The Coronavirus outbreak has not only brought out deficiencies in our healthcare infrastructure but also has highlighted the issue of migrant workers. Most of them are employed in construction and related activities where they have been paid lower than the regular workers. They have been preferred by the employers and developers not only because of ‘cost effectiveness’ but also the responsibility of managing them is usually undertaken by the labour contractor. Apart from getting the so called wages, these migrant workers are not entitled to any other facilities which forced them often to use construction sites for staying. The government despite having surplus of more than Rs 50,000 crore in Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Fund hasn’t paid any attention to provide basic amenities to these workers.
A large part of migration and urbanization in our country have historically been linked to stagnation and volatility of agriculture which has become highly unremunerative and lack of sectoral diversification within agrarian economy. Though the present government has announced its ambitious plan of doubling farm income by 2022, the growth rates in agricultural production and income has been noted to be low, unstable and disparate across regions over the past several decades, resulting in lack of livelihood opportunities in rural areas. This has led to migration from several backward rural areas and most of the migrants being absorbed within urban informal economy.
Meanwhile, withdrawal or displacement of labour force from rural economy and their absorption in urban sectors have created serious stress in receiving regions as well. The capacity of our cities and towns to accommodate the migrants by providing employment, access to land, basic amenities etc. are limited. The problem has been aggravated by the tendency of the migrants to be selective in choosing their destinations (understandably linked with availability of employment and other opportunities), leading to regionally unbalanced urbanization as also distortions in urban hierarchy. As a result, today we have been struggling to cope with concentration of poverty, growth of slums and social deprivation in our cities.
United Nations has warned that rapid urbanization and migration would lead to tripling of slum population by 2050. Though mechanisation and automation may solve the problem of migrants to an extent, it may also create a bigger problem of unemployment.
Migration is not necessarily indicative of negative phenomenon – reflecting misery and lack of livelihood opportunities in the rural areas and absence of basic amenities and health hazards in cities. Migration has become an issue because of poor handling of the situation by the local authorities, urban planners and the employers. A lasting solution could be arrived at if all the concerned parties sit together to resolve the issue.
It should be noted that unless we solve the problems of our migrant workers, we will not be able to solve the problem of slums in the cities. Slum Rehabilitation Programs are nothing but electoral gimmicks which will never solve the problem of slums. With appropriate changes in the nature and form of urban expansion, the present exclusionary urban growth based on restrictions to migration and slum evictions can be reversed.