Migrants and cities

Strangers in cities

Print edition : June 05, 2020

A group of migrant workers in New Delhi on May 20. Photo: Ravi Choudhary/PTI

Daily wagers from West Bengal’s Malda district who have been badly hit by the lack of work during lockdown and are struggling without sufficient food, in Mumbai. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The rush of migrant workforce to leave big cities in the wake of the lockdown lays bare the fact that they do not figure in urban adaptation plans and policy initiatives.

WHEN labour power is sold like a commodity at informal labour chowks (markets or hubs for recruiting daily wage workers) every morning in big cities across the country, it is not surprising that when the market shuts down it is no longer in demand. These semi-skilled migrant labourers are back on the road, not to be herded by agents or contractors to their work sites but to find their way back to their home States as the lockdown has left them in the lurch. Most of these informal sector workers have no identity, no dignified living space, no job profile, and no residence proof in the cities to which they had migrated in search of work. As such, they cannot be part of any government welfare programme.

It is surprising to note that the Central government could not, or did not, visualise the post-lockdown situation in which more than 139 million migrant workers (who include daily wage and contractual workers as per the 2011 Census) would be rendered jobless because of the lockdown.

There are various figures for the size of the migrant workforce, each calculated on the basis of different criteria. But there is no gainsaying that the number of those engaged in the informal sector is huge, comprising 90 per cent of the total labour force in the country. According to the 2011 Census, 35 per cent of the urban population of 377 million, across 8,000 cities, constitutes migrants. The NSSO 2007-08 figure puts the number of migrants at 288 million, with more than 56 per cent comprising those who migrated in search of employment.

Workforce migration happens between and within States. According to Professor Sneha Deshpande, who heads the economics department at Nagpur University and specialises in development studies, the combined figure for migrant labourers, according to the Census 2011, is 139 million.

In an interview to a national daily on May 17, Sneha Deshpande said the unfolding tragedy of migrant exodus was a result of the massive failure of governance at the city level during Lockdown 1.0 and, at the national level during the second and third phases of lockdown. According to her, even the Economic Survey data have enough details to help the government plan for any eventuality in which it needs to bring all economic activity to a halt. “As per the Economic Survey of 2017, inter-State migration during 2011-16 was close to nine million,” she said. It is difficult to imagine how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy advisers could ignore this basic data while contemplating a lockdown.

Sneha Deshpande said the Census report also showed that maximum migration happened from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir. These migrant labourers were headed to Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Had this information been taken into account, the Centre would have been prepared for the out migration from these State during the lockdown.

The Census report also lists the cities with maximum migrant population. During the first lockdown, had these cities proactively handled the migrants’ problems, like providing proper shelter and food, and had the Centre planned for their transportation during the second and third lockdowns, the tragedy witnessed on the roads today could have been avoided, she said.

Sanjay Singh, senior leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and a Rajya Sabha member, said: “The fact is that this government is completely insensitive to the plight of poor people. It is only worried about those travelling in planes, not those trudging on the roads wearing hawaii chappal.”

Incidentally, he has been arranging food for migrants at his official residence in Delhi since late March. Initially he distributed cooked food to anyone who came to his house, now he is distributing dry rations. “This government neither has policy, nor is it sensitive to the plight of the poor people,” he said.

Sanjay Singh said inhuman treatment of migrant labourers was seen in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States, where they were chased and lathi charged. He said the government should have announced at the beginning of the lockdown that trains would run for migrants wishing to go back home.

“This would have averted the chaos, panic and desperation that we are witnessing today. The way migrant labourers are walking back home or crowding railway stations, has nullified the purpose of the lockdown. Sending them back earlier would have made better sense,” he said. When the lockdown began there were only 300-odd cases of coronavirus infection, now with migrants scrambling to go back home, throwing physical distancing norms to the winds, the caseload has crossed a lakh.

Innumerable studies have shown that urban planning in India has completely bypassed the migrant population.

A study done jointly by Eric Chu, lecturer in planning and human development at the University of Birmingham, and Kavya Michael, associate fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Delhi, showed how urban plans left out the migrant population living in informal settlements. The study, titled “Participatory adaptation plans aren’t working for migrants in cities”, was published in the April 2019 issue of Environment & Urbanisation. Basically focussing on how cities grapple with climate change and design plans to deal with climate impacts, including precipitation and unpredictable shifts in temperature, the authors have highlighted that urban plans “seek to integrate basic development priorities while improving access to basic services like water, sanitation and health.” Owing to their unskilled, landless status, migrants are regarded as “out of state” citizens and have no access to formal public services such as state-based health schemes, ration and water. “In the event of a disaster they are prone to illness and death. Our study shows that city planners persistently fail to recognise migrants in urban adaptation plans and policies,” the study concludes.

The conclusions of the study, which was conducted in Bengaluru and Surat (Gujarat) to look at urban planning in the context of climate change policies, hold good for the entire country today.

Without wages, proper housing and access to state welfare programmes, it is natural for the migrants to leave the cities for the semblance of social security in their home States. “This was a psychological need for them,” Sneha Deshpande said.

Non-citizens in the city

In another comprehensive study by Ram B. Bhagat and published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) titled “Migrants (Denied) Right to the City”, the author has noted that though migrants contribute significantly to the growth of cities, they face severe barriers in terms of access to civic amenities, housing, employment, health care and restrictions on political and cultural rights. The author has shown how migrants, basically employed in informal sectors such as construction or self-employed as hawkers, vendors, rickshawpullers, domestic help, drivers, electricians, plumbers or home security guards work as casual workers and are open to the vagaries of the labour market and lack any social protection. This leads to their marginalisation in the city and exacerbates their vulnerabilities. Describing migrants as “non citizens in the city”, Bhagat says the planning process does not recognise migration as a component of any plan. “City planning is a failure in India,” he concludes.

Incidentally, urban renewal plans such as the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission, the Rajiv Awas Yojana and the Smart Cities project have ignored the migrants because these missions only address the issue of basic services for those who have documents to prove residence in a city over a period of time. In Mumbai, for example, the Maharashtra government’s slum rehabilitation programme makes those who built slum dwellings after January 1, 2000, ineligible for free rehabilitation. The Modi government’s ambitious Smart Cities Mission to develop cities across the country failed to take off for this very reason. The public policy think tank Observer Research Foundation undertook a study in greater Mumbai and Delhi to look at the progress of the project and concluded that it could not take off because of poor urban planning and the fact that it did not take into account the rural to urban shift of the population and economic and social inequalities. The study conducted by Nandika Chand concluded that the mission faced multiple challenges such as poor governance, absence of a clear policy, lack of long-term funds, existence of ideological differences and population increase.

With urban planning in a shambles, and the mission to improve the well-being of citizens a non-starter, it would be too much to expect that the milling migrants, denied government doles, would stay put in their cramped living spaces without daily income.

An eye wash

“When Modi said ghar me raho [stay at home, don’t step out], did he even realise that lakhs of people have nothing which they can call home?” asks an urban planner working with a global consultancy firm in Delhi. This expert, who has worked with various development authorities in India for designing their spaces, says urban planning completely leaves out migrant workers. “On paper, everything is 100 per cent perfect, with 30 per cent urban habitation marked out for the economically weaker section. On the ground, however, there is nothing. The land developer-builder-bureaucrat nexus has such a stranglehold that the poor get nothing whatsoever,” he said. For example, when a real estate project is executed, 30 per cent of the land is shown as being allocated for the weaker sections because government rules stipulate that housing for the poor should be incorporated in the project. In reality, this 30 per cent of land is included in the apartment complexes as servants quarters, for which the builder charges extra from home buyers. “This is a vicious circle,” he said. This is the reason housing for the poor remains only on paper, and when a calamity such as the present pandemic strikes, the poor are clutching at straws.

As part of its COVID package, the government has announced affordable rental housing for the poor, a long-delayed initiative. On May 15, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, announcing an economic package for migrant workers, said the public distribution system benefits would be extended to eight crore migrant workers. The urban planning expert said at least now the government had a head count and this could be useful in future policy planning.