In the last few weeks our news has been inundated with the terrible plight of the migrant labourers through the period of the lockdown. Narratives and images have poured in of the poor – men, women and children – walking, cycling or hitching rides on cramped lorries and buses, travelling hundreds of kilometers from one end of the country to the other. It brought back to my mind a question that has been lingering within and haunting me ever since I first joined a college of social work and began field work in the poor neighbourhoods of the city. The question is simply this: what is a migrant?
When the news mentions ‘migrant workers’ we instinctively know that the anchor is speaking of the poorest most marginalised labourers, the ‘footloose’ supposedly ‘unskilled’ migrants often of rural origin, daily wagers who move city to city living in temporary tents or housing. Yet what is interesting is that this is very far from the official description of a ‘migrant’. According to the Census of India, ‘Migration (…) is of two types – Migration by Birth place and Migration by place of last residence’. If you look at the migration data as per the Census 2011 it tells you that ‘Migration on account of change of residence by women after marriage constitutes a significant proportion of these migrants’. Yet in popular imagination we almost never really think of women marrying and moving homes necessarily as migrants. We also don’t easily think of people like me, who have moved across several cities in different parts of India for work or for studying. There is no one type of migrant because reasons for moving can be so many and the directions and nature of that movement can be so diverse. So what separates these categories from those who have come to embody the ‘migrant’ in popular imagination? The clear separation, it seems to me, is class.
Even though cities have been constructed by the back-breaking labour of exactly such migrants, the poor migrant occupies a certain niche in the city space which makes his/her being there constantly contentious. In trying to embody the international imagination of globalised cities, we constantly come across examples of how the poor and their settlements are deemed ‘illegal’ and are under the constant threat of demolition or displacement alongside having little access to formal systems of water, sanitation, education etc. So ashamed are we of the poor that we even erect walls around them, literally invisibilising them, during international events or visits from dignitaries. While most of us with privilege are allowed to travel to new places and slowly make them our homes, this right, in practice, is not accorded to the poorest and marginalised.
In our latest episode of the TCC Podcast, Longing to Belong, we map this exodus of the poor in depth and look at what its telling us about the idea of home and belonging and its implications in a globalised world for the millions who live on the margins. Further, TCC family member, Rebecca David, in her article ‘What does the future hold for migrant workers who have returned home?’ published in The News Minute, writes about the experience unfolding in states to which the migrants are returning and the challenges therein. We’ve also put together a resource with the latest surveys and research that give us strategic insight on this issue.
Do listen in, read and stay in touch with our social media spaces as we curate conversations and begin to collectively explore how we can shift our imagination to build more inclusive cities.
*Special thanks to Sam Sudheer Bandi for sharing his photographs with us!