bags and left for their native places to celebrate Holi.

The rumours were finally put to rest as fake following assurances from state chief minister M K Stalin and DGP C Sylendra Babu as well as visits of an official team from Bihar to places like Tirupur and Coimbatore to dispel such rumours about working here.

Pawan Yadav, Arun Kumar, and Aman Tiwari are some of the few migrant workers who did not believe the rumours and stayed put at their workplace in Chennai.

There is no doubt that a large segment of these workers is engaged in precarious work with little job security or decent pay. Nevertheless, such informal employment is comparatively attractive to workers who have very little access to most forms of livelihood in their home states. Chennai is a destination for 4% of inter-state migrants in the country.

In the words of one such worker who refused to be named, “We are paid ₹400 to ₹600 for a day’s work in Chennai, compared to a measly ₹75 to ₹100 in Bihar.” In effect, Tamil Nadu, from being a source of migrant workers, has evolved into an attractive destination state for the bulk of informal sector workers.

But why are states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra dependent on migrant workers? The economies of almost all southern states as well as Maharashtra are largely driven by migrant workers.

Population experts mention two reasons for these states’ dependence on migrant workers. The first and foremost is the falling fertility rate of women in southern states and in states like West Bengal and Punjab. Tamil Nadu’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) declined to 1.4 in 2020 from 1.8 recorded in the 2011 Census, according to the latest data released by Sample Registration System (SRS) recently.

The state’s TFR along with West Bengal’s is the lowest in the country. Kerala is slightly ahead with a TFR of 1.5. “Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have reported the lowest TFR (1.4). Another noteworthy point is that the replacement level, which is the rate at which a population exactly replaces itself, has reached 2.1 at the national level,” the SRS report stated.

“At the national level, the percentage of the aged (60+) population is 8.1%. The composition of the 60+ aged female population is higher than males in all of the bigger states and UTs (in terms of area) except Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha and Telangana,” the report said.

In rural areas, those above 60 years constitute 8% of the total population. The percentage of the adult population in rural areas is the lowest in Bihar and Delhi (5.9%) and highest in Kerala (13.2%).

The second reason for the need for migrant labourers is that first-generation graduates in many families whose parents were employed in construction, agriculture and other sectors do not follow in their parents’ footsteps.

“In states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, many families of agricultural, factory workers have first generation graduates. Once a son or daughter of an agriculture worker becomes a graduate, he or she is not ready to walk the same path as their parents and forefathers. These children migrate to cities and are employed in IT companies or in other sectors of the economy. The gap created by such migration in the sectors of agriculture or construction is being filled only by workers from Bihar and other northern states,” said Arokiasamy.

The falling fertility rate also means that the population of senior citizens is increasing in these states.

As per the SRS data, the proportion of aged population at the national level in urban areas is 8.4%, ranging from 5.9% in Telangana to 12.8% in Tamil Nadu. In case of females, the aged population (60 years and above) ranges from 6% in Assam to 13.6% in Kerala. The same ranges from 6.1% in Delhi to 12.2% in Kerala for males.

This situation of dependency on migrant labourers in big manufacturing states is likely to continue and the actual number of migrant labourers at present in various states will be known only when census is taken.

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