New Delhi: State governments and employers must ensure basic facilities including housing, water, sanitation and healthcare for migrant workers who fuel cities’ growth, says a new report launched on May 1, the International Workers’ Day.

The government schemes aimed at providing cash-transfer, childcare and basic health facilities should be de-linked from domicile--the status of being a permanent resident of a place. Migrant clusters in cities should be mapped and included to form migrant-sensitive urban policies, said a May 1, 2020, report by Aajeevika Bureau, a Rajasthan-based non-profit that works for circular migrant workers.

The report, ‘Unlocking the Urban: Reimagining Migrant Lives in Cities Post-COVID 19’, throws light on the adversities and exclusion that migrants face in Indian cities and jots down a series of recommendations for city planning to improve migrants’ lives and protect them from crises such as the one induced by the COVID-19 lockdown.

India has an estimated 120 million rural-to-urban migrant workers, who contribute 10% of the country's economic output. The lockdown either stranded them at their place of work or forced them to undertake journeys spanning hundreds of kilometres, by foot, to reach their villages (read our stories here, here and here).

“The catastrophic results of the lockdown only exposed and aggravated glaring gaps in India’s public provisioning and employment systems, which has, for decades, systematically excluded and extracted migrant workers to facilitate economic growth,” said the report.

Leaving their homes and villages to move to cities to work in high-growth sectors has not improved circular migrants’ work and living conditions. “Rather, urban growth has been exclusionary and exploitative, leading to the reproduction of poverty and socio-economic inequalities at the work destinations,” it said.

Understanding the nature of labour migration into India’s cities is not only necessary for tackling the immense challenges posed by the unanticipated pandemic, but also for moving towards migrant-inclusive cities in its aftermath, said the report.

Here are the steps it suggests to reduce extractive practices and empower the migrants:

  • Since migrant workers in cities are unable to purchase the minimum for a dignified life due to suboptimal wages and being restricted to the lowest rungs of the urban labour markets, the state or employers must be required, by law, to directly provide them with basic facilities and services including housing, water, sanitation and childcare. In cases where these services are purchased from the market, the state or employer must subsidise them. Regular monitoring should ensure the standards and the criteria are met.
  • Migrant hotspots in cities must be mapped and acknowledged in urban governance. Unable to afford rent, migrants often live in open spaces in and around cities’ peripheries. The housing solutions for these groups need not necessarily entail brick-and-mortar structures, but direct provisioning of water tankers, mobile toilets and subsidised fuel are a must.
  • The state should ensure public sanitation services in migrant-dense clusters. These must be free, open round-the-clock and have a gender-friendly design and installation so that women workers can safely access them.
  • The state should set up migrant hostels in migrant hotspots--such as industrial clusters outside the city, as well as within the city near worksites. These would save migrants from adversities caused by evictions, vagaries of the weather, harassment by the public or landlords, and hazardous living conditions at worksites.
  • Overall, entitlements and services in the domain of public health, including conditional cash transfers and other non-cash benefits, covered under a host of health and early childcare schemes should be completely delinked from domicile.
  • Timings for public health centres in migrant-dense clusters must be extended, especially in the evenings in order to ensure that migrants do not have to forsake a day’s wages to access them. Accredited social health activists (ASHAs) and auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) must be given monetary incentives to enlist migrant settlements in the ambit of their services. Health camps conducted by urban authorities should be extended to migrant settlements as well. It is important that ASHA workers make regular visits and provide required reproductive healthcare support and vaccinations to women workers and nutritional care to children.
  • Employers should ensure childcare facilities at worksites with more than 50 workers, as required under current laws. In the case of small-scale employers, the state should arrange common childcare facilities in migrant clusters.
  • Workplaces should set up Internal Complaints Committees for women employees as per the current laws. Urban local authorities must set up Women Resource Centres near these informal settlements where women workers can spend time when they are sick or not working, to protect themselves from harassment in their living spaces. These centres should provide counselling and support for reporting cases of domestic violence or sexual harassment.
  • Sensitisation training of frontline workers, including police, as well as local and state-level officials for responding to and supporting the needs of migrant communities are critical for the implementation of urban schemes and policies.

(Tripathi is an IndiaSpend reporting fellow.)