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Migration, Migrants And Right To The City: How Do We Integrate The Vulnerable As Citizens Of Our Country?

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Event excerpts of a special lecture by Prof R B Bhagat organised by Center for Work and Welfare at IMPRI on Migration, Migrants and Right to the City.

We all know what happened during the last week of April to the first week of June in 2020 in response to the nationwide lockdown to stave off the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly millions of migrant workers started moving out of the city and marched towards their respective rural destinations. It shook the nation’s conscience, the memory of which will be etched for a long time.

The topics of migration and migrants have come to the centre stage of national policy-making discourse and generated renewed academic interest.

My concern here is that we are aware of the problems faced by migrants who have not been treated well. Questions are being raised about whether they are citizens of this country, whether they belong to their State of origin or State of destination. Or are they the responsibility of Central Government?

We have also seen the matter being seized by the Supreme Court and the apex court has given directions to the Central and State governments to facilitate the transfer of migrants to their native places.

Why did a humanitarian crisis of such magnitude Occur?

Most of the social security programmes or legislative acts are silent about migrants and migrant labour.

How can we academically understand the problem of locating the relationship between migrants, migration and city? Migrants and migration are two separate terms and conceptually it is necessary to distinguish between the two because it has implications in policymaking.

When we look at our Constitution, “Right to Move” is a fundamental right under Article 19 under Fundamental Rights. There is no question of debating whether migration is good or bad because it is an inalienable right of this country’s citizens.

On the other hand, policy and programmes should focus on migrants’ vulnerability and violation of their rights. Some of the important questions are:

  1. What are the migrant’s right?
  2. How are the migrants treated?
  3. Are migrants included in various policies, programmes and legislations?

India has numerous social protection programmes and legislations, but the category of migrants does not figure in most of them except the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979.

The Act specifies the responsibility of contractors with regards to inter-state migrant labour. It is largely applicable to contractor driven migration across state borders. The Act is, by and large, ineffective because of the informal nature of contractors.

Much of the migration to urban areas is driven by a social network of friends, relatives and kins. They are not covered under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979. On the other hand, rural employment generation programmes like MGNREGA mentions that it is designed to prevent rural to urban migration. However, most of the social security programmes or legislative acts are silent about migrants and migrant labour. 

It is worthwhile to mention that there are two types of migration: voluntary and forced migration. Our focus is on voluntary migration. It is migration by choice, unlike trafficking, displacement and being a refugee. Voluntary migration is a means to enhance development opportunities. It is freedom enhancing, whereas forced migration is bondage laden with subjugation and exploitation.

There exist several laws nationally and internationally to deal with various categories of forced migration. The term distress migration is also often used in policy circles, but if distress migration is accompanied with consent and choice, it cannot be treated as forced migration.

In some parts of the country, there is widespread agrarian distress, but not all people have means and opportunity to migrate. Migration, by and large, is associated with some agency and is mainly network-driven. However, it is possible that the distress of households may be a reason for forced migration and this is an area that requires concern in terms of legislation and policymaking.

Rural to urban migration, however, is largely the result of voluntary action. Therefore, this is a domain of development policy rather than a domain of law and governance.

What do we mean by or how do we understand a “City”?

India cities
A city is a form of relationship between the place and people, and people are necessary.

As rural to urban migration is mostly city-ward migration, it is important to clarify what we mean by a city or how we understand it.

A city is a relationship between people and place. People make and change the place. When a place acquires some level of concentration of economic activities and people, we categorise them as urban and some urban places as a city. Thus, a city is a form of relationship between the place and people, and people are necessary.

But what has been happening for the last few decades is that we see an increasing disconnect between the people and place, making an entire city just another space. In other words, a city as a place is replaced by space.

The city space produced seems to be concrete and built and has become somewhat a commodity or a product of consumption. It has emerged as a site of capital accumulation and wealth creation, leading to inequality and deprivation not only within the city but also outside, as cities are sucking the resources from the hinterland with little trickle-down in return.

This has led to an increased rural-urban divide in India along with widening regional disparity in the country. This is how the disconnect between people and place has manifested, raising questions of Right to the City.

As people are disconnected with the place, the question is: how do we restore the people with the place? Right to the City is an urban imagination about how we can make and remake a city. It envisions a city that is inclusive, sustainable and people-centric.

Migration is central to the Constitution of people in a city. I would also like to put before you the relationship between the city and development and the economic and political process affecting migrant labourers and their rights.

If we look at the role of the city or urbanisation in the past, it has played a historical role in shaping polity and economic development. Historians have noted that the Indus Valley Civilisation was an urban civilisation. We have Greek city-states where cities and their residents played an important role in the political process.

In our country during the same period, around 6 century BC, there were several Janapadas in the Gangetic valley. Some of them were also characterised as Gansangha or Ganrajya, meaning thereby republic. These were more or less similar to Greek city-states.

Later they grew into Mahajanapadas. Magadha was the largest Mahajanapadas among the 16 mentioned in Buddhist literature, with Patliputra as its capital. Although the form of the city was different due to the level of technology and economy, its function as a political, administrative and commercial centre was fairly evident.

When we look at the Greek cities, there were three groups of people: citizen, metics (migrant) and slaves. It is worthwhile to mention that the Greek word for the city is polis and for citizen it is polite. Citizens were those freemen who were involved in ruling, excluding women, slaves and metics.

So, there is a very close connection between a city and its citizens. It also highlights the fact that cities played an important role in the development of the political organisation.

mumbai local population

However, with the advent of industrialisation, cities have grown in their population size and as centres of massive economic and political power. In this context, cities that emerged in Western European countries have been our role models.

How have these cities evolved? What role has migration played? Cities of developing countries like India follow a very different trajectory as far as migration is concerned, with huge implications for migrants’ inclusion in the city.

When industrialisation took place in the middle of the 18th century in Western Europe, there was massive rural to urban migration. Not only did migration take place within the country, but massive emigration to their colonies happened. The rural, by and large disappeared, agriculture was mechanised and there was no rural or agrarian distress as we see in different parts of India today.

Although rural to urban migration is still taking place in India, it has not transferred the entire surplus labour from rural areas. On the other hand, rural areas in India are also growing demographically, unlike the West European countries when they were in similar stages of urban transition.

Cities, by the concentration of people, firms and economic activities, produce agglomeration economies conducive for production and economic efficiency. This is the reason why investment accrues to cities compared to rural areas. Returns are not only higher in cities but also increase with increasing size of the city. The agglomeration of economies not only increases production efficiency but also brings down production cost.

Matching, sharing and learning are other advantages in cities where demand meets supply and people and firms may share information and learn from each other. Availability of skilled workforce, transportation, trade opportunities, banking and credit facilities are easily accessible in cities. In a market-driven economy, cities seem to be indispensable for economic growth.

As cities are spatial organisations, one can also look at them from the perspectives of density, distance and division. Density is associated with larger markets, distance relates to the transportation costs and division stands for barriers that inhibit production, consumption and economic growth. In all the three spheres, cities have distinct advantages and potential. Therefore, cities, economic growth, wealth and capital accumulation exist cheek by jowl.

It is a misnomer that bigger cities are not better as far as economic returns are concerned. Increasing city size provides increasing economies of scale and per capita income. Empirical studies show that when city size doubles, the per capita income increases by 15%.

So, with increasing size and economic growth, the city is bound to have migration. There is hardly any city in the world which has not grown due to migration. But the question is, what happens to the migrants who constitute people of the city? Are they equally benefited? Is the city inclusive and sustainable? These are some of the larger issues that Right to the City addresses.

Migration is central to the formation and evolution of a city and diversity is a natural outcome. A city is known not only for economic and occupational diversity but also for its social and cultural diversity. Diversity is also closely related to creativity and innovations and vice-versa. Thus, diversity as an outcome of migration should be looked upon as a city’s strength, not its weakness.

However, sometimes diversity may lead to conflict due to political reasons, which is an anathema to the city’s nature and economic growth. On the other hand, if we want to have a homogenous city, it is neither desirable nor possible because homogenisation means erasing diversity and disappearance of creativity and innovations.

This is the historical experience with respect to the growth of creativity, innovation and economic growth related to the city. These are some of the city’s positive facets which shows how they have shaped our political, economic, and social system historically in different phases of history.

Those who have made the city are the people who cannot enjoy its benefits.

While cities have many positive sides, we must not construe that cities do not have any problems. Cities have a lot of problems. Most importantly, inequality within the city is glaring in India and many other developing countries; there is a considerable presence of slums, poverty, and environmental degradation.

Cities not only entail inequality within the city but also create regional inequality. The backwash effect of the city is greater than the trickle-down in most parts of developing countries. Cities are also dependent on resources from its hinterland.

The negative aspects of a city are larger issues when observed from the underclass and migrants’ perspective. It is also evident that those who have made the city are the people who cannot enjoy its benefits. Right to the City means who participates in the city, is included in it, owns it and controls it.

Henri Lefebvre, a French Social Scientist, proposed the idea of Right to the City in 1968 in a writing in French entitled Le Droit à la Ville which means Right to the City. During 1967–68, there were some student uprisings accompanied by workers protests in Paris. Lefebvre wrote this book during that time.

Lefebvre’s main argument was premised on the fact that cities have been turned into a commodity and the use-value has overtaken exchange value. The commodification of cities has transformed them from a place to a space. Cities have been converted into a consumer good.

It is the consumption of space and not the consumption in space. The former is a real tragedy. This has created alienation of people from the place and urbanisation is serving the interest of capital accumulation.

The outcome is increasing inequality, poverty and environmental degradation. The philosophy of Right to the City addresses these problems in a larger framework of reconnecting people with a place that has been hijacked by the process of urbanisation at a particular juncture of history. Right to the City means participating in the decision of making and remaking the city.

This concept has been further elaborated by David Harvey, a leading urban expert and social scientist. He remarked that the city generates capital and wealth, moving in various circuits like manufacturing, built environment cum real estate and financial market, leading to continuous accumulation of capital.

When manufacturing is not profitable, capital leaves and moves to the built environment; it may also create de-industrialisation. Urbanisation means continuous expansion of the built environment. It is construction and reconstruction, also known as redevelopment, that is becoming more and more profitable.

Also, the built environment is the area of wealth creation and a place of hiding wealth. Such movement of capital is associated with rising consumption of urban space and the increasing importance of the service sector is creating a simultaneous condition of labour based on informalisation, precarity and insecurity.

Informality means there is no social security, no job contract; jobs are also precarious, which means they are not regular, i.e. casual and temporary; anybody can be fired any time. With this type of informality, precarity and insecurity, migrant workers are invisible. It was only when migrants came on the roads due to the lockdown in the wake of pandemic did they become visible to the nation.

Thus, through urban space production, the capital creates its ally of migrant labourers to survive and prosper. Migrant labourers are treated as an input in production that performs 3D works (dangerous, difficult and demeaning). They are not only workers in the informal sector but also invisible as they do not have an identity and a majority of them keep circulating between rural and urban areas.

They are also insignificant as far as vote bank politics is concerned because their names either do not figure in the voter list or they are unable to go to their respective electoral constituency on the day of voting. As the city moves from manufacturing to a built-environment, it experiences the financial market’s dominance that is manifested through a speculative stock market, insurance market, and credit market.

Financialisation and urbanisation of the city create a situation where money makes money without producing goods and services. This is why we see various financial crises occurring that are not always explained in terms of what is happening in the city from the perspective of space and place. It is to be recognised that cities are central to the understanding of development and the occurrence of various crises.

The recent migration crisis due to the lockdown and pandemic must be located in the nature of urban space production and a solution must be sought concerning the inclusive and sustainable cities and urbanisation. The political system’s real challenge is to spur economic growth and restore the city to the people. Right to the City provides a philosophical and theoretical framework to achieve this objective.

Right to the city is a collective Right

This integrated approach of development will help restore migrants as formal citizens of the country and as substantive citizens whose political, social and economic rights are protected.

How do we make our cities inclusive and sustainable and ensure that urbanisation is regionally balanced, which can protect the environment and ensure people’s livelihood? We have to stop the commodification of urban spaces in the built form, leading to environmental destruction. However, urbanisation should not be viewed only as a problem. It can provide a solution as well.

This requires structural and institutional changes in our policy framework. The issue is often trivialised attributing to unplanned urbanisation, unregulated urban sprawl and encroachment. As a result, the entire urban problem is being looked through the lens of governance and is seen as a failure of planning.

The deeper structure of the production of urban space in the interest of capital accumulation, alienation of people from place and exclusion of migrant workers as city makers are ignored, which need to be addressed through economic reforms.

However, it is to be noted that any economic reform must be people-centric in the long run to achieve a prosperous and happy nation. There is a need to have political reforms because local democracy, sustainability and urban inclusion need to be vocal on local. Who owns the city also needs to be clearly defined.

At the moment, multiple agencies own and govern the city without control and command under a single body. The mayor and elected representatives’ role should be redefined; they should be made responsible and accountable, like in New York and London. The Indian Constitution made provisions to strengthen local democracy through the 73rd and 74th amendment for rural and urban areas. However, in reality, it is implemented half-heartedly.

Right to the City is not only for those who are inside but also for those who are outside it. 

The question is, how can urbanisation be helpful for rural development? We do not see rural-urban interdependence and consider rural and urban development separately. We have different ministries at the central level to look after rural and urban development separately. However, there is a need to look into rural and urban development in an integrated way. 

Schemes like Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA), which India’s former president Dr Abdul Kalam had envisioned, and its present form known as Rurban Mission could help plan urbanisation of rural areas.

Urbanisation should not be looked upon as a problem. It can play an important role in bridging the rural and urban divide and fulfil the imagination of Right to the City. In such a situation, rural people would not have to migrate to urban areas; rather, the urban will reach out to rural areas. This place and space approach will help understand our policy programmes; going beyond the populist beneficiary and household approach in connecting people with place.

Recently, the Government has come up with a massive MSME programme to boost economic activities. In order to have MSMEs working in rural areas, we must have adequate and suitable rural infrastructure. The integration of the Rurban Mission with development programmes like PURA, MGNREGA and MSME requires good planning and strategy for rural areas’ urbanisation.

This integrated approach of development will help restore migrants as formal citizens of the country and as substantive citizens whose political, social and economic rights are protected.

I think Right to the City is a theoretical framework that enables us to examine development through the lens of space and place, epitomised in the form of urbanisation. It requires collective action, mobilisation of people and a functional urban democracy as a prelude to inclusive, equitable and sustainable development.

By Prof R B Bhagat

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