Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Arjun Kumar

“As the world faced the pandemic in 2020, the nations were not prepared to cope up with the uncertainty that lies within the situation. “Time” was the only thing that people have and is also our teacher. Lockdowns, restrictions, masks, sanitization and social distancing became the new normal for people across the globe.”, said Dr Ashima Sood in a webinar organized 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

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In India, as the spread of the virus became more prevalent, the 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 such as like Delhi, Maharashtra, Bangalore etc for years to earn a better livelihood for their families, moved back to their hometowns. Sudden announcement of lockdown brought them 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 kilometers to reach their destination.

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

She raised pertinent question- “Why did the migrant laborers had to leave the city in the middle of a pandemic in such a hurry?”. The main reason is the housing facility that the 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 the urban growth in India has been extremely 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 provide them with social refuge in times of an extreme insecurity.

She historically viewed that workers have not been separated from the mainstream population, prior to this pandemic. She quoted Partha Chatterjee saying that the majority of the time the population that was migrating into the cities for work and livelihood had to accommodate within the city itself. There wasn’t much of the distinction on the basis of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Partha Chatterjee and other social scientists noted that this notion began to witness a shift in the later 1990’s and early 2000’s. The primary reason for this shift was the rise of a middle class civil society and citizen groups. Partha Chatterjee noticed this sudden shift is transforming the composition of the economy in the country. As the factories began to shoot up in the peripheries of the cities, 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. It was since then that the urban spaces started to separate the spaces into two and the workers were no longer made a part of the urban spaces.

She 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 specialized and transitional governance that are completely unresponsive to poor groups. Therefore, the governance tends to forget the very existence of those who are actually constructing these cities.

She opined that democratic dynamics of local bodies is important in the issue of migration and reverse migration. The several questions that need to answered are will the voices of the migrant laborers 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 in future such a large scale reverse migration does not take place?

The differences in the financial situation of the cities refrain them from providing accommodation to migrant workers. For example, under smart city project only 100 cities have been covered and they have become the ‘pioneers’ of industrialization and modernization in the country. However, India is home to 8,000 cities. These unattended cities did not receive the same amount of monetary support that could have helped them with the accommodation of the migrant workers. The only way these cities receive funding is in the form of projects. When the projects are announced by the government, the government officials do the risk assessment in the cities or urban centers. As a result of which 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 be a bottom-up approach and decentralized. There has been a lot of information for government to implement yet development is nowhere to be seen. Thus, city planning must be restored to local bodies as mandated under the 74th Amendment Act of the constitution.

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 is done while only focusing on urban population. Thus, it is important to mainstream citymakers (urban poor migrants) in the planning and giving them space in politics and decision making. There is need to switch to an ‘inclusionary’ society with proper sanitization, water and living spaces in order to prevent a crisis like 2020.

Acknowledgements: Annmary Thomas is a research intern at 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.

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