When workers began to flee Indian cities in March during the Covid-19 induced lockdown, the country began to wonder exactly how many migrant workers there were, how many of them were daily wage earners, how many were in the informal economy.

In an unequal world, uncounted people are not just missing data. In a democracy, failing to enumerate the vulnerable is a method to disenfranchise them. Absence from state records means that the poor are omitted from welfare measures of the state.

This became amply clear on Monday, when the Union labour ministry told Parliament that more than 1 crore migrant workers and members of their families had returned to their home states from cities and town across India. But it said that it did not have data about the number of migrants who had died during their journeys so the “question does not arise” of compensation for them.

Data gaps

In Mumbai, for instance, it is clear that we do not know how many migrant workers serve the city daily. The initial estimate of migrant workers in Mumbai hovered between eight lakhs to 10 lakhs. In May, the Hindustan Times estimated that about 11.5 lakh workers had left the city. Curiously, a fortnight before, the Indian Express “unofficially” pegged the number as high as 25 lakh-30 lakh.

Other data gaps are evident everywhere. For instance: how many pregnant women in Mumbai’s slums have delivered babies since the lockdown? How many people had to take loans to buy rations and water? How many people did not have access to a hospital Out Patient Department? What exactly is the population of Mumbaikars living in slums without a ration card, voter’s identity card or a bank account?

These data gaps have an impact on survival, development, protection and participation. For instance, because the authorities used the 2011 Census as the point of reference to estimate the number of people who would be eligible for rations from the Public Distribution System during lockdown, an estimated 108.4 million people – about 8% of India’s population – were excluded from receiving benefits. This is because the estimates were made using outdated data and failed to count the large number of people who migrate to cities every week.

Shivaji Nagar in Mumbai. Credit: Apnalaya

The challenges posed by the lack of accurate data are evident in the debates about the population of Mumbai’s M East Ward – popularly known as Govandi. Though the government estimates the ward’s population at 8.07 lakh, civil society organisations believe it is in excess of 12 lakh. This means that about 400,000 people are missing from the official records in a ward with the worst human development indicators in Mumbai, a ward in which about 80% of the population lives in slums.

The people missing from the government registers have little claim to health, sanitation, or education. Shivaji Nagar, the largest slum clusters in the ward, with a population of 600,000, has no higher secondary school or adequate hospitals and maternity centres. Forty six percent of the area’s children under five are stunted – their heights are lower than the World Health Organisation standard for their age. The average monthly family income for a family of five is Rs 9,400. This is an area where the absence of infrastructure forces more than 60% of residents to buy water daily. They spend about 12% of their monthly income to do so.

Alarmingly, the average age at death in this ward is 39 years, compared to 57 in the rest of Mumbai,

In a survey conducted by Apnalaya, the civil society organisation for which I work, we found that only 46% of the households in the area had ration cards and about 15% had no bank accounts. During the lockdown, 81% people struggled for food and 70% had to borrow money to buy ration and water. This is what happens when people don’t get counted.

Denial of a political self

India’s millions of migrant workers share the predicament of many of Mumbai’s slum dwellers of Mumbai: they lack a political voice. The fact that lakhs of people whose labour is key to running the city can be rendered dispensable overnight – as they were when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown at four-hours notice on March 24 – suggests that they are not a political constituency that could bargain for its welfare and rights.

India’s cities enforce a relationship of impermanence with the working poor. That is the reason why we have migrant workers but never migrant managers or migrant CEOs. Imagine the situation if all the workers could vote in their destination state. This would give them greater negotiating power and thus better access to welfare measures. If all the slum dwellers could vote locally, would they not be asking how the Mumbai municipal corporation budget was developed and how much got spent on their health, sanitation or education?

A street in Shivaji Nagar in Mumbai. Credit: Apnalaya

It is the lack of a political voice and agency that makes and keeps the workers vulnerable. This trend has worsened since liberalisation. “Ease of doing business” has been synonymous with the weakening of workers’ ability to negotiate, either with the employer or with the government. Indeed, it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between bazaar (market) and sarkar (government). This, in turn, puts enormous pressure on samaj (society) to facilitate processes of social justice.

Invariably most employed slum dwellers belong to the informal economy, as does about 90% of Indian workforce (amounting to 415 million people). This suggests that informality has been institutionalised.

The informal sector has several layers of contractors in between the principal employer and the worker, making the latter vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, including underpayment and job insecurity.

To make it worse, a worker in the informal sector has little or no support of a labour union. As per the latest National Labour Bureau of 2016, the total number of registered labour unions has declined from 64,847 in 1999 to 12,392 in 2016. There were 8.9 million workers who became trade union members in 2016, while the total number of workers in India stood at 487 million that year. In other words, only 1.87% of the Indian workforce are organised by trade unions.

We should also note that only 40% of the trade union members belong to the informal sector. This means that barely 3.5 million Indian workers are organised in trade unions. This makes them invisible to the authorities, especially in times like these when they need social welfare and financial support to restart their lives.

Reimagining the civic landscape

The disenfranchisement of many of India’s urban poor has been a means of keeping labour vulnerable and cheap. This becomes possible because they are viewed by the state as illegal. This legalises their exclusion. To empower the urban poor, we must begin with the unconditional inclusion of the disenfranchised as citizens.

It is time to acknowledge those who build and run our cities. As long as they are considered migrants, they continue to belong elsewhere. It is time for the city to become their home.

Arun Kumar is the CEO of Apnalaya, a Mumbai-based civil society organization that works to enable and empower the urban poor.