The Indian Urban Migrant Crisis – A Need for Inclusivity

Over 1,20,000 migrants live in the urban slums of Bangalore alone. There is an urgent need to address there housing needs.

Manjunath moved to Bangalore from Yadgir two years ago with his family. He drives tractors for a living, while his wife Kaveri earns her daily wage through “coolie” work at  construction sites.

The couple leaves home at 7.30am and returns at around 6 pm, leaving their two toddler children at home under the care of neighbors. The children are unable to attend school because there is no government school in the vicinity of the area. The family earns an average of Rs. 12,000 a month, depending on the amount of work they get. As soon as she reaches home in the evening, Kaveri begins preparing the evening meal for the family. This schedule is followed by the family on all days of the week except Sunday when they take the day off.

A similar story is narrated by Nagamma (name changed) who migrated to Bangalore with her family almost a decade ago from Gulbarga in search of work. In the few years after moving to the city, Nagamma lost her husband and elder son due to deteriorating health conditions. She works as a daily wage laborer at construction sites around the community she lives in. She earns around Rs. 10,000 a month which also contributes towards her younger son’s education along with their monthly expenditures.

Manjunath, Kaveri, and Nagamma are examples of people whom we commonly refer to as the urban poor. They work on a daily wage basis under various employers, thus are unable to access any employee benefits such as sick leaves and pensions. Taking a day off work due to health or other reasons means forgoing a large part of the income for the week.

The unhygienic conditions in the urban migrant communities increase the possibility of such a calamity occurring. A question here would be – why would such residents of such communities not invest in better infrastructure? The answer being that urban migrants do not intend to live in the city for long. Their aim is to save as much money as possible and return to their villages where they most likely have families and houses. Thus, they compromise on their urban lifestyle and live in cheap unhygienic conditions that have underlying long-term implications on their health.

The plight of Manjunath, Kaveri and Nagamma is similar to the 1,20,000 migrants residing in similar informal settlements in urban Bangalore. A large percentage of the rural population migrates in search of better work, income and living conditions. The dream of living life king size in a big city remains short lived as reality sinks in – unhygienic living conditions with little or no provision of basic infrastructure. Since the community members consist largely of daily wage workers in the construction industry, they prefer squatting in settlements that are in close proximity to construction sites; hence most communities are settled in the peri-urban areas of Bangalore where a lot of developmental work is underway. The migrants shift their place of residence on a regular basis depending on availability of work. The communities are also vulnerable to regular evictions from the concerned authorities due to illegal and informal conditions of the settlement. This vulnerability increases when communities settle in public litigated land and are at the mercy of the local authorities who retain the power to evict. In certain areas where private vacant land is available, landowners utilize the land demand to create profit by charging a small amount of rent from squatters. Such settlements are less vulnerable to evictions on a short notice period, although not entirely.

Since there are no toilets in the community or its vicinity, open defecation is the common practice. Not only is the practice unhygienic, women in the community have customized themselves to defecate only twice a day – early in the morning and late at night – when it is dark.

This is to ensure personal safety as there may be onlookers during the day. The practice adversely affects the health of women, especially during menstruation and pregnancy.

As mentioned in the case of Manjunath and Kaveri, the community comprises of houses made of a tarpaulin sheet that is propped on 8-10 poles. There are no considerations for natural lighting or cross ventilation inside the house. The health repercussions of such houses are manifold, especially when cooking occurs inside the closed space of the tent. There is no electricity supply; hence kerosene lamps are used that are both expensive and harmful to health. The lack of strength of the structure increases the vulnerability of squatter communities in case of natural and man-made disasters. The low-income communities are the ones most affected in the case of disasters – natural or manmade- as was seen in the Chennai floods of 2015, the Gujarat earthquake of 2006 and the Uttarakhand cloudbursts of 2013.

The nomadic nature of the migrant workers depending on availability of work makes it difficult for their children to attend school. In a lot of communities where children do attend school, elder girl siblings are expected to remain home to look after their younger toddler siblings while their parents are at work. When inter-state migration occurs, the medium of communication becomes an issue for children as most government schools teach in the local language.

The biggest challenge low-income migrant groups face is that in the eyes of the government they remain an invisible population. The Prime Ministers Awaaz Yojana (2014) is the latest policy framework to address the issues of housing within the low-income sector. The policy provides various frameworks for low-income communities to buy construct or upgrade their houses based on requirements. However, it does not address the needs of migrant low-income communities who do not intend to live in the city for long. Larger construction companies set up labor colonies for both skilled and unskilled workers for the course of the construction period. These services are sometimes extended for their families too. Certain construction companies also provide skill development services for the laborers before project commencement. The training sessions develop the skills of the laborers and help them find better jobs after project completion too. However, laborers employed on a daily basis for smaller projects through local contractors are unable to access services similar to those of a labor colony.

On a long term plan, provision of rental housing services is one of the ways the problem of housing in urban migrant communities can be mitigated to a certain extent. However, the current housing policies of the government do not address this as an issue that needs to be looked into. It is important that the social rental housing stock be located in close proximity to livelihood opportunities.

The provision of night shelter services for the homeless in the city too is lagging behind in terms of numbers and quality of services provided.

However, there is a need to address the needs of such communities on an immediate basis too. Such solutions need to be temporary and portable considering the nomadic nature of migrant communities. Temporary shelters are the need of the hour for vulnerable urban migrants. However, there are multiple aspects that need to be understood during the design of such shelters, along with provision for basic lighting and cross ventilation. The risk of eviction is one of the biggest threats in urban squatter communities. This risk increases when the community becomes significant in the landscape of the city. Thus, it is very crucial for the structure to blend in with the existing blue tarpaulin structures to avoid any unnecessary interference from the concerned authorities. The structure should also be easily portable and must address the aspect of cost as the intended audience belongs to the low-income group. Such temporary structures may also be used for relief strategies during natural or man-made disasters.

A question that may arise here is – are we encouraging migrants to squatter illegally on urban areas through the provision of services that improve their living conditions? To which my answer is no; the reason being that rural to urban migration is inevitable.

Agriculture which is the largest source of income in rural areas is adversely affected through repercussions of climate change. Many crops also grow only in certain seasons; hence families have no source of income during other seasons. The earning members of such families tend to migrate to urban areas for the nonproductive seasons to sustain their families.

But the biggest fact here is that the city and its various developers rely on urban migrants for development work, particularly in the construction sector. The people who help make high-rise luxury apartments and shopping malls are the ones who live in the worst conditions. Hence the government needs to recognize this invisible population and allocate resources towards the development of such communities. However, it is unfair to make the low-income migrants wait until such a policy framework to address their needs is created. Temporary solutions mitigate the problem on a short term basis until long-term solutions are created to address the issues of unhygienic and unhealthy living conditions in similar communities in Bangalore and other urban centers of growth in the country.

Have a look at Selco Foundation’s Portable Housing Project for Labour colonies.

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