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Urbanization, Migration, and Exclusion in India

Preeti Mann
July 30, 2012

India is steadfastly urbanizing and in just under two decades its urban population is likely to approximately double to reach 600 million, a figure twice as high as its present urban population. Much of this growth will be due to the migration of people of economically weaker sections from rural areas which will further exacerbate the issue of urban poverty. If India aspires to be an equitable society where the void between the “haves” and “have-nots” is diminished it will have to ensure the inclusion and integration of the poor migrants into its urbanization agenda. From a policy perspective this is a critical opportunity as urbanization lends a new chance to correct some of India’s developmental errors. It can therefore be proposed that the state and its citizens reflect on the processes and structures through which exclusion is created, propagated, maintained or even overlooked in urban India so as to identify mechanisms with which to alleviate it or to build social activism around it.

In the context of inequality, it is the rural-urban divide that readily comes to mind. 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 and mechanics in the urban context. This somewhat neat categorization of India into the rural versus the urban also overlaps with stereotypical labels of “backward” and “modern.” What needs pointing out is that such acts of labeling and categorizing are not necessarily benign or apolitical acts. They help further the logic of the developmental agenda and are a justification for the urbanization mission that India is steadfastly marching towards. Little wonder then that Gurgaon, India’s youngest urban center, 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. Though alarming, these responses are commonplace. This “othering” of the so-called migrants happens through acts of labeling, such as “outsiders,” “enchroachers,” “illegal occupants,” and “criminals.” This creates an artificial distinction between “us” and “them” that gives legitimacy to the acts of symbolic and physical violence and exclusion by the society towards them.

Urban development, in the context of India, is a story of sharp contrasts and striking contradictions. 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 subhuman conditions and earn a living by doing odd jobs including casual labor at construction sites, domestic work, rickshaw pulling, security guard duty, street vending, and hawking. While their contributions are indispensable to the smooth working of the urban, these people, their needs and vulnerabilities are overlooked or ignored 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, economic or otherwise. However, local governments and India’s middle class largely view economically poor migrants as outsiders making illegitimate claims to life in cities. Recently, scholars have started pointing out the growing hostility of urban governments, as well as middle class citizens, towards 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.

Urbanization in India subscribes to forces of the neo-liberal economy and the market where citizens are expected to become self-reliant and not be an economic liability for the state. The manner in which urbanization is conceived and executed is therefore inextricably linked to this notion of the ideal city resident. Urbanization in India has become contentious. Instead of leading to social integration and closing in on the divide between the rich and poor, it furthers inequality between them. More critically, shoddy urban planning and inadequate policy is making India miss an opportunity to bring about integration in India’s youngest cities, leaving one thinking who in the urban has the right to have rights.

While cities may be melting pots that have arguably helped mitigate historical and traditional caste-based discrimination and marginalization, they need active reiteration that urban spaces are generating newer forms of inequalities and exclusions that go beyond caste. We therefore need new lenses to view and understand the politics of exclusion in the manner in which it is created and propagated in urban India, where 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 legalized exclusionary practices, there is little being done towards the active enforcement of rights that allows for an integrated society to enable people to become full urban citizens. Urban spaces in India are notorious for being the silent propagators of discrimination and marginalization.

While most migrants would qualify as lawful citizens of the land, in urban India, the rights of citizens get operationalized 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 marginalized 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. From a migrant’s perspective it is the opportunity to enable a better life, economically or otherwise, that draws them to urban spaces. However, for a rural-urban migrant to move, there are additional costs that result from functioning in the informal economy. Opportunities cannot be readily undertaken if that means having to enable an entire environment that mostly depends on the back market economy and social networks.

Urban development, if done in an inclusive manner, can enable social mobility and integration of migrants in the real sense of the word by providing a renewed opportunity to challenge or change some of the traps or processes of impoverishment. This involves planning for services like access to safe housing, water, electricity, schools, and healthcare. Just as important, it requires a concerted effort by governments and civil society to identify and reduce structures and processes of exclusion in urban spaces. This, in turn, would be incumbent upon integrative planning, political will, and capability-enhancing policies that propagate access. However, institutional and state policy efforts to this end seem to have been sparse in India.  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 labor rights sectors. 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 many 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 internalized. 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 and messaging.

As urbanization becomes an increasingly important social dynamic, empirical studies that help examine mechanisms that enable or hamper migrants in cities and give accounts of their living experiences become pertinent. If left unaddressed, it will not be long before the inequality in India’s urban centers, like the rural hinterlands, becomes engulfed by civil strife. It is only a matter of time before the high rates of urbanization in the current format leads to disequilibrium, resulting in violence and unrest. It is therefore a pressing need that we step up and take cognizance of the state of our cities.

Preeti Mann is a social anthropologist at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She can be reached at mannpreeti@yahoo.com .


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation.

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