An unstated segregation of people is the norm in Indian cities.

By 2030, India’s urban population is set to reach 590 million, an addition of approximately 300 million to India’s current urban population. Much of this growth will be due to rural-urban migration.

The success of the Indian urbanisation agenda will be hugely dependent on the poor migrants’ integration as urban citizens. While the bulk of scholarly work focusing on the “haves” and “have-nots” in India has traditionally focused on the rural, there is comparatively little that we know and understand about its dimensions in the urban context.

Migrant identity

This somewhat neat categorisation of India into the rural versus the urban also overlaps with stereotypical labels of “backward” and “modern.” Such acts of labelling and categorising are not necessarily benign or apolitical acts.

They further the logic of the developmental agenda and are a justification for the urbanisation mission that India is steadfastly marching towards.

Little wonder then that Gurgaon, India’s youngest urban centre, gets hailed as the country’s Millennium City, while it is actually far from that.

Barring the residents of the traditional villages, on whose acquired lands Gurgaon has been raised, almost everyone here is a migrant. However, the term migrant conjures up images of the poor and destitute that work in the informal economy and live in slums or jhuggis. There is a certain unsaid understanding about an ideal city dweller as belonging to a certain social and economic class, who is conceived as the resident around whom the bulk of urban planning and development is focused.

Interestingly, when an undergraduate class of sociology students, in a university in Delhi, gave instances of migrants, they responded unanimously in identifying only those working in the informal economy, despite the fact that quite a few of them have relocated to Delhi for higher education themselves and are being taught by faculty who also belong to other parts of the country. This “othering” of the so-called migrants happens through acts of labelling, such as “outsiders,” “encroachers,” “illegal occupants,” and “criminals.”

Urban development is a story of sharp contrasts. While it conjures up images of glitzy buildings, attractive shopping arcades, fancy corporate offices, and neatly laid out residential complexes that provide a clean, safe, and healthy existence, there also exist shanty towns, slums, and the informal economy where people live in sub-human conditions and earn a living by doing odd jobs, including casual labour at construction sites, domestic work, rickshaw pulling, security guard duty, street vending, and hawking.

While their contributions are indispensable to the smooth working of urban spaces, these people, their needs are overlooked in the planning and vision of urban development.

India does not stop its citizens from internal migration. People are free to move across States to escape destitution or in search of better opportunities. However, local governments and India’s middle class largely view economically poor migrants as outsiders making illegitimate claims to life in cities.

The new castes

Recently, scholars have started pointing out the growing hostility of urban governments, as well as middle-class citizens, towards the urban poor, especially migrants to the cities. The 2010 Common Wealth Games held in Delhi saw the forced eviction of large numbers of urban poor, mostly rural-urban migrants.

Urbanisation in India subscribes to forces of the neo-liberal economy, where citizens are expected to become self-reliant and not be an economic liability for the State. The manner in which urbanisation is conceived and executed is, therefore, inextricably linked to this notion of the ideal city resident.

While cities may be melting pots that have arguably helped mitigate traditional caste-based discrimination, urban spaces are generating newer forms of inequalities and exclusions that go beyond caste.

In urban India, one’s social and economic class has become the new caste. The caste anonymity of migrants is not enough to allow access to all urban spaces, as their social profiling restricts entry to most of these enclaves.

So, while India may not be like sections of apartheid Africa, where the state legalised exclusionary practices, there is little being done towards the active enforcement of rights that allow for an integrated society.

Much, therefore, depends on a city’s ability to create an enabling environment for new entrants. This involves planning for services such as access to safe housing, water, electricity, schools, and healthcare. However, institutional and state policy efforts to this end seem to have been sparse.

State neglect

At the beginning of the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012), there was an urban housing shortage in India of 24.7 million. Ninety nine per cent of this shortfall pertained to the economically weaker sections and lower income groups in which migrants typically fall.

While most migrants would qualify as lawful citizens of the land, in urban India, the rights of citizens get operationalised through a host of official documents, such as property lease or ownership papers, PAN cards, bank statements, bills, and voter IDs. Bereft of these, the paperless migrant accesses basic goods and services at a premium in the black market economy.

Ironically, the most marginalised and poor also have to pay the most dearly. The underground economy is also indicative of the state’s absence in service delivery and lack of institutional support.

Urban development, if done in an inclusive manner, can enable social mobility and integration of migrants. The Right to Education Act has been a landmark intervention which has opened up private educational establishments to other economically weaker sections.

There is a long road ahead, however, and similar legislations are also needed in health, housing, and labour rights sectors.

Raising awareness

Good policy-making is only half of the solution. In the absence of proper execution or enforcement, it becomes mere eyewash, failing to help the most excluded.

An acceptance of the permanence of the poor migrant population is critical to better planning, provisioning, and integration into India’s urban development.

There are interesting lessons to be learned from China, where the State Council of China’s cabinet, in January 2010, came out with a document to resolve problems of urban integration faced by young migrants.

Excluded migrant populations would gain by seeking a collective identity that unites them on the basis of their exclusion. Activism and awareness about their rights are key to overcoming some of the negative stereotypes they might have inherited or internalised.

This, in turn, will help them to better stand up for their rights and exert demands for better living and working conditions. Additionally, social attitudes of urban elites need to be addressed through active campaigns.

If schisms are left unaddressed, it will not be long before the inequality in India’s urban centres, like the rural hinterlands, becomes engulfed by civil strife.

(The author is a social anthropologist at Ambedkar University, Delhi.)

This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

(This article was published on July 31, 2012)
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