Our cities welcome the work done by migrants, but their presence is not. This is not a sustainable model of urban development. COVID-19 and the lockdown have only underlined this truth.
As a portrait of our times, it could not be more stark and sombre. Against a backdrop of brooding blues and deep greys are buildings with balconies, each of which holds a cheery urban nuclear family clapping and banging plates, while a caravan of mostly men with meagre belongings — a few families with children in arms — winds its way out of the frame. Titled ‘The Social Distance’, this cartoon by artist Hasif Khan for Ananda Vikatan, a popular Tamil weekly, drew much flak when it appeared in the first few days of India being locked down.
The initial 21-day lockdown has been extended till May 3. During this time as masses of migrant workers defied the lockdown in Surat (twice in a week), Mumbai, Delhi and other cities, and the full import of that struck home. The balconied migrated to work-from-home routines, missed their Zumba classes, their kids transitioned to online classes, and they discussed in cosy class-defined bubbles if migrants were “morons” or “could not observe rules”.
Large masses which make India’s cities had become visible for the first time in many decades. Governments struggled to provide food rations or cooked meals to them; lakhs were fed but many left out. Chief Ministers spoke in regional languages to assure them that they would not go hungry and must stay where they were. Yet, hundreds of thousands trooped out when they could, if there was the slimmest chance of returning home as Surat or Mumbai’s Bandra incident showed.
What does this say?
First, cities offer work and economic opportunities to millions, many of whom do not own land or whose lands in villages yield little. India’s lingering agrarian crisis has made work-related migration inescapable for hundreds of thousands of people. Young men from Assam and Sikkim have travelled across the breadth of India to work in ice cream parlours in Pune, they have migrated from Odisha and Bihar to Tamil Nadu and Kerala to work in restaurants or as electricians and plumbers, from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar they have found work in diamond and textile factories in Surat, and from all over they have trooped into Mumbai and Delhi. This is economic security — the ability to earn a few thousands and send most of it back home.
Economic security, however, does not automatically bring social security, let alone social comfort. For almost all those who migrate for work, their idea of home is the house they left behind, families they separated from, and community networks they slackened from. In times of distress — such as this one where the threat of an incurable pandemic and the world’s most stringent lockdown with weeks of no work, no wages, and an uncertain future — they seek social security. It makes them desperate enough to walk for miles to reach home or gather in hordes if there are chances of catching trains or buses to somewhere near home.
Second, this basic understanding of urban life escaped even those at the helm. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first announcement of a lockdown that brought India to a grinding halt, there was no reference to millions of migrant workers for whom economic and social security lie in different locations. Modi sought to address this lapse in his second address on April 14 extending the lockdown, assuring workers that their basic needs would be taken care of.
Indeed, states have reached out to hundreds of thousands of people stranded in cities. If basic needs mean rations or food, then governments have tried to do their bit, but basic needs include emotional needs such as being with families which have not been met. A government that sent flights to bring back Indians from other countries — they too are migrants chasing economic dreams — could not arrange road or rail transport to take other Indians back to their homes. As one of them told this author, “passport walon ki bimari ration card walon par bhaari” (the disease of passport holders is a heavy burden on ration card holders).
Third, India’s cities are cleaved into glitter and grit in ways that their civic design does not adequately provide for the latter. Nothing in recent times has shown this as much as the pandemic. There are two cities within an urban boundary: one equipped to cope with lockdowns, the other simply not so. Those of us who have homes that can double as workplaces were mildly inconvenienced since the March 25 lockdown. Those who grit it out on daily or weekly wages, living in impossibly cramped settlements which mocked the very idea of ‘social distancing’ or who simply live in their now-shut workplaces, had nowhere to go except back home to villages.
This must call into question the fundamentals of India’s urban design and planning in which affordable basic housing — a non-negotiable aspect of building cities — is at best a government’s mission statement and at worst a joke. A housing crisis has lurked on our urban horizons for decades, but has gone unaddressed or camouflaged in ‘smart city’ concepts. The informal settlements or slums that dot our cities are manifestations of the failure of urban design and economy. If migrants were comfortably housed in cities with their families, if landlords or land mafias did not demand rent from them, there might have been fewer of them on the roads defying the lockdown.
Fourth, the myriad kinds of work they do power the urban economy, both informal and formal, but they remain largely invisible to fellow citizens and governments. The migrants are our dhobis, drivers, domestic help, tailors, mechanics, waiters, delivery men, garbage sorters, lavatory cleaners, designers in leather units, vegetable sellers, street food vendors, factory workers, construction labourers, even rat catchers.
Their work is necessary in cities. There are, data shows, more than 100 million migrant workers who make the semi-permanent, male-dominated, remittance-based migration wave that’s unique to India. Their work is welcome, but not their presence in our cities. This is not a sustainable model of urban development whether there is a pandemic or not. COVID-19 and lockdown have only underlined this truth.
Smruti Koppikar is a senior Mumbai-based journalist and urban chronicler. Views are personal.