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Will The Voices Of The Migrant Labourers Be Heard?

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“As the world faced the pandemic in 2020, nations were not prepared to cope with the uncertainty that lies within the situation. Time was the only thing that people have and is also our teacher. Lockdowns, restrictions, masks, sanitisation and social distancing became the new normal for people across the globe,” said Dr Ashima Sood in a webinar organised by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, and Indrastra Global on Can the migrant be heard by our cities? Migration, Exclusionary Urbanisation and the Precarious State of Affairs.

In India, as the spread of the virus became more prevalent, nations followed the regulations laid out by the World Health Organization. But India witnessed an unimaginable scenario of reverse migration. Most of the poorer population and migrants residing in urban metropolitan areas (Delhi, Maharashtra, Bangalore, etc.) for years to earn a better livelihood for their families moved back to their hometowns.

The sudden announcement of lockdown brought them to despair, leaving them jobless with almost no means of earning money. Due to lack of transportation facilities, they set out to their homes — on foot. The miseries upon them were reflected by the pictures of mothers carrying their babies, packed suitcases of household goods on their heads and walking kilometres to reach their destination.

This gloomy picture of pandemic led us to ponder the reason behind poor people from rural areas coming to big cities to work, but the cities made them penniless during a calamity like COVID. Although the government assured them food, shelter and other amenities, mere words were not enough to gain the trust of the migrant labourers.

Migrant workers carrying their belongings walk along a
Migrant workers carrying their belongings walk along a railway track returning to their home, during an extended nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease. (Photo by Amarjeet Kumar Singh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Why did the migrant labourers have to leave the city in the middle of a pandemic in such a hurry?” The main reason is the housing facility cities or the urban population offer to the workers. It is unhidden that the housing facilities in these cities have been largely exclusionary. The academicians and activists have labelled this as “housing injustice”. Therefore, it is evident that urban growth in India has been too exclusionary. 

The other factor responsible for their distress is the closure of all the workplaces where they were employed in response to the lockdown. Thus, their villages could have provided them with social refuge in times of extreme insecurity.

Historically, workers have not been separated from the mainstream population. Partha Chatterjee has said that the majority of the time, the population migrating into the cities for work and livelihood had to accommodate within the city itself. There wasn’t much distinction based on them and us.

Partha Chatterjee and other social scientists note that this notion began to witness a shift in the later 1990s and early 2000s. The primary reason for this shift was the rise of middle-class civil society and citizen groups. This sudden shift is transforming the composition of the economy in the country.

As factories began to shoot up in the cities’ peripheries, the middle class in the cities began to envision their “postindustrial modern society” more closely. The people in these groups took on the responsibility of getting rid of the cities/urban spaces of the so-called polluters and outsiders. Since then, the urban spaces started to separate the spaces into two and the workers were no longer made a part of the urban spaces.

Rickshaw Pullers In New Delhi
Peri-urban cities are formed by new forms of specialised and transitional governance that is completely unresponsive to poor groups. Therefore, governance tends to forget the very existence of those who are constructing these cities.

Dr Sood also shed light on “peri-urbanism”. Peri-urban spaces are the places close to big cities and witnessing slow growth as compared to the cities. They are becoming urban cities in their own terms.

These peri-urban cities are formed by new forms of specialised and transitional governance that is completely unresponsive to poor groups. Therefore, governance tends to forget the very existence of those who are constructing these cities. She opined that democratic dynamics of local bodies is important in the issue of migration and reverse migration.

Several questions need to be answered. Will the voices of the migrant labourers be heard? Will there be reservations for the migrant workers in local body elections? How does one ensure that the factory owners and other employers are held accountable against the injustice that takes place against these vulnerable groups? Will there be a mechanism to ensure that such large scale reverse migration does not occur in the future?

The differences in the financial situation of the cities refrain them from providing accommodation to migrant workers. For example, under the smart city project, only 100 cities have been covered and they have become the “pioneers: of industrialisation and modernisation in the country.

However, India is home to 8,000 cities. These unattended cities do not receive the same monetary support that could have helped them accommodate migrant workers. The only way these cities receive funding is in the form of projects. When the government announces projects, government officials do a risk assessment in the cities or urban centres. As a result, the project never gets sanctioned and the money allotted for the project never reaches the cities.

Urban development is a state subject. Still, all the programs and initiatives are by the central government. To discontinue this, the planning should have a bottom-up approach and be decentralised. There has been a lot of information for the government to implement, yet, development is nowhere to be seen. Thus, city planning must be restored to local bodies as mandated under the constitution’s 74th Amendment Act.

To conclude, Dr Sood said, “India has always been at the forefront of planning and ahead in the infrastructure sector. However, a major drawback is that planning and development in the cities are done while only focusing on the urban population. Thus, it is important to mainstream city makers (urban poor migrants) in the planning and giving them space in politics and decision making. There is a need to switch to an inclusionary society with proper sanitisation, water and living spaces in order to prevent a crisis like 2020.”

Acknowledgements: Annmary Thomas is a research intern at the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. She is an undergraduate in History from Ambedkar University, Delhi and joining as a master’s candidate in International Relations at University of Bristol, UK.

By Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Dr Arjun Kumar, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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