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No place in a city that migrants can call ‘home’

Narendar Pani | Updated on April 23, 2020 Published on April 23, 2020

Sans a roof and means for living   -  V Sreenivasa Murthy

Housing for workers was overlooked in the post-liberalisation era. Absence of a home has compounded their alienation

Pandemics have a way of bringing out uncomfortable, even cruel, truths. And Covid-19 is no exception. It has brought to the forefront the fragility of India’s urbanisation, a fragility where millions of migrants into cities who form the backbone of low-skilled urban workers are suddenly uprooted. From serenading India’s march towards a $5 trillion economy, the national narrative has shifted to that of hapless workers walking hundreds of kilometres to return home.

In one sense there should be no surprise over this tragedy. In the much maligned decades after Independence care was taken to ensure that as workers moved from agriculture to industry they were given a sense of having found a new home. This was sometimes within the townships of public sector units, and later, in state supported housing programmes. Indeed, through those years the process of urbanisation was largely seen as the responsibility of ministries of housing. The 1990s brought a much-needed widening of this perspective to ensure that cities were recognised as larger economic entities, as engines of growth. Unfortunately, as often happens in India, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. The post-liberalisation era has seen such a preoccupation with growth, that issues like housing for workers have been largely abandoned in state policy.

No room for families

Left to their own devices workers have been forced to take steps that don’t always help the steady growth of a city. Better paid workers have tended to find upper-end housing at some distance from their workplace, adding to traffic congestion. At the opposite end of the wage spectrum, workers have had to make do with whatever they could get. As governments followed expensive urban strategies without batting an eyelid about what it did to the cost of living, lower paid workers have often had to cram seven or more to a room.

In these circumstances there is little or no chance of the families of lower-paid workers moving in with them. These workers maintain their families in their villages, even as they earn as much as they can in the cities. In this arrangement the village is always home. This is true even for workers who have had this arrangement going for more than a decade. When a life-threatening disease begins to spread, the immediate response is to return to the relative comfort of family and home.

It doesn’t help that a lockdown then leaves you without a job and a means of survival. And it is not just the economics of the situation, where the absence of a wage can be eased by the delivery of free meals. There is also the sense of rejection in the reality that once there is no work for you, no one wants you around. This generates a huge desire to return home for, as Robert Frost put it, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

The problem of getting home is compounded by the huge distance between the districts where workers are being released from agriculture and those where non-agricultural jobs are available. While the districts where workers are being released from agriculture are concentrated to the north and east of the country, the districts where non-agricultural jobs are most easily available are to the south and the west.

The distances involved in getting home would be expected to be a huge barrier at a time when all transport has been suspended. But the lockdown has not just hurt the ability to earn a wage, the way it was done has massively increased the sense of rejection among migrant workers. They were given just four hours’ notice before the lockdown was enforced, ruling out any possibility of finding transport to get home. At the same time others were helped to reach home, whether it was Indians abroad who were flown home or select groups within the country who were transported home. As migrant workers took to the last resort of walking hundreds of kilometres home, they were made to feel they were children of a lesser God.

It is in the nature of current discourse that much attention will be paid to the discrimination of dispensations in different States and at the Centre. But the problem is a larger one. It arises from a post-liberalisation consensus that regional imbalances don’t matter. If any part of the country grows it is for workers from the less developed regions to find their way to the developed economic centres, no matter how far away they may be. Economic textbooks may talk glibly of workers moving from agriculture to industry, responding to no more than a higher wage. But policymakers cannot ignore the human costs of this transition, especially when huge distances are involved. The human in human resources cannot be treated as just another word.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on April 23, 2020
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