Invisible Migrants and Hidden Occupations in the City: Lessons for Research and Policy

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Arjun Kumar

The cities of India have a variety of population. Skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled people reside in cities to make it an inclusive society. However, not all not enjoy the same level of privileges in the society.  

As the world is facing the pandemic, the lesser privileged in the society have faced an unimaginable crisis of reverse migration. The migrant laborers began to leave the big cities with the fear of unemployment, no money and loss of livelihood. It was the first time that the government and the general public of the country came to know of the large population comprising of these workers residing in the cities.

In fact, the pandemic exposed a broken system that migrants were a part of till now. Upsetting photographs of women carrying their children, packed up suitcases and people trying to get to their villages was a wakeup call for the government to make a stringent decision on the lives of so many people – who make the very root of any big city/urban centres.

Priya Deshingkar_ Invisible Migrants and Hidden Occupations in the City_ Lessons for Research and Policy

In a webinar organized 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 talks about the very origin of how and when our society began the whole cycle of social exclusion to the migrant laborers. She says that the 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 the people are treated in a society. 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 the ‘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 changes due to education and connections with the outside world, but there is still a long way to go.

Once the migrants enter the cities, they find employment as semi-skilled or unskilled laborers in various sectors like construction site, street vending, rickshaw pulling and domestic work (which is a major source of income for the women). The major chunk of the population that migrates into these cities are those people who belong to the lower level of the caste hierarchy or the historically disadvantaged groups. Their work primarily involves working without proper channeling and almost no security and dignity to their labor. Due to lack of data that is present with the government these migrant laborers are often left out from social protection and welfare programmes. Thus pointing out to the fact that they are excluded from the ‘formal market’.

Citizens in this country are well aware of the physical presence of migrant laborers 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 they being not static enough to be reached by formal institutions.  

Prof. Deshingkar talks about how migrant workers are often subjected to microspaces of exploitation. More often than not, the employers of various factories or construction sites give their contract 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 actually employed them. Thus making it a vicious cycle without no proper labor laws being followed or guaranteed to the workers.

There is definitely a need for a strong policy for these circular workers that binds them all together. There has to be proper data, resources and statistics that point out to how many workers from the rural parts of the country are employed in urban setup and even information on their family members. There should be an analysis to find out why the policy and welfare programmes that are targeted to protect the migrant rights and wellbeing perform so badly in our country.

During the pandemic, all the migrant workers located in the cities preferred to go back to their native places 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 suggests that 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 NGO’s. The data about migrant workers, families, place of origin, employer and other family details should be recorded and updated frequently. There should be a uniform law for Migrant workers that ensures that their dignity and laws will not be violated by the employer/contractor. There should be watchdog organisations that monitor that 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 continues the event by pointing out to the fact there are certain fundamental changes that are required in the policy making decisions of the government. One of them is migrant rights. He explains that nowhere in the government documents is migrant rights recognized. It is only very recently that programmes like – ‘one nation one ration card’ and housing facility for migrant workers were introduced.

He believes that more than these rights or for that matter even labor 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 concludes by suggesting that the urban planning and development should be inclusive and welcoming to the migrant workers and their rights and wellbeing as well.

Dr. Nabeela Ahmed talks about how the current migrant crisis raises the issue of food insecurity. She points out how the migrants believed that they would die by either covid or starvation. Therefore, it was more important for them to leave for their own villages in order to assured of food and shelter. She suggests that there is a huge migrant women population that is affected due to the food insecurity. Thus making them further invisible in an already invisible society.

Mr. Sameer Unhale, Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra says that the state had introduced the rental housing policy in 2008, an initiative introduced in the Mumbai Metropolitan region. This policy received a lot of positive from the younger migrant laborers. This ensured a safe place for the 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 the policies that have to be put into place to ensure that a crisis like 2020 is not repeated. The responsibility of making these ‘invisible’ migrants ‘visible’ lies on both the government and the people living in the cities.

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Read more on the event here.

Featured Image Courtesy: Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay