On March 24, when the government announced a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, India was served a fierce reminder that its cities are, by design, exclusionary. Millions of workers around the country were left cashless, hungry and in many instances, homeless. Many of them set out for their villages hundreds of kilometres away – on foot.

Several state governments introduced measures to force desperate, unemployed migrants into shelter homes. But these measures were inadequate even as stop-gap alternatives, let alone as effective policy strategies. They not only underestimated the scale of the crisis, but strongly suggested the state’s unpreparedness or unwillingness in finding a more viable solution to the sudden problem of large-scale homelessness.

Three limitations

The approach had three main limitations. First, there just are not enough shelters anywhere, in any major city to comfortably accommodate the vast numbers of workers who had been stranded. The Ministry of Housing Affairs’ Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihood Mission, in its revised guidelines, states that shelters should be able to accommodate 100 of every 100,000 people in each city. That number was derived from an estimate of India’s homeless population as per a Supreme Court order in 2012.

While the estimates over the number of homeless in India are contested, this number was derived based on the 2011 Census. It found that India has 1.7 million homeless residents, of whom one million are in the metropolitan cities or cities with populations above four million.

Despite using a figure that is quite old, the National Urban Livelihood Mission guidelines have not been adhered to when constructing shelters in most cities. Take the national capital, for example. The city has about 230 shelters, according to the information on the website of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board. These shelters can only accommodate about 17,128 people.

As per current estimates, there are anywhere between 150,000 to 200,000 homeless people in Delhi at regular times. It is clear by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board’s own record that its shelters could accommodate less than 10% of Delhi’s current homeless residents.

Some of Delhi’s shelters are, in fact, porta cabins: rectangular, non-sturdy, cargo-container-like structures. Most of them are designed to accommodate around 50 people to sleep in comfortably. They are on average 800 sq ft, which means each person gets about 15 sq ft, about the area of a train berth.

This makes the government’s decision to force migrants into shelters to curb the spread of the virus quite inexplicable. To this extent, the fire that broke out in a shelter in Delhi’s Kashmere Gate on April 12, allegedly set by a disgruntled inmate, could not have been unexpected.

Firefighters work after dousing a fire at a migrant labourers' shelter in New Delhi on Saturday. Credit: PTI

Secondly, after lockdown, the authorities seem to have amalgamated two quite different groups: the homeless and migrant workers, as if the needs, aspirations, and vulnerabilities of the two groups were the same. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Many of the stranded migrants had never lived in homeless shelters, simply because they are not homeless.

By merely extending the services for the homeless to migrant workers, state governments cramped them all into inadequately equipped shelters. This jeopardised the lives not just of migrants but the homeless too. This is bound to irreversibly affect the way the homeless avail of shelters in the future.

Finally, by reducing the problems of migrant workers to just lack of food and shelter, governments made no attempt to address the underlying causes behind the largest exodus in India’s urban history. Migrant workers were not just stranded and hungry, they were also people who needed to be paid back their wages. They were people who wanted to go home, and people who were as afraid of Covid-19 as anyone else.

Systemic fixes

At the very least, the state and Central governments must take this opportunity to revamp their strategies to house migrant workers. They must legitimise the informal settlements across Indian cities where migrants have thus far lived, to ensure that they have continuous access to civic amenities, and have the required documentation for security over their homes. This would help safeguard them from eviction and the consequent stress that comes with the threat of being arbitrarily dishoused.

This is a far less capital-intensive way of offering migrant workers a better quality of life in our cities, than constructing more housing units that would be unaffordable for migrant workers.

More than ever, there is a need to frame housing policies specifically targeted for circular migrants, who work in cities seasonally. There is a need to imagine policy interventions outside of the National Urban Livelihood Mission guidelines, for these are not directed towards circular migrants and their housing needs.

The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, the central government’s flagship policy relating to affordable housing, one that aims to build 20 million affordable houses for the urban poor by March 2022, ignores a crucial fact. Migrant workers do not make housing decisions merely on the quality or type of housing available. Instead, their decisions are based on the proximity of their residence to their place of work, the nature of the work they do and their duration of stay in a city.

Indian cities must focus not just on the shortage of shelters and housing but on what kind of housing is required, and where. The government must allot more funds to helping slum dwellers build better quality houses, on the plots where they are currently located.

India must treat its urban poor with respect and dignity, both of which they have never received. Since housing is central to dignity, the country must develop newer strategies of inclusion. India must create conditions by which its migrant workers actually enjoy living in cities.

Anhad Imaan works with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit that provides support to seasonal migrant labourers in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra.