A Case for Functional Social Protection Portability to Address Vulnerabilities of Migration-affected Children

Children from low-income migrant households are invisible in migration discourses. Despite existing provisions under various policies and schemes, access to social protection for migrant children has been fragile. Disruptions in education and inconsistent access to nutrition and primary healthcare sets them back further than non-migrant children from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds. COVID-19 has underscored that groups like migrants who face specific vulnerabilities are in acute need of tailored social protection programmes/measures. Functional portability measures that make opportune use of existing provisions in schemes are the first step towards this. Building on existing initiatives, policy frameworks must support adaptive social protection responses for this important segment of India’s population.

Children, particularly in low-income households in India, have faced enormous physical and mental hardships during the pandemic. Disruptions in key social services, including education, public health, nutrition and child protection have exacerbated deprivations brought on by loss of household income and mounting debt. For poor migrant children, whose access to social protection and social services has always been fragile, the pandemic has had particularly serious and devastating consequences.  If the failure to anticipate the exodus of over 11 million[1] migrant workers to home villages last year was a major blind spot in India’s pandemic response, how do we regard the invisibility and silence around the vulnerabilities of migration-affected children, who form a significant component of India’s migration story?  Census 2011 enumerates 93 million migrants in the 0–19 years age group: 40% of whom migrate to urban areas and 14% move across state borders. About half of these are girls, married young or moving with families.

Our research reveals that migrant children are vulnerable chiefly on account of being invisible and excluded from social protection and services. Even though the right to movement and residence throughout the territory of India is guaranteed by the Constitution, which explicitly protects against discrimination on basis of place of birth, social protection programmes in India have not been designed to take into account the movement of people within India’s boundaries. A sustainable solution to address vulnerabilities of migrant children must entail explicit measures to provide them with a reliable and effective safety net. Moreover, interventions must take into account that migration affects children in different ways, depending on where they are located spatially. Data from the National Sample Survey (NSS) 2007-08, which was the last round that investigated migration, estimated that about 54% of migrant children move with adult members of their household, 36% are left behind in rural areas while their parents move away for work, and about 10% are unaccompanied migrants.

Examining Vulnerability through the Exclusion Lens

Social protection is defined as “a set of policies and programmes aimed at preventing or protecting all people against poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion throughout their life-course, with a particular emphasis towards vulnerable groups” (UNICEF 2019). Such programmes are typically publicly mandated and geared to address risk and vulnerability among poor and near-poor households. India spends about 2.7% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on a wide gamut of social protection schemes, with additional substantive budgets for large sectoral flagship programmes for education, health, water and sanitation; minus healthcare, this expenditure is only 1.5% of the GDP (ILO 2017). Debates about the adequacy of this social sector spending notwithstanding, COVID-19 has underscored that groups like migrants who face specific vulnerabilities are in acute need of tailored social protection programmes/measures. 

As per Srivastava (2020), migrant workers face three key types of exclusion—those related to identity, eligibility and location. Migrants lack official identity documents that allow them to identify and register themselves as beneficiaries of schemes at destination. These enumeration failures result in intended beneficiaries being unable to access statutory rights and welfare benefits, which has been especially highlighted during the pandemic (Kapil 2020; Krishnan et al 2020; Samantroy and Sarkar 2020). Attempts to link ID documents with databases, like the "seeding" or linking of the biometric Universal ID Aadhaar numbers to beneficiary lists, are also yet incomplete, as the experience with delivering social protection to migrants during COVID-19 has demonstrated.  

Migrants are often unable to meet the eligibility criteria to access social protection programmes. Requiring proof of duration of employment to access benefits for construction workers, as in the case of the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) fund, is a case in point. Slum rehabilitation schemes often stipulate cut-off dates that require decades of stay in the city, imposing barriers to housing upgradation.

Location exclusions exist because social service delivery is specific to location, that is, only at the registered addresses. Domicile requirements for housing schemes and necessary links to a specific ration shop to access food supplies through the public distribution system (PDS) are other examples, though the latter is now being made portable through the One Nation, One Card scheme (ONORC). A further complication in location-linked benefits is the challenge of delivering social protection and services to split households, where members are located in multiple locations, as in the case of migrant workers. ONORC permits individuals to avail of rations in a location separate from the household. While this portability mechanism is scaling up rapidly in some pockets, it is too early to assess its outcomes for migrant households.

Central schemes approach the issue of access in various ways. For instance, education is a right, and therefore, eligibility barriers are kept very low. On the other hand, housing is not well-framed within the rights framework and access to public housing is associated with high eligibility barriers, usually requiring proof of both identity and residence from beneficiaries. 

Exclusion by Accident, and by (lack of) Design

Do centrally sponsored social protection programmes in India actively acknowledge and address needs of migrant populations, specifically children? Is exclusion a failure of design or implementation? We find a rather mixed pattern. We illustrate below, with some specific examples from the areas of education, nutrition and health, all critical components for children’s welfare.


Education until the age of 14 is framed as a right under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act), but it is also one of the few social welfare programmes with explicit provisions for migrant children. In its framework document, Samagra Shiksha—India’s overarching scheme for school education from pre-school to Class 12—recognises migrant children as “belonging to most underprivileged groups...” deserving “...special priority and focused action” (para It recommends identification of migrant-intensive districts and adoption of “innovative and effective strategies” to ensure enrolment, retention and continuation of education across source and destination (para, holding these accountable through scrutiny of workplans and budgets.

Innovative strategies include provision of seasonal hostels and residential schools for children at source while parents are away, schools at parents’ worksites, volunteers moving with migrating families to manage learning between schools at source and destination, and tracking of children through migration cards to enable continuity in education. Section 4 of the RTE Act provides for the admission of all dropout and out-of-school children in age-appropriate classes as well as special training to bring them at par. Special provisions exist for migrant children at destination, including mobile schools, examinations on demand, bridge courses, residential camps and drop-in centres for street and slum children. The scheme also provides financial assistance for out of school, dropout and migrant children.

Despite this, the majority of migrant children continue to experience disruption in schooling at the time of migration as well as lack of schooling support in the preferred language at destination. Recruiting teachers at destination with knowledge in native languages of migrants and setting up on-site schools due to lack of infrastructural support from employers are some key challenges. In practice, local governments do not have capacities to maintain records of migrant children, nor the wherewithal to access specialised funds under the scheme. Owing to these systemic and practical challenges, migrant children continue to be educationally deprived. In the wake of the pandemic, migrant children are reported to have dropped out of school, entering the workforce.

Outside of the RTE, scholarship programmes offered by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Ministry of Minority Affairs can be invaluable for children from marginalised backgrounds, which are also migration-prone. Unfortunately, state-specific domicile certificates are almost always required, disallowing migrants from accessing scholarships when they seek education outside of their home states.

Nutrition Security

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), a CSS scheme addressing the nutrition, health and development needs of children under six years of age, pregnant women and nursing mothers, is designed as a universal scheme. Every child up to the age of six years regardless of location or other identities is eligible. ICDS recognises the needs of migrants, albeit in a limited manner, requiring anganwadi workers (AWW) to maintain monthly food distribution records to both temporary and permanent residents. To do this, AWWs have to record new in-migrants and delete persons who no longer live in their catchment area. ICDS guidelines prescribe that all beneficiaries who migrate should be provided a certificate from the anganwadi in their village of origin. When they migrate to other villages/ towns, they could submit the original certificate in the anganwadi at destination place to avail uninterrupted services (Ruthven 2012). However, AWWs are not sensitised to the needs of migrant communities and migrant women continue to face barriers in receiving certificates at source. Studies show that migrant children at destination are disconnected from ICDS (NIUA and UNICEF 2020). At destination, lack of access is often a function of inadequate ICDS centres, especially in where migrants live. The ICDS Common Application Software (CAS), which captures a range of data on the AWWs and children enrolled, aims to ensure improved monitoring of service delivery and nutrition outcomes.

Migrant families also often face issues in accessing their food entitlements through the PDS, which is delivered in a location-specific manner. While the recently launched ONORC holds promise in enabling portability, its dependence on biometric identifications raises concerns about exclusion caused by malfunctioning biometric devices (Khera 2019). Food security and nutrition have been a primary concern during pandemic, and there are grave concerns on under-nutrition amongst children.


The National Health Mission explicitly seeks to include migrant and informal sector workers into its decentralised planning framework by capturing data on migrants in health information systems, which feed into district/city health action plans and by affirmative action and extensive community outreach to ensure access.

The Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (AB PMJAY) is portable in design, allowing migrants to access healthcare services through empanelled public and private service providers at destination states. It is one of the few schemes that recognises the needs of split households and allows individuals to access benefits at a location separate from the household. However, the portability feature is not yet popular, arguably owing to inadequate empanelment, cumbersome verification processes and lack of information among migrant communities.

Essential health services like immunisation, antinatal care services are also designed to be universal, but implementation gaps remain. Targeting migrants will require dynamic databases, tracking of mother–child pairs, as well as targeted social mobilisation. In general, we find that despite provisions for migrants, in practice, information asymmetries, cultural differences, social discrimination, and capacity to implement often result in migrants being unable to exercise these rights freely (MoHUA 2017).

The Case for Functional Portability

By making opportune use of provisions in social protection schemes that explicitly recognise and cater to migrant children, some states have set the ball rolling on ensuring portability. For instance, community-based arrangements have been implemented to take care of left-behind children of migrants in Jalna district, Maharashtra. The Odisha government operates hostels for such children in migration-prone districts in partnership with CSOs and sends language facilitators with children who migrate with their families to neighbouring states.

Efforts have been made to build capacity within School Management Committee set up under the RTE Act to ensure smooth operation of hostels in source villages. Tamil Nadu provides textbooks to migrant children in their native languages while engaging teachers in Odia language with support from the Government of Odisha and civil society. Kerala’s Project Roshni and its 2010 Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme have been cited as noteworthy examples of efforts to integrate migrant children educationally. The former teaches Malayalam, Hindi, and English to migrant children while the latter provides social assistance of Rs 3,000 per annum for education of children of migrant labourers studying beyond Class 10.

These responses have evolved from a grounded understanding of migration contexts by governments and other stakeholders, informed by the involvement of CSOs working on these issues for a long time. They underscore that those children migrating with their parents and those left behind in the village have different vulnerabilities and this differentiation is essential for developing adaptive social protection responses, especially in view of the economic pressures generated on migrant families by the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, there remains a gap in recognising and addressing the unique and extreme vulnerabilities of unaccompanied child migrants, which demands dedicated policy response.

Policy Frameworks for Interstate Portability

The COVID-19 migrant crisis calls for dedicated social protection for vulnerable migrant populations, particularly seasonal and circular migrants. The responses of state and local governments to the urgent crisis of hunger during the summer of 2020 demonstrates the possibility of responding effectively ‘from the bottom’ that, in part, fill the gaps in existing social protection frameworks. The ‘emergency ration’ window used by the Delhi government that reached an estimated 69.6 lakh people (GNCTD 2021)—several of them migrants—and universalised access with special outreach to migrants in Kerala, are some examples.

These responses, and others like the creation of migrant databases, bilateral collaborations for transportation of migrants and disbursal of cash benefits, indicate the salience of state-level migration action in India. At the same time, they caution us about scheme design that relies on excessive documentation, which continues to create exclusions in practice in spite of inclusion in design. In Delhi, for example, migrants needed extensive facilitation by CSOs to register online for benefits.

Given the specific vulnerabilities experienced by interstate migrants, mechanisms for interstate portability are urgently needed. At present, the lack of clearly established frameworks and reconciliation processes between and among states is a severe constraint. However, migration data indicate that source-destination pairs remain fairly stable over time, which can help design interstate coordination mechanisms. Ensuring that migration and family related questions get included in future NSS employment surveys as well as releasing migration data from the next census would help fine tune these mechanisms to help women and children who are part of migrant households.

The COVID-19 crisis teaches us that in addition to bilateral state coordination arrangements, India needs national guidelines to emphasise portability both in terms of social protection programmes, social services as well as systems which will facilitate and support interstate portability. The draft migration policy put out by the NITI Aayog’s CSOs Standing Committee Sub-Group on Migrant Labour proposed an institutional framework but this needs wider consultation and deliberation.

Functional portability requires that a range of state and non-state actors, including multiple government departments at state, district and city level, front-line workers, civil society organisations and informal community leaders, must weigh in on what frameworks and processes are best suited to deliver social protection to vulnerable populations. Additionally, clarity on fiscal frameworks to ensure that responsibilities for action towards vulnerable migrant populations—especially for children—are well defined would be necessary, with corresponding resource allocations.

As per data provided in the Lok Sabha by Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India in response to unstarred question no 1056 answered on 08.02.21.

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