Thousands of migrant workers began walking home from Delhi and adjoining areas of the NCR within just a few days of the 21-day coronavirus lockdown, alarming the central and state governments. They ignored calls to stay put in Delhi— ‘their own home’. But many poor migrants do not think of the city of work as their home, which is a specific place of belonging and security.
We have been conducting field research on migrant workers’ experiences in Noida since 2018 and many of the findings help us understand the reasons for their exodus.
Thousands of migrant workers reside in the urban villages of Noida.
As per Census 2011, the city has been receiving a high number of inter-district migrants from Uttar Pradesh in the last decades. Most inter-state migrants are from Bihar. The Delhi-NCR region remains one of the two major destinations for north Indian migrants—a sizeable group among the 453.6 million migrants in the country.
Faced with social and political anti-migrant attitudes on one hand, and precarious employment opportunities on the other, they live in a state of chronic crisis. Rural ‘homes’ of memories and belonging do not sustain their livelihoods, while cities fail to give them economic security and a sense of belonging. The current coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown will only exacerbate these fault-lines.
Cramped spaces and bias against ‘outsiders’
Immigrants in the city work as street hawkers, construction workers, and domestic workers, and some with better asset base and skillsets drive taxis, rickshaws or are industrial workers. Our research shows workers with monthly incomes higher than Rs 15,000 prefer separate rooms (largely of 80 to 100 square feet) with shared or separate kitchen and toilet. But migrants earning Rs 10,000 per month or less—as many security guards do— take shared single rooms, paying rents of Rs 2,000 or less per capita. The poorest of them stay in shanties within or around villages, paying Rs 500-1,000 monthly per shanty.
Local villagers derive a significant part of their income from the rentals. In most villages, a landlord has dozens of identical rooms for rent, set in rows on floors in narrow alleyways. Most house owners also run grocery shops from which tenants are often expected to make their purchases.
Yet, for the landlords, the tenants are the perennial ‘outsiders’ (baharwale), while they are the ‘mool vasis’ of the area. Several cultural and economic practices sustain this boundary in everyday life. The local villagers largely keep to themselves, unless squabbles among their tenants, or among tenants and other villagers arise. Tenants, on the other hand, have their own separate networks—real and virtual—depending on their regional and linguistic affinities.
Village landlords frequently complain that their villages have ‘become almost like slums’. For instance, Barola—a village in sector 47, has grown to more than 100,000 residents from about 10,000 residents in the early 2000s. Civic infrastructure has not kept pace with the scale of demographic upheaval, making both tenants and landlords feel constricted in space.
However, more than the difficulty of cohabiting in dense urban spaces, tenants are also seen as carrying the risk of cultural and economic ‘contamination’ (pradushan). Due to their food practices, or their poorvanchali and Bengali tongue, or for their supposed lack of personal hygiene, tenants are the social ‘other’ in the city. On the other side of the divide, the tenants themselves take a dim view of their landlord’s exaggerated lifestyles as the ‘unearned privileges’ of an urban location. Noida has been witnessing conflicting moral ethos and a sense of crises even prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
Crisis of making a home
There is evidence that a section of these migrants has managed to achieve some economic and social mobility in the last two decades. In certain areas of Noida, immigrants from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh staying for more than a decade could accumulate their personal savings, and pool in credit from residual and new social networks, to construct new residences. Having secured a measure of economic stability, kinship and linguistic networks, and with positive memories of their struggles in and for local spaces, they are able to call Noida their home. Some of these successful immigrants have taken up roles now in local party politics, trade union mobilisations, and in civil society activities.
Yet, more recent migrants are only beginning this journey to secure a margin of economic and spatial stability. Indeed, for many such people, any attempt at home-making in the city has increasingly been difficult given their fragile employment status in shrinking manufacturing sector and in the expanding service economy in Noida. Except for those who have nothing left to return to, many such migrants think of their villages as spaces of belonging and refuse. The Covid-19 crisis has sharpened the sense of insecurity among the recent migrants in the city.
The challenge of ‘throwntogetherness’
Yet, it is increasingly evident that going back to a rural home has never been more challenging than during the coronavirus lockdown. Many of those who have made it, have been denied entry in their villages for fear of contagion. In one report from Purulia, several young men were forced to self-isolate on a tree. Others have faced alternative forms of informal surveillance and ostracisation. As several analysts have pointed out, forms of openness and flows have created unprecedented boundaries in rural India.
Migrants will save up on rent if and when they reach home. They could also draw on ecological and social commons that some villages still have left outside of a market-price based system. Informal support and formal transfers from the state, as has been promised by the Narendra Modi government recently, will come handy if their coverage is broad. But it is unclear how many and for how long these attenuated safety nets could sustain the migrants. Besides, with rural economy hurtling towards a contraction, the exodus will drag local wages down. The rush for ‘home’ could, ironically, produce a deepening crisis at home.
The coronavirus pandemic is creating an unprecedented livelihood dislocation in India. But it has shown, yet again, that home-making for most migrants spans spaces and forms of welfare needs. In most scholarly discussions of development and urban planning, the complexity of home-making and its connections to individual and family welfare gets a short shrift. Beyond this, the Covid-19 crisis also highlights the need for our ethical reorientation towards home-making and refuge. Paraphrasing Jacques Derrida, we may say that our ‘throwntogetherness’ in the current crisis forces us to rethink the ethics of our hospitality to those who appear strange to us just as to those who look familiar.
Nilotpal Kumar teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Ritanjan Das teaches at University of Portsmouth, UK. Views are personal.