homeviews NewsWhy the COVID 19 migrant crisis should compel us to re think urbanisation

Why the COVID-19 migrant crisis should compel us to re-think urbanisation

Why the COVID-19 migrant crisis should compel us to re-think urbanisation
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By CNBCTV18.com Contributor May 23, 2020 9:54:34 AM IST (Updated)

While fingers may point towards capitalist employers and ruling government's inaction, the malaise is a deep-rooted one — the consequence of unplanned urbanisation and migration in the country.

Authored by - Advaidh Nelakanttan R

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After lockdown measures were implemented in India on March 25, over 4 crore migrant labourers began facing uncertainty at their place of work and the risk of running out of their savings. Without hope for the future, these workers began following trends that were last noticed during the 2008 recession -- heading back home.
While fingers may point towards capitalist employers and ruling government's inaction, the malaise is a deep-rooted one — the consequence of unplanned urbanisation and migration in the country.
Urbanisation is the shift from a rural to an urban society, which in turn brings a large concentration of people into towns and cities. The root cause for global urbanisation is the new economic opportunity that cities bring to people, and indirectly, to governments and businesses.
“Most migrant labourers in India migrate to mega and metro cities in search of a better livelihood and better opportunities,” said Harshaa Vardhan, a Project Consultant at Ernst and Young, “Although most migrant labourers would prefer to work in their villages or nearby towns, irregular jobs, huge debt burdens and lack of better opportunities compel them to leave their family behind and seek employment thousands of kilometres away”
Now, the outbreak of the pandemic has forced these workers to take drastic steps. At last count, over a crore migrant workers have registered to return back to their home states. There are others who have walked halfway across borders and journeyed over 500 to a thousand kilometres on foot. Most migrant workers have also said they would never come back, with their future continuing to remain uncertain.
India, being a union of states, has never seen internal migration as a policy priority because although migrant workers are the heartbeat of ever-bustling metropolises, they are invisible. As part of the unorganized sector, they are not considered essential for the political economy. The rate of urbanization in metropolises could have been reduced if policymakers and business houses created opportunities all across the country as opposed to concentrating on saturated cities.
As per the United Nations’ World Urbanization Prospects Report (2014), it is projected that India will add 404 million more people to its urban population between the years 2014 and 2050. Indian cities, meanwhile, already contribute close to 60 percent to our national GDP. This leads to a reasonable conclusion that migration will be accompanied by faster urbanisation in the country than ever before.
Rampant unplanned urbanisation has also led to increased pollution, shortage of housing and water in metropolises that are already bursting at their seams. There are nearly a million homeless people in urban India, according to official data, although some estimate the actual number to be at least three times higher. When these metros have been extremely cruel to most opportunity-seeking migrant workers, why do they keep coming back, even though they are well aware of that fact? The answer lies in the lack of opportunities near their hometowns.
“The fact that these migrant workers are willing travel back to their respective native towns, every time these metropolises face a crisis, proves that they still consider their homes to be a safe space,” said Anirudh Seshadri, a Chennai-based entrepreneur whose workforce comprises of migrant workers, “In fact, most migrant workers are available in metros for only 10 months in a year, while they spend the remainder of the time farming in their hometowns. Hence, it is merely the lack of opportunities and absence of sectoral diversification in their hometowns that pushes these migrants towards metropolises.”
The National Smart Cities Mission may be a step in the right direction in ensuring that migrants find opportunities closer to their hometowns as the mission is expected to have a rub-off effect on other parts of the city, and nearby cities and towns. However, it is necessary that both the Union and State Governments work in tandem to draw up a much more robust framework for urbanisation, whose end goal should be to ensure that the people find opportunities either in their hometowns or in cities closer to their native towns. This requires a planned approach, incentivizing people to look for opportunities in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities, thereby deterring them from migrating to already saturated metropolises.
In the wake of continuous migration and rapid urbanisation, metropolises have constantly extended their boundaries in the last two decades to accommodate the influx of migrant population. However, this has led to a scarcity of resources like water, a crisis of housing, and environmental degradation in these cities. On top of these difficulties, migrants are discriminated against by state governments, while the local population is given preferential treatment.
The idea is to ensure that Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities create IT Hubs, MSME manufacturing hubs, cluster manufacturing units and set up special economic zones (SEZs), in order to create jobs. These will, in turn, attract the attention of potential migrants, who can now move to relatively friendlier cities and those possibly closer to their hometowns and villages.
Migrant labourers have played a key role in the economic growth of a country where they have been treated unfairly. A planned approach towards urbanisation in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities in every state will enable them develop better connections with their hinterland through provision of infrastructural support and greater capacity to absorb large sections of migrants in productive activities. This would also improve the fragile health and education systems around these regions, thus paving the way for economic growth and prosperity. There is without a doubt, an urgent need for governments to work in tandem, in order to rethink the overall urban vision of India, which should strive to develop a model that is more inclusive, so as to ensure life with dignity.
Note: The author is an advocate and an associate at AK Law Chambers, Chennai.
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