June 21, 2020

Migrant workers stuck in a Quagmire

Tikender Singh Panwar

THE Supreme Court has finally passed the desired judgement, though too late, on the travel of migrant workers back to their homes. The SC has ordered that the centre and the state governments must ensure that within 15 days the migrant workers reach their destination. So far so good.

The period since the lockdown began, there have been gory stories of migrant workers; their tales of unprecedented agony, trauma and deaths of many while travelling back to their home states and villages; this in itself speaks volumes of the government’s failure. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy(CMIE) reported that the unemployment rate has reached 27 per cent and the rate of ‘willingness to work’ of the worker in the cities fell from 74 to 38 per cent. As a natural corollary, it meant that the worker (especially migrant), a fairly large section of them just do not want to work and stay back in the cities and intend to go to their home destinations.

One of the reports in the print media a few weeks ago had a caption, “will eat roti with salt, but won’t come back to the city.” This was the cry of the migrant workers while travelling back to their village. The reverse migration witnessed in the country shattered the urban development models adopted for last many years. It also exposed the hollowness of the slogan of ‘sustainable cities’ and thus raised a big question mark at the sustainable development goals(SDGs). The SDGs are to be achieved by 2030; of the 17 SDGs, nine are focussed on poverty alleviation. The smart cities, AMRUT cities, which were the two major flagship programmes of the Modi government’s urban development model, invariably all of them faltered. The smart cities apparently were the worst performers and least responsive as far as the migrant workers are concerned. The internationally funded ‘resilient cities’ project in India: Surat, showed how non-adaptive was the resilient city strategy to the working people. Surat is one of those cities that faced the worst crisis and the migrant workers were forced to even come out on the streets demanding wages and safe passage back to their homes.

The agonised and furious migrant workers after the lockdown were not just prepared to stay back in the cities, for they knew that staying back in the cities would starve them to death.

After almost 80 days of the lockdown some of whom (migrant workers) have gone back are caught in a quagmire. Why a quagmire; because one of the principal reasons for their migration to cities was the distress in the agrarian sector and ‘no jobs’ scenario both in the agricultural and non-agricultural operations in the countryside. It is a quagmire for them because in the cities, if they migrate back, which I argue they will, there is no immediate probability of improvement in their working conditions.

The reasons for the migrant workers' immediate exodus once the announcement of the lockdown was made are systemic and without the inertia being broken the patterns of urbanisation being followed in India will further worsen their situation.

One of the primary reasons for unsustainable urbanisation and for such a large exodus from the cities is that in India urbanisation is delinked from industrialisation as it happened in most of the European cities. The urbanisation of the 19th century was preceded by industrialisation. The present form of urbanisation, which quantitatively is phenomenally large but qualitatively has a different characteristic. This form is more based on the information economy or as it is called in popular terms, the ‘information communication and technology’-ICT model. This shift towards the ICT has also brought in interesting changes in the qualitative built up of the city spaces. This shift towards the ICT has been accompanied with changing class structures, altered space economies, and a new urban politics-that is quite exclusionary.

Henri Lefebvre, the famous Marxist philosopher and sociologist wrote about this change: “ the world was on the verge of a fundamental transformation where urban would become more or less co-terminus with the social; that we needed to think in terms of an encompassing urban society instead of discrete cities versus rural surroundings.” He further argued that “the urban problematic becomes predominant…[and] the search for solutions and modalities unique to urban society become foremost… The urban problematic(becomes) worldwide.

We are experiencing the fallout of this worldwide phenomenon of global urban linkages where the entire world is now caught in a deepened crisis.

But the Indian cities have another interesting feature and that is the rural-urban continuum. The Indian cities are not completely delinked from the rural. Rather are part of the continuum. The migration from the rural to urban was not because of the pull factor from the cities, rather push factor from the villages which are already in distress. The extended family from the village to the cities did not break in urban India, rather they flourished in the cities.

Many urbanists have commented that the urbanisation in India which should have focussed more on large labour-intensive industries in the cities instead jumped to more skill-based work. This led to a strong fragmentation in the cities and humongous inequality got accentuated. Massive informalisation of the economy took place and informalisation of labour markets and migration have led to labour market segmentation and fragmentation in which the socially most vulnerable groups such as those belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are usually placed.

McKinsey Global Institute in a report has stated that India needs to spend Rs 9.74 million crores on cities by 2030, with Rs 5.31 million crore for capital expenditure. The largest demand for capital spending would be for affordable housing followed by mass transit; if affordable housing is excluded the capital expenditure requirement till 2030 would be Rs 3.54 million crores. The MC Kinsey study finds that India’s per capita spending on cities is $US 50, including capital and operational expenditures is just 14 per cent of China’s $US 362, less than 10 per cent of South Africa’s $US 508 and less than three per cent of United Kingdom’s $US 1,772. In terms of capital expenditure, India’s per capita annual urban spending is $US 17 as against $US 116 in China, $US 127 in South Africa and $US 391 in United Kingdom. India needs to channel $ 1.2 trillion to capital expenditure in cities to build the infrastructure required to sustain them. The government had sought the private capital to fill in the gap and invest in Indian cities, but hardly any big private capital invested in greenfield projects, rather they were more interested in the information economy i.e., the ICT. This model has further led to the widening of the gap between the various working-class groups in the cities and thus raise a big question at the sustainability of these cities.

Despite such a scenario and no leapfrog intervention to break the inertia still, the migrant workers will be coming back to the cities. Early signs have already been noticed. These signs are from cities like Ludhiana, Patiala and Jallandhar in Punjab where workers from UP, Bihar and Odisha are being contacted and are offered bus journey to travel back to these cities. Buses have been sent to Pilibhit in UP and Motihari in Bihar.  Similarly, the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh and some of the rich peasant groups in the state have colluded together to get migrant workers from Nepal to get them to work in apple orchards as the harvest season is just a few weeks away. Actually, labour demand in farms, industries and lack of prospects back home have spurred another movement; movement of migrant workers coming back to the cities and getting stuck in this quagmire.

There has been a spate of webinars and online discussions on how to make the cites more decent for the migrant workers. The change in labour laws by UP, Madhya Pradesh and a few others further compound the problem. However, the role of city governments in becoming an important player in the decent work framework cannot be neglected and it should be revisited.

Some of the interesting takeaways in one of the webinars needs to be highlighted:

The urban informal workers must be given social protection through employment guarantee, access to food security, eligibility to avail health facilities and access to housing/rental or labour hostels. Further the scope of the 74th constitutional amendment must be stretched and migration should become and an essential part of it.

The proposal to establish a Migration Commission is a welcome step. However, without a robust and proper database collection system, this will not work. We have seen what has happened to the Building and other Construction Workers Board. In a large number of cities, not even 15 per cent were registered in it. Hence the migration commission should have a dynamic registration system.  There should be a mechanism to set up coordination between various ministries. At the city level, it should be handled by the city governments instead of the district administration, where the answerability is a low-key affair.