Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


India’s migrant workers face hostility in Mumbai

MUMBAI — Rakeshkumar Das first came to the big city 22 years ago to get a piece of India’s economic growth. But his life still resembles that of an illegal immigrant in his own country.

MUMBAI — Rakeshkumar Das first came to the big city 22 years ago to get a piece of India‘s economic growth. But his life still resembles that of an illegal immigrant in his own country.

Rents are so high that he cannot afford to live in Mumbai (Bombay), so he sleeps in the taxi he drives and takes the 36-hour train ride home to his wife twice a year. Now he fears he will lose his job after the state government tried to restrict cabby licenses to those who can speak a local language. Most drivers, migrants like Mr. Das, do not.

The controversy rekindled the antimigrant attitudes that sometimes flare up in India’s commercial capital. Nativist politicians cast migrants as economic competition and a strain on resources, unleashing passions that in the past have led to violence.

This time, two top figures – politician Rahul Gandhi and cricket champ Sachin Tendulkar – defended migrants with the slogan “Mumbai is for all Indians” and cooled tempers, for now.

Article continues after advertisement

But the larger question remains whether to better accommodate migrants with improved urban infrastructure and government services, or to discourage them through locals-first job preferences and decentralized development. Das is one of hundreds of millions of migrants whose ranks are only expected to grow, and so force the debate.

“In terms of migration within India, the question isn’t ‘Why is it so much?’ it is ‘Why is it so little?’ And if India does not get its act together, they will find [tensions] much harder to solve when [migration] really gets more substantial,” says Davesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.

Antimigrant sentiments intensify

The cabby controversy emboldened antimigrant activists in the city. One of the most prominent, Raj Thack­eray, told his party workers in March to attack migrant slum dwellers who illegally hook up their own plumbing connections. “Just beat them up, don’t waste your time,” he said, according to local media.

As the country’s commercial capital and therefore a magnet for job seekers, Mumbai for years has been the chief flash point for migrant-worker issues. But now a nativist party is gaining ground in the high-tech hub of Hyderabad. New Delhi’s chief minister has also talked of curbing “in-migration.”

The persistence of these efforts irks some analysts who fear they could stifle labor flows and economic growth.

“Without question, some of [India’s] competitiveness could be placed at risk if [cities] can’t get either this large pool of cheap labor for construction or a more talented group of people who can’t find opportunities” at home, says Sumit Ganguly, a visiting professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

He blames a “failure of urban governance” for the overburdened infrastructure.

“The whole notion of the idea of ‘migrants’ is something we must rebel against,” he adds. “As a citizen of the US, for example, if tomorrow I get a job offer in San Francisco and I move to take it, no one is going to tell me I am a migrant to California.”

Article continues after advertisement

But the Indian census looks at migrants precisely that way, finding that 30 percent of the population has permanently moved from a hometown.

Priya Deshingkar, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute in London, has calculated that there are an additional 100 million “circular migrants” like Das, who move temporarily for work. They contribute 10 percent of India’s gross domestic product, she asserts.

“Some of the tensions arise from the fact that the system is not geared to mobile populations,” she says.

Access to government assistance with food, health, and education are tied to where one lives, not where one is temporarily working. Plans for a national identification card could provide a solution, she says.

Mumbai is ‘already saturated’

“Sons of the soil” movements, however, argue that India would be better off if migration were discouraged.

The granddaddy of these movements, the Shiv Sena Party in Mumbai, argues that the city – with its 19th-century sewer system and traffic-choked roads – cannot handle the 500 newcomers who arrive daily.

“This place is already saturated,” says Prem Shukla, editor of the party’s newspaper. “Reverse migration should start, and there should be decentralized development.”

Mr. Shukla argues that India should be creating “Mumbais” in other parts of the country and encourage migrants to return to the countryside with their money and experience to “start a new green revolution.”

Article continues after advertisement

Similar arguments are starting to appear in Delhi. Its popular chief minister has talked about strains that migrants impose, though she backtracked some after triggering media disapproval.

In a 2008 book titled “The Invasion of Delhi,” scholar Sanjay Yadav argues that the original inhabitants in and around Delhi have been marginalized by newcomers. He calculates that they now make up just 35 percent of the population and hold 6 percent of the white-collar jobs. He also appeals to environmentalism, arguing that the region has grown polluted partly as a result of too many people with too little connection to the land. He says migration is holding back development elsewhere.

Das, the cabdriver, says leaders in his home state of Bihar would pocket any money meant for community uplift. And if he were forced to return, he doesn’t know how he would make a living.

“When I was back [home], there was no econ­omy,” he says. “When I came to Mumbai, my life has changed. Now I am able to look after my whole family: my wife, father, mother, and five sisters.”