National

Three Years Of Migrant Crisis: Towards Migrant-Friendly Cities

Migration policy’s first stumbling block is the challenge of defining who a ‘migrant’ is and how they differ from unorganised workers, urban poor, slum-dwellers and so on. At the city scale, it might be useful to see migration as a continuum.

Artwork by Achintya Malviya made during the first COVID-19 lockdown in India (March-June 2020)
info_icon

Cities power economic growth through increased productivity and innovation resulting from the clustering of firms and labour. As providers of large-scale employment for youth exiting rural farm work, cities are important sites for India to leverage its demographic dividend. To do so effectively, they must be able to welcome and integrate migrant workers. The failure of Indian cities in this regard was starkly highlighted by the exodus of millions of migrant workers from cities in the wake of the Covid-induced lockdowns in the spring of 2020. Their precarious journeys became the subject of national and global media coverage. The dismal urban working and living conditions that triggered their exodus merit closer attention. 

In a seemingly watershed moment for migration policy in India, a slew of policy initiatives, including the E-Shram database for improved social protection delivery, One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) for portability of food security benefits, the Affordable Rental Housing Complex (ARHC) scheme to create large-scale formal rental housing stock as well as state initiatives were rolled out in the months that followed. In what ways are these initiatives improving the lived experiences of vulnerable migrants, especially in cities where migrants face severe exclusions and discrimination and where social welfare delivery has proved particularly challenging? What can policy do to ensure Indian cities are friendly and welcoming to the migrant workers that power the economy?

Migration policy’s first stumbling block is the challenge of defining who a ‘migrant’ is and how they may be distinct or similar to other categories of vulnerable people like unorganised workers, urban poor, slum-dwellers and so on. At the city scale, it might be useful to see migration as a continuum, with three broad groups of migrants needing distinct intervention types. First, those migrants working in building and infrastructure construction, brick kiln manufacturing etc., who spend short periods of time in the city and live on worksites urgently need social safety nets. Second, longer-term circular migrants working in an array of manufacturing and service sector occupations who spend most of their time in the city but have strong rural connections need support to embed themselves in the city. Third, migrant communities that have found footholds in the city but experience incomplete citizenship due to a lack of identity and political power need pathways for economic mobility and urban citizenship.

Strengthening urban safety nets

The construction sector employs some of the poorest households in the country, employing those who alternate between agricultural and construction labour and have no intention to settle in the city. Often belonging to socially marginalised and disenfranchised groups like scheduled castes and tribes, these workers – and often families with women and children – usually live on-site or in labour camps in peri-urban locations under the control of contractors. Not counted as urban residents, they remain disconnected from even universal aspects of social welfare like health, maternal and early childhood care and education. 

Many initiatives that have successfully addressed these gaps offer hope. Building on provisions of the Right to Education Act and its associated scheme Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), some cities in Gujarat have successfully run on-site schools and creches with the support of NGOs and employers. In Jalna, Maharashtra and western Odisha, SSA funds have been used to provide migrant children with family or institutional care in source villages while parents are away working. E-cards that record critical information have helped pregnant migrant women access continued maternity care at source and destination locations. Odisha has provided Odia teaching materials and educators to ensure continuity in the language of instruction for children moving to Telangana and Tamil Nadu with their parents. 

Learning from these initiatives, cities can focus on increasing the enrolment and retention of migrant children in schools and anganwadis and providing proactive service delivery through mobile clinics and on-site facilities. Collaborations with employers and civil society can help improve the quality of on-site housing, improve services and implement grievance redressal systems. By leveraging the E-Shram database and administrative data from various sources like primary health centres, construction permit databases, police verification records, etc., cities can better understand the location and numbers of vulnerable migrant households and strengthen delivery. For example, improved data can help plan ration shop locations and rationalise supply chains under ONORC. 

Creating footholds 

‘Middle migrants’, working in the city but keeping rural connections alive for political and social legitimacy, would benefit from safety nets but also require different interventions. Research shows that the longer migrants stay in the city, the better the chances they find regular paid work, bringing in definite wage premiums over rural jobs and making the transition to urban lives economically plausible. Unaffordable, poor quality and exploitative housing arrangements and inability to access amenities, formal employment and skill development services owing to domicile provisions make this ‘waiting period’ harder for migrants. Further, since most middle migrants continue to vote in their rural source locations, political intermediaries have no incentive to connect them with services. 

To play a stronger role in structural transformation, cities must seek to integrate middle migrants by strengthening their footholds in the areas of political citizenship, social networks and housing. Here, the ARHC scheme has triggered a new imagination for public-private partnerships in affordable rental housing, a hitherto unexplored policy area. Committing public land for social rentals and setting up professional rental management companies could encourage more private sector players to enter the fray. Cities can also augment rental supply by upgrading and formalising unplanned areas where the most affordable housing supply is currently produced and easing conditions to bring rental housing to these locations under the ambit of tenancy acts. 

Advertisement

Cities can provide equitable opportunities for migrants to garner skills and access employment by relaxing domicile restrictions in these areas and co-creating local migrant-inclusive programmes with employers and civil society. Cities can also adopt no-harm policies towards unorganised and self-employed workers like street vendors, domestic workers and waste pickers who provide vital services for urban residents.   

Crafting pathways for economic mobility 

For the urban poor, who have predominantly migrant origins, breaking out of the cycle of poverty is challenging because of the lack of market-oriented skills, role models, social networks, secure housing tenure and financial capital. With low public investment in these areas, the poor depend on elite patronage for access to better opportunities; unfortunately, these become contingent on caste, class and gender identities.  

Advertisement

In urban development, strengthening housing tenure is a proven poverty alleviation strategy. Global experience shows that, instead of slum demolitions, approaches that upgrade and legalise informal settlements allow residents to use their homes as collateral to access loans to start businesses and invest in education, skills and health, creating prosperity in the long term. The success of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana’s beneficiary-led construction program, especially in smaller cities where tenure is relatively more secure, corroborates the willingness of the poor to invest in self-improvement. 

While cities have had mixed experiences with attempts to register middle migrants into local electoral rolls, migrants build citizenship over time by self-organising through cultural associations and forging inter-group bonds through community engagements. Strong migrant communities influence political calculations over time, convincing local politicians of their worth and providing strong social networks for new migrants. 

Advertisement

The role of urban policy

The Constitution of India guarantees the right to move within India’s domestic territory. Yet, for the most part, urban policy has fought shy of acknowledging migrants as critical to economic development and social cosmopolitanism, arguably a hallmark of modern urbanised nation-states. Covid shifted this by foregrounding the need to effectively deliver services to migrant communities by improving databases and making welfare portable. However, similar to what happened in Europe in the wake of the Syrian immigration crisis, domestic migration in India is becoming a politically sensitive and polarising issue, as was seen recently in the fear-mongering caused in Tamil Nadu over rumours of violence against migrant workers. While the economic logic for migrant-friendly cities is self-evident, migrant inclusion as a social and political agenda will need mainstreaming across government departments and a broader public debate. As outlined in this piece, to enable structural transformation, cities must address the spectrum of migration experiences in cities. Concurrently, forthcoming national policy on migration must articulate it not just as an outcome of rural distress but also as a result of agency and aspiration. 

Advertisement

(Mukta Naik is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Views expressed in this article are personal)

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement