'A volcano waiting to explode⁠'— the glaring plight of informal migrants in India's financial capital is making the Covid-19 pandemic worse

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'A volcano waiting to explode⁠'— the glaring plight of informal migrants in India's financial capital is making the Covid-19 pandemic worse
On 14 April 2020, thousands of informal migrant workers put up an impromptu show of protest in the heart of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, during a nation-wide lockdown, which laid bare the stark reality of the struggles in this huge informal workforce working and living in the city. According to the January 2017 report of the working group of migration, Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, the largest number of migrants during the last ten years came into the (UA), which includes Mumbai and Thane. The report shows that approximately 6 million migrants live in this agglomeration. The highest numbers are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, working in the construction and manufacturing industry.

Post the incident, some government sources said that the migrants wanted to go back to their hometowns, others said that lack of space in the slums caused the unrest while the opposition claimed that the failure to produce a ration card did not make them eligible for getting essential commodities, which unnerved them. The bottom line is that the incident has exposed their restlessness and basic struggle for shelter and social security in such vulnerable times. It was a volcano waiting to explode.

Social distancing and getting a one-square meal is a dream for these migrants who send remittances back to their family. To save costs, they take to slums where they rent up a shared space in a room or stay in a small-scale unit on a cot-basis, or a day/night basis, and use public bathrooms and toilets. Many others stay on construction sites in tinned tenements or pavements. Most never cook at home, and rely on local road-side food and tea stalls for their meals. All these arrangements crumbled when the COVID-19 lockdown struck, and the pressure heated up leading to gathering in Mumbai.

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To save costs, migrant workers take to slums where they rent up a shared space in a room or stay in a small-scale unit on a cot-basis, or a day/night basis, and use public bathrooms and toilets.

The question that arises is that despite being in such large numbers, why have these informal workers not been able to form a pressure group, or demand for better rights to housing or living in Mumbai. The answer has two dimensions, both of intertwined failures — political and systemic. The political fabric of Mumbai was formed on the issue of migrants. While native parties like the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) were born in different eras, they both were formed on the anti-migrant plank. In 1966, Bal Thackeray, father of the current Chief Minister of Maharashtra and founder of Shiv Sena targeted South Indians and Gujarati traders, claiming they were taking away rightful jobs belonging to the people of the state. Four decades later in 2006, his defected nephew Raj Thackeray formed the MNS on an anti-North Indian anti-migrant plank, on the son-of-the-soil issue.

These political outfits by their very nature wanted to do very little for these migrants and their inability to vote in Mumbai made them less significant. On the other hand, to say that the migrants had no representation would be wrong. Richer upper-class migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand, who came into Mumbai in the early 1960’s saw this workforce as an opportunity and started cultivating them by bringing them into the city for labour in construction, road and infrastructure works. Most joined national parties and became politicians donning as slumlords. In turn they would give them space in a shanty and even procure a voting card for them, thus becoming politicians cum slumlords.

The 1995 slum rehabilitation scheme that was brought in to make Mumbai slum-free, by monetising land and in turn providing free-housing for slum dwellers became a lottery ticket to a home in the city of dreams. This was the time the city saw more influx of migrant workers, who were tricked by slumlords into buying shanties for huge prices, believing they would get free homes at some point. The reality being — even 25 years after the scheme was floated, 10% of 12 lakh slum families have found new homes. In 2019, the Mahavikas Aghadi (MVA) government has upgraded the free component from a 300 to 500 square feet home.

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In the case of large slums like Dharavi, the cluster redevelopment plan which was first floated in 2014, and has reached the tender stage three times, has not seen the light of the day. In 2019, a global tender was floated by the Maharashtra BJP government and the process stopped at the awarding stage.


The reasons for delay range from misuse of funds, drying up of funds with the builder, delayed projects, inability to shift slum dwellers to tenements have been the common complaints. Also, many slum dwellers end up staying in shabby tenements for several decades, or end up in badly constructed vertical buildings (slums), with no ventilation or space, which has made slum dwellers averse to redevelopment. In the case of large slums like Dharavi, the cluster redevelopment plan which was first floated in 2014, and has reached the tender stage three times, has not seen the light of the day. In 2019, a global tender was floated by the Maharashtra BJP government and the process stopped at the awarding stage. The reasons remain the same — unexplained systemic failures.

It is important to know that historically, the relationship of migrants with Mumbai dates back to 1869 when it was the capital of the Bombay Presidency, the port gateway to the West. Entire of Saurashtra, Karnataka and the Konkan regions fell under this presidency — so people from these areas inhabited the then Bombay. The East India Company also shifted its offices to Bombay, making it a centre for trade for the western peninsula and home to all its people. The partition in 1947 also saw several camps set up by the Government of India in Mumbai to settle Hindu refugees. It was only in 1960, when the issue of linguistic states division came up, that Maharashtra got formed away from Gujarat, with Mumbai as its capital.

It is time to revive the same ethos in these COVID-19 times, and provide the migrants with food, shelter and financial help. Irrespective of whether these workers have ration cards, they should be allowed to access both the state and central ration shops. There should be common kitchen mess facilities at affordable rates. The state government is already providing shelters, but they could be located at different locations and near work sites. There could be a mass shifting of people out to private schools and colleges that could be converted to accommodation for labour.

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Irrespective of whether these workers have ration cards, they should be allowed to access both the state and central ration shops. There should be common kitchen mess facilities at affordable rates.

Most labour want to escape to their home states because of the lack of work, which has left them penniless. They could be used for COVID-19 emergency duties related to pandemic relief or even monsoon preparedness for the state. Many of them could be diverted for the upcoming nine metro project works that are going to begin now and kept on site with necessary hygiene and security. This could be done on the lines of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), the world's largest employment guarantee scheme floated by the UPA government, promising 100 days of work for a fixed remuneration. And finally, there could be a financial package declared in the form of a money transfer which could be given to these workers. While it seems very difficult to fix any of the abovementioned problems overnight, it is important that Mumbai makes a decision to accept migrants and slums as part of its fabric, and vice-versa.

This article was originally published in the Observer Research Foundation
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