Can India Run Its Cities Without Migrant Workers?


Can India Run Its Cities Without Migrant Workers?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine running a city without migrants.

No, wait – let me rephrase that. Upper-middle-class B-school grads like me are also, technically, migrants. Let’s exclude those headed to comfortable offices in DLF City and Lower Parel. So now we’re left with, you know, those we sweepingly call “migrants” – the poor who have come to the city in the hope of a better life than the one offered in their villages, so that their families can live in slightly better houses and their kids can have enough education to someday make it to one of those Lower Parel towers.

Imagine a city without them. It might be difficult to visualise, because it isn’t as if they’re not already an invisible swathe of our urban landscape. Here’s an attempt anyway: In the morning, we’d be stuck on the Western Express Highway because of incomplete flyovers, because the infrastructure company is staffed to only half the capacity. Your colleague calls saying he’ll be late, he can’t find an auto. The place you stop to get your daily chai is no more, Sanjay kaka is probably back in his village. Once you reach the office, the admin boy tells you the faulty switch remains that way – it’s difficult to get an electrician these days. You fire up an order on your app, thankfully a rider has been assigned, although it seems to be taking longer to do that these days. In a way, without cheap labour supplied by India’s migrants, the rest of us wouldn’t be able to do what we do, including churning out this essay. I suppose some of us might have realised this, having to do a lot of this ourselves during the last two months, and while it was fun and #InstaWorthy for the first week, a bunch of us would be happy to outsource it and get on with our lives.

Indian cities run on cheap labour. Infrastructure and manufacturing remain bullish here because of some of the lowest wages in the world – this is by itself not a bad thing, but unlike China, India has not enabled enough people to come out of poverty and lead a life of dignity. The late-70s reformist agenda set by Deng Xiaoping moved millions from fields to factory, as the country became an export-oriented manufacturing hub that now has its own world-dominating brands. Liberalising the private sector and aiding entrepreneurship helped millions of Chinese lead a better standard of life.

But now, the coronavirus poses a big question – can an Indian city run without a substantial portion of this low-wage labour? After all, Mumbai is going to see 10 lakh migrants, about 5% of its population, head out of the city. We, in our cocooned urban dwellings, might not see the ramifications now, but it’s going to hit home soon as life slowly gets back to some semblance of normalcy. Without Aziz bhai to fix the socket, or Chetna didi to mop the floors or Raju to deliver our meals, we’d be lost. Now multiply this across the city, add infrastructure projects to the mix, and we’ll all get a good lesson in what “essential” means. Already, the real estate sector is worried about the dual challenge of people wanting bigger homes (thanks to WFH) but a shortage of workers to build them. And yes, the stock market too is jittery about companies that involve substantial labour.

Indian cities run on cheap labour.

Which brings us to the question of… what next? When things get back to normal, will the reverse-migration happen and people throng on trains to get back? To be honest, nobody really knows. Some argue that cold economics will ensure migrants come back.

“Most inter-state migrants ran away from economic wastelands; their remittances were an important source of income, self-esteem and respect. Necessity will drive them in search of work once again.” – Manish Sabharwal and Sabina Dewan

Others are less optimistic.

“India’s heartless capitalists deserve the labour shortages they are about to be hit with … when they try to finish those half-built buildings, or switch on the machines in the factories.” – Shivam Vij

What I think will happen is partially optimistic, partially practical. Many, if not most, are likely to return to cities to earn and fend for their families.

Now for the optimistic part, and it might not make some shareholders very comfortable. Some migrants will realise that city life is not all it’s made out to be. Heck, if you and I can complain about Mumbai, what of those living in slums? Squalid living conditions, high cost, unbearable pollution, and importantly – the incredibly low level of respect they get. Is it any wonder that they believe cities treat them like “stray dogs”? Time and again over the last few months, we learn of how migrants are not looking for handouts; they’re looking for dignity. “We have to depend on charity for survival, there is no dignity in living like this”, says one, desperate to leave Mumbai and not have to depend on other people.

Some will now realise that, at the risk of lowering their incomes, they might as well ply their trade closer to home. What we might end up seeing is rural areas, or at least cities close to them benefiting. If another pandemic breaks out, at least the return back home will be less horrific.

Which then gives us another benefit: potentially increased wages, and for this we have historical precedent in the Black Death of 14th-century Europe. The subsequent labour shortage meant a rise in wages. While we might not see as drastic a shift, I do believe labourers have more of a bargaining chip, and will need to be offered more to coax them out of villages, at least till the sceptre of the virus still hangs around.

Raising wages for the poor is the best thing that could happen to a capitalist system.

This is not a bad thing at all. Raising wages for the poor is the best thing that could happen to a capitalist system, giving a wider base of potential customers to companies, and less money idly accumulating interest for the few wealthy. In India, few things are more in need of fixing than dignity of labour. Becoming a superpower or $5 trillion economy will remain just propaganda until then. Imagine, for instance, a Mumbai where everyone led a life of dignity, had access to public spaces, could walk into a mall and possibly buy something, and had a semblance of privacy.

There are several complications. We haven’t even touched on the question of caste, for instance. But I remain optimistic that something good will eventually come out of this, even if it’s only because urban India will realise that it’s fucked without the low-wage labour which it’s so badly mistreated, now in full view for all the world to see.