Every day, 48 trains come to Maharashtra from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, says Raj Thackeray. Had Raj Thackeray been a travel writer like Paul Theroux, author of The Great Railway Bazar, we may have got an evocative tale of all the little adventures that happen in the course of such long train journeys. But since Thackeray is not Theroux, his focus is elsewhere. “Who are these people, where do they go? Then, you will blame police for not being able to control the crime in the state,’’ he said to Times Now during a recent interview.
It is an old familiar refrain. Thackeray, president of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, holds Mumbai’s migrants – especially those from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – responsible for much of the city’s ills. I disagree with his arguments but if there is one silver lining to this highly polarising discourse, it is its potential to spark a wider debate that we typically sweep under the carpet.
It is nobody’s case that all migrants are angels or that there are no bad pennies among people from UP and Bihar who come to Mumbai and other metros in search of work. If someone has committed a crime, h/she should be punished. Let us discuss migration and what it means to a city’s ethos and infrastructure. But let it be an honest and full-throated discussion that takes on board the rural distress which is fuelling migration on such a large scale, and the costs and benefits of migrant labour so that people take informed and not merely emotional positions on the issues.
First, the legalities. India prides itself on its democracy as well as its diversity. The right to move around freely in most parts of the country is guaranteed by the Constitution. This means if a middle class educated person can move to better his/her life chances, so can a poor person. People are on the move, and they will continue to be so in search of a better life, irrespective of how some others feel.
Second, there is need for context. Mumbai is a magnet for people from other cities and states but it is by no means the only one. The census considers any movement to be ‘migration’ if it involves change of residence from one village/town to another. Almost a third of Indians, or 321-325 million out of India’s population of 1,125-1,140 million, during the period of the survey in 2007-08 were migrants, according to The United Nations Development Programme-supported Human Development Research Paper on Migration and Human Development in India by Priya Deshingkar and Shaheen Akter (2009). According to the authors, migrant labourers contribute nearly 10% of India’s GDP.
Migrant labour can be found in many spheres: textiles, construction, stone quarries and mines, brick-kilns, diamond cutting, leather accessories, crop transplanting, harvesting, rickshaw pulling, food processing, domestic work, security services, hotels and roadside restaurants/tea shops, street vending and so on.
Zoom in on any one sector: For example, the construction industry. Deshingkar and Akter point to a 2008 estimate by trade unions which say there are at least 40 million migrant construction workers (both skilled and unskilled) in the country.
Why are migrant workers in such demand? Answer: they provide the ultimate flexible workforce to employers who can hire and fire them without any obligations whatsoever and extract cheap labour for very little. There are labour laws in place but failure to implement them is rampant. This is true of Mumbai; this is true of Delhi and every other major city in India.
Imagine what would happen if all the migrants working in various construction sites in Mumbai went back to where they came from? Mumbai’s population would indeed dip but how would the industry react?
Migrants often are forced into living in sordid conditions and are denied basic amenities. Sometimes, their habitat becomes the fertile ground for crime, impacting locals in the vicinity.
But if we are talking about the carrying capacity of a city, we should also turn the spotlight on employers, the industry which lives on migrant labour. Why can’t Thackeray and his defenders push contractors who hire migrant workers into limiting the numbers to those who can be provided proper accommodation, even if temporary, and basic facilities? If this is implemented rigorously, the flow of migrants will taper and the cost of construction will go up.
Are Mumbai and other Indian metros ready for that? Right now, the migration debate in the country is conveniently hypocritical, like the global debate on immigration and outsourcing. Many of those who want to see the backs of migrants have no qualms in enjoying the benefits of cheap migrant labour. You cannot have it both ways.
The author is a Delhi-based writer