The cities of India have a variety of populations. Skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled people reside in cities to make it an inclusive society. However, not all enjoy the same level of privileges within it.
As the world faces the pandemic, the lesser privileged in society are facing an unimaginable crisis of reverse migration. Migrant labourers began to leave big cities due to their fear of unemployment, no money and loss of livelihood. It was for the first time that the government and the general public of the country came to know of the large population of the cities that comprise these workers.
In fact, the pandemic exposed the broken system that migrants are a part of till now. Upsetting photographs of women carrying their children and packed suitcases, and people walking far-off distances to reach their villages were a wake-up call for the governments to make a stringent decision about the lives of so many people who make the very foundation of any big city/urban centre.
In a webinar organised by the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI and Indrastra Global on ‘Invisible Migrants and Hidden Occupations in the City: Lessons for Research and Policy’, Prof Priya Deshingkar, Professor, University of Sussex, talked about the origin of how and when our society began the whole cycle of social exclusion of the migrant labourers. She said that Indian society has been largely driven by the notion that the social identity of any person holds more importance than any other factor.
As a result, ‘caste’ becomes a major part of how people are treated. The idea of “us” and “them” or the “haves” and “have nots” comes into play here. Therefore, a large section of the village population decides to leave the village setting, primarily because of the humiliation and violence they face from ‘upper caste’ people and, in some cases, the landlords. They believe that the city would offer them better job prospects and their social identity will remain unknown. Therefore, migration is seen as a way of renegotiating caste and class boundaries. Even though there have been social changes due to education and exposure to the outside world, there is still a long way to go.
Once migrants enter the cities, they find employment as semi-skilled or unskilled labourers in various sectors such as construction, street-vending, rickshaw pulling and domestic work (which is a major source of income for many migrant women). A majority of the migrant population are those who belong to the lower level of the caste hierarchy or other historically disadvantaged groups. Their work primarily involves working without proper channelling, and there is almost no security and dignity to their labour. Due to the lack of data present with the government, these migrant labourers are often left out from social protection and welfare programmes, thus pointing out the fact that they are excluded from the ‘formal market’.
Citizens in this country are well aware of the physical presence of migrant labourers. However, they are very invisible. For example, they are not included in the formal books of the government. They move around from one city to another, looking for better opportunities and livelihood, thus, not being static enough to be reached by formal institutions.
Prof Deshingkar talked about how migrant workers are often subjected to microspaces of exploitation. More often than not, employers of various factories or construction sites give their contracts to big contractors who later transfer the work to several sub-contractors. By this means, the worker working at a particular site is not even aware of the actual employer who has employed them, thus making it a vicious cycle with no proper labour laws being followed or guaranteed to the workers.
There is definitely a need for strong policies for these circular workers that bind them together. There has to be proper data, resources and statistics that point out how many workers from the rural parts of the country are employed in the urban setup, and even include information on their family members. There should be an analysis to find out why policies and welfare programmes targeted to protect the rights and well-being of migrants are performing so badly.
During the pandemic, all migrant workers located in the cities preferred going back to their native place primarily because:
1) The end of the pandemic was nowhere to be seen,
2) They had lost their faith in the government and their respective employers.
To conclude, Prof Deshingkar suggested what the government needs to do in order to prevent a crisis like this in future. There should be capacity-building for middle-level bureaucrats as well as researchers and NGOs. Data on migrant workers, families, place of origin, employers and family members should be recorded and updated frequently. There should be a uniform law for migrant workers that ensures that their dignity is not violated by their employer/contractor. There should be watchdog organisations that monitor if the schemes and policies introduced by the government are reaching the beneficiary in the first place, and secondly, how well these schemes are performing.
Prof. Bhagat continued the webinar by pointing out certain fundamental changes that are required in the policy-making decisions of the government. One of them is migrant rights. He explained how migrant rights are recognised nowhere in any government document. It was only very recently recognised in programmes including ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ and housing facilities for migrant workers.
He believes that more than these rights, or for that matter even labour laws, the most important law is definitely the citizenship rights that every citizen of this country enjoys. This forms the major crux of ‘fraternity’ that the Constitution guarantees all citizens.
He concluded by suggesting that urban planning and development should be inclusive and welcoming to the migrant workers and their rights and well-being.
Dr Nabeela Ahmed talked about how the current migrant crisis raises the issue of food insecurity. She pointed out how migrants believed that they would die either by Covid or starvation. Therefore, it was more important for them to leave for their villages in order to be assured of their food and shelter. She suggested that there is a huge migrant women population that has been affected due to food insecurity during the pandemic, thus making them further invisible.
Mr Sameer Unhale, Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra, said that the State introduced the rental housing policy in 2008, an initiative introduced in the Mumbai Metropolitan region and has received a lot of positive feedback from younger migrant labourers. This policy ensures a safe place for migrant workers.
To conclude, all speakers believed that there is a long way to go for the government to ensure that the rights and dignity of the workers are protected at all costs. There is also an urgent need to formulate policies to ensure that a crisis like that of 2020 does not get repeated. The responsibility of making these ‘invisible’ migrants ‘visible’ lies not just with the government but also with the people living in the cities.
YouTube Video for ‘Invisible Migrants and Hidden Occupations in the City: Lessons for Research and Policy’
Acknowledgement: Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Arjun Kumar