The Covid-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown triggered vast movements of internal migrant workers across the length and breadth of the country, desperate to leave the urban areas where they work to reach their home villages. Only a few were able to make it back, taking long and dangerous off-routes by foot, in order to evade authorities who viewed them, primarily, as potential “carriers of infection”. Many more were detained at borders, where they faced police brutality and harassment, were doused in disinfectants, asked to produce “health certificates” which they had no means of acquiring or forced into shelter homes en-route.

However, the large majority of migrant workers remain stranded in cities and towns, where they have not been paid wages for previous work, forced to take unpaid leave, or removed from their jobs. In panic, they are calling numerous helplines, most of which remain unreachable, to ask for rations, wages or to let them return home.

Urbanisation in India has been termed a “messy and hidden process”, with urban governance institutions finding themselves unable to cope with the steady influx of rural populations to urban regions for work. Rapid urbanisation fuelled by large-scale rural-urban migration was expected to alleviate the poverty of rural populations, who would reap the benefits of urban economic growth. However, on the contrary, urbanisation rates in India have fallen since the 1980s, with the overall urbanisation rate at 34%, much lower than the global average of 55%.

This has been attributed to the phenomenon of circular migration, which constitutes temporary and undocumented labour flows crisscrossing the length and breadth of the country. Labour remains in a constant flux, moving from rural to urban or rural to rural destinations. In the case of rural to urban migration, circular migrants move between different urban work destinations and their rural villages, without settling in the cities where they are employed.

Circular migration involves a myriad of movements – short term or long term, short distance or long distance, by men, women and children, single or family-based. While workers remain at their work destinations between three to 11 months in a year, they always return to their source villages. For the purpose of this study, the term “migrant” will denote rural to urban, circular migrants as per the above definition.

Workers in Surat wait for food being handed out by volunteers. Credit: PTI

Movement from rural to urban areas for employment in high growth urban sectors has not led to an improvement in the work and living conditions of circular migrant populations. Rather, urban growth has been exclusionary and exploitative, leading to the reproduction of poverty and socio-economic inequalities at the work destinations. Urban employment generation is highly informal in nature, reflecting the national trend of 93% livelihoods being informal.

Informal employment is synonymous with insecure and temporary work, involving low wages for long hours in hazardous and toxic environments. Circular migrants, who account for 100 million people, or one in 10 Indians, form a substantial proportion of the informal workforce in urban regions, hired exclusively to fill the labour demand in the lowest, poorly remunerated segments of the labour market.

The poor conditions of work experienced by circular migrants are aggravated by poor living conditions in urban areas. Due to the informal nature of their employment relationships and lack of access to trade unions or platforms for collective bargaining, they are unable to access legally mandated minimum wages, welfare benefits or employer provided facilities or services or afford formal rental accommodation.

As temporary and mobile workers without official count or identity, they are easily excluded from urban governance facilities and schemes for basic public provisioning. Devoid of voting rights, social networks and excluded from the socio-cultural and administrative aspects of the city they are not able to demand access to basic facilities and services in the city. Circular migrants are, therefore, left without avenues for improving their work or living conditions.

Denied recognition

While many slum settlements in the city might have been able to achieve some degree of recognition or legitimacy by urban local governance institutions, including the provision of basic facilities and services in many cases, the settlements of migrant workers are not only informal, but remain un-recognised and illegitimate.

According to Renu Desai and Shachi Sanghvi, this is due to the lack of enumeration, politics around land utilisation and tenure security in the spaces where these settlements are located, as well as the circularity and multi-locality of migrants’ lives, which leaves them without voting rights or political voice in the city. They are often outside the purview of urban planning and schemes, criminalised and considered undesirable by the state and local populations, live in deplorable conditions, pushed to the margins of cities both spatially and in its imagination of itself.

So removed were migrant workers from the state and urban policy imagination, that the announcement of lockdown came without adequate warning, or any plan for reaching out to them in India’s urban areas, despite their presence in significant numbers. Even though several weeks have passed since the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 25 to contain the spread of the coronavirus, followed by a slew of measures by state and central governments, migrant workers remain left out. State and city administrations have not been able to operationalise directives to ensure rations, shelter and wages to migrant workers.

A migrant worker in Ghaziabad and his daughter walk towards their village on March 29. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

The catastrophic results of the lockdown only exposed and aggravated glaring gaps in India’s public provisioning and employment systems, which has, for decades, systematically excluded and extracted migrant workers to facilitate economic growth. Abandoned by the state and their employers, they have always relied on their meager wages to purchase basic sustenance from the market, or negotiate access on a daily basis, involving large monetary, physical or mental costs.

Without wages, and a lockdown in place, migrant workers are left on the brink of starvation, facing physical and mental insecurity, and the brutality of the structural violence manufactured by our exclusionary urban spaces. These circumstances push them into higher risk of exposure to the virus – a lack of safe shelter or space to practice physical distancing, water and sanitation for maintaining basic hygiene or access to healthcare, or food and nutrition – defeating the very purpose of the lockdown for these groups of workers.

Understanding the nature of labour migration into India’s cities, and the causes and extent of exclusion that they face is not only necessary for tackling the immense challenges posed by the unanticipated pandemic, but also for moving towards migrant inclusive cities in its aftermath.

Building the political agency of migrants

Occupation or industry-based trade unions and workers’ platforms are restricted largely to the organised or regular workforce, while newer forms of organising among informal workers remain confined to the neighbourhood level, and largely to self-employed groups such as street vendors and home-based workers.

Wage dependent, casual, migrant workers are often in fragmented workplaces with adverse terms of employment, or in criminalised and isolated living spaces where building collective bargaining platforms for political agency are difficult. Fostering spaces for building the collective voice and agency of migrant workers will require, on the one hand, for existing workers’ platforms to take cognizance of the unique issues and needs of migrant workers.

At the same time, there is a need to invest in building platforms of migrant workers which move beyond demanding mere bureaucratic fixes for access to basic consumption, to a political expression of migrants’ interests as rights, that eventually re-conceptualises citizenship at the city level. This can be based on a recognition of their enormous contributions to building urban India, which subsidises both the state and the industry, and should be compensated through enabling them to claim their unrestrained right to exercising citizenship in all walks of public life.

To sum up, urban planning and policy needs to recognise migrants as a legitimate constituency within the larger category of urban citizens, with equal entitlement to public provisioning and services. State policies must be able to set aside their blind spots in recognising this population as equal citizens and must respond urgently to removing the stringent barriers that characterise their access to various entitlements in the city.

Along with this, a radical re-envisioning of citizenship requires policy conversations on universal access to social rights, such that everybody occupying a space has the right to basic consumption, regardless of their documentation or domicility. At the same time, these conversations must also understand, recognise and reconcile the heterogeneity among the survival logics of various groups of urban populations.

This is a slightly edited version of the introduction and conclusion of Aajeevika Bureau’s report Unlocking the Urban: Reimagining Migrant Lives in Cities Post-COVID 19. Read the full report here.

The Bureau’s experts explain the ideas contained in the report in this video.