There is a wilderness within our borders. It’s so vast that it covers an entire nation, with around 100 million inhabitants, one-fifth of our labour force. The total earnings of these seasonal wanderers, India’s internal migrant workers, are around $170 billion per annum, i.e. around 6% of India’s GDP. Sadly, this wilderness, comprising the residents hidden away in industrial complexes, in soot-ridden kitchens of hotels and in dusty construction sites, is invisible to the naked eye.
Shambhu Ghatak, from the Inclusive Media for Change Project, says the migrant population in India is riddled with the issues of inadequate housing; low-paid, insecure or hazardous work; extreme vulnerability of women and children to trafficking and sex exploitation; exclusion from state services such as health and education; and discrimination based on ethnicity. Furthermore, there are mental health issues, not to mention the darkness of debt-ridden, bonded labour. But, herein lies an irony: a treasure-trove of close to $3 billion, levied as cess on builders under two migrant workers acts, lies grossly underutilised. Access to the money eludes migrant workers as they need to provide proof of address, which is difficult due to the fluidity of their lives. Further, ration cards, Voter IDs and Aadhaar cards are also not easy to obtain.
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Trade unions are the best way for the workers to benefit from government welfare schemes but employers often prefer hiring unregistered migrants over their registered counterparts, further distancing the migrants’ access. There is also the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act (1979), enacted to prevent migrant workers from being exploited, but it is rarely invoked and the penalty is minimal.
However, there are rays of hope, stemming from civil society organisations like the Aajeevika Bureau, Hunnarshala Foundation and Ci3; some Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives; forward-thinking government schemes like that for affordable, migrant housing in Bhuj; and from these resolute workers themselves (the women toilet-masons of Assam are a story of positive irony, for a change).
We need something more than the promise of ‘Housing for All by 2022’, which fails to address the needs of accommodation for such workers. There need to be multi-level reforms, with an emphasis on sustainable, inclusive construction practices; affordable temporary housing schemes; and inclusive urbanisation at the top. These should be peppered with legally binding implementation protocols. We need to accommodate the wilderness within, so as to help morph this open cage, in which migrant workers live, into a sanctuary of inclusive hope.
The writer is based in Chennai
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