Interview: R.B. Bhagat

‘Migrants should not be seen as an input’

Print edition : July 03, 2020

R.B. Bhagat Photo: By Special Arrangement

Migrant workers outside a railway station hoping to return to their home States, in Mumbai on May 27. Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Interview with R.B. Bhagat, professor, International Institute for Population Studies, Mumbai.

R.B. Bhagat is professor and head of the Department of Migration and Urban Studies at the International Institute for Population Studies in Mumbai. An adviser on migration policy issues, he has written several papers on urban inclusion and on the concept of rights to the city. “A rights-based approach to city development would usher in a new era of freedom and human development; it must begin in the city and must begin with migrants,” he says. An academic who has his ear to the ground in the melting pot that is Mumbai, Bhagat spoke to Frontline on the migration crisis that emerged from the lockdown. Excerpts from the interview:

The exodus of migrant workers from cities and industrial and agricultural zones when the lockdown was announced continues to be a massive humanitarian crisis. You have been quoted as saying that this crisis has brought the migrant issue to the government’s doorstep. Why did it reach this tragic point?

The fundamental problem is that in all our policies and programmes, the word migrant is never used. Except in MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act], but even there it is used to say the programme is to reduce rural to urban migration. Whether it is labour legislation, social security policy or unorganised labour programmes, even the Building and Other Construction Workers Act under which we have social welfare boards functioning in different States, nowhere does the word migrant appear.

Our policies and programmes need to explicitly recognise that migrant workers exist in this country. In the name of poverty, we cannot assume to cover the migrant. Poverty is multidimensional.

In spite of the uncertainty all around, the economy must restart. Obviously, labour is needed for this. How do States and cities that rely on migrant labour move forward? After all, there is the very real threat of lockdowns happening again, and that would leave workers stranded once again.

The next two months will see a lot of instability. Big cities have already begun to feel the shortage of labour in every sphere. We predict that about 20 per cent of the migrant population, such as roadside vendors and daily wage workers, will not come back. The self-employed and those who have contacts in industry and construction will return soon.

Out of Mumbai’s 20 million population, 42 per cent are migrants. We have estimated that about 1.2 million people have gone back. Mumbai will certainly be affected, but in the course of time the city will rejuvenate and innovations and technological advancements will replace the requirement of labour. The question is whether it is good for the country, for reducing poverty and for inclusiveness. The economic loss is temporary, but the loss to the people, I think, is permanent.

You have written extensively on migrants’ rights to the city. In several papers you speak about inclusion and integration being crucial for a city to develop. Could you expand on this?

Urban inclusion for migrant workers is very important for urban sustainability. Without inclusive urbanisation, I don’t think India can progress. Rights to the city means everyone must have rights to urban amenities such as education, health and employment. Rights to the city can also be realised through planned urbanisation of rural areas.

The city should go to the people. Not people coming to the city. Geographical development with sustainable and inclusive urbanisation is the broader theoretical underpinning.

Secondly, who are those who make the city? Why are they excluded? Their wages are minimal, they are deprived and even condemned sometimes for the problems of the city. Inclusion is a right to the city.

Rights to the city means we should not neglect where people live and work. In development policy, the spatial aspect should not be neglected. Social science academies and economists are largely responsible for this happening.

You say the rights-to-the-city approach is a critique of the development process. Could you explain?

In policy debates we condemn urbanisation. We say cities are the problem. Villages are good. But the city shows growth, innovation, creativity, and creates wealth. Why can’t this come to the rural areas?

The rights-to-the-city approach will create balanced regional development where urbanisation has a critical role. We need to be able to do both: make cities inclusive and take the benefits of urbanisation to the rural areas. This will be a way of addressing migration.

'Aerial approach' to rural development

The exodus of migrants will put pressure on the rural economy. MGNREGA is a rural safety net, but will it be adequate?

There will be a lot of pressure on the rural economy. Because there was no employment they came here. The whole strategy of rural development has to change. When they say vocal on local, how does one implement that if a cohesive infrastructure is not in place?

The government says MSMEs [micro, small & medium enterprises] will create jobs. Yet most MSMEs are in urban areas. MSMEs will not go to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where a large chunk of migrants come from, because the infrastructure is not there. It is unlikely that anything can happen now as there has been no long-term rural development. And it is unlikely that MGNREGA can handle the current crisis. It is a bleak situation.

With regard to the rural economy, the few fundamental changes should be for infrastructure development to involve the local agro industry; and the concept of PURA (providing urban amenities to rural areas) envisioned by Abdul Kalam to be kick-started.

Additionally, the government’s approach of being a beneficiary to a village or household has to move to the development of village clusters, with one town being the nucleus for all facilities such as markets, education and health. It has to be an aerial approach and not the “adopt a village” plan that politicians seem to do.

We have a rural safety net. What about the concept of an urban safety net? Had there been a mechanism such as this we may not have seen this kind of humanitarian crisis.

In Mumbai there is a concept of labour nakas, where workers come to a particular spot in the mornings to pick up daily wage jobs offered by contractors.

An urban MGNREGA format would work well in smaller cities. Of course, big cities require more labour and they pay much more than the Rs.202 a day MGNREGA wage. But workers struggle with housing, poor access to health care and cannot bring their children for education to the city because of the cost. Social support is more important in a big city.

If we want migrants to be respectable citizens of this country, we need to focus on housing. Urban inclusion should mean developing public housing. We have affordable and low-cost housing but not public housing. This is the government’s responsibility. The private sector will never cater to these needs.

It does not have to be ownership but certainly the concept of cheaper and short-term rents. Why should those who have built a city live on pavements, under flyovers, in slums?

Urban inclusion is a strong theme in your work. Could you share your observations specifically on Mumbai, which is historically a migrants’ city?

A city’s development agenda should seek to include and integrate migrants politically, economically, socially, culturally and spatially. We need to raise the question: who owns the city?

The city, in this case Mumbai, needs to be liberated from the State government. The Central and State governments feel they own the city, but the city’s people should own the city. In this pandemic crisis have we seen the Mayor or corporators get involved?

We cannot have inclusive cities without decentralisation. Moreover, we need to understand the difference between planning and projects. Mumbai has abundant projects, but we need planning. Projects are related to capital accumulation not for the people. We have marketed the city as a commodity. Unless it is about its people it will not progress. Profit and economic growth can be initiated from the bottom as well.

Migrants and vote bank

It took a pandemic for the country to understand the value of millions of invisible, marginalised people. Your comments.

Many of these concepts have been around since the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, political dispensations led to this. Migrants are not a vote bank. These issues are not vote-catching. When identity politics come into the picture then strategies such as addressing migrant issues are irrelevant. During the pandemic we saw how they became non-citizens in their own country. Did they belong to the State of origin or destination? No one took responsibility. Even in the Rs.20 lakh crore economic package, where did migrants feature?

The Railways could have said it would take the care of the fares, but there was so much contention on what is really such a small amount in the larger scheme of things. This was an example of their insensitivity.

Migrants should not be understood as an input or just labour, they should be understood as human beings and citizens of this country.

How do we prevent another migration crisis?

I will reiterate that the responsibility of migrants is on the government. We have a GST [goods and services tax] Council. Why can’t we have an inter-State migrant council? Workers/migrants must be specifically recognised in every policy and decision on labour. In fact, they should be protected under a special programme. The pandemic can spread inequalities as we have seen.

I believe local governance, and not the Central or State governments, should play a larger role. For instance, corporators would know who the migrants in their wards are and related issues.

Unfortunately, municipals corporations are not empowered enough by the Constitution. They [the corporators] could have and still can play a larger role for migrants’ welfare.

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