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The Migrant And The City: Looking Beyond Tales Of Woe And Exploitation

We need multiple narratives.

22/02/2017 1:12 PM IST | Updated 27/02/2017 8:40 AM IST

By: Maithreyi Kamalanathan*

How can one describe a city? For a few, it's the hustle and the noise—the chorus of honks in traffic jams, loud voices in overcrowded market places and tall buildings always under construction. For some, it's the way it looks—the landscape of semi-constructed slums or the high-rise buildings that lie right beside them. For others, a city is a place for pretty streets with cafes and bars and many comforts in one place. Everyone has a definition, a visual and a feel of the city.

Maithreyi Kamalanathan
A building adorning a street in Mumbai

But there's something common in all three descriptions—the people. A city as we know it is not a homogeneous entity. If the description of a city is the tip of an iceberg, the people who make it are the layers lying underneath—more complex, invisible most of the time.

The city is constantly exporting people beyond its border, even as it imports others. So what makes it what it is? Who belongs here and who does not? Who contributes more to the development of it and who doesn't? Three out of10 people in India are migrants. The National Survey sample Office (NSSO) report of 2007-2008 concludes that 28.5% of the Indian population constitutes of internal migrants. So clearly a good share of a city's population does not "belong" there. Also, these people do not enjoy all the privileges the city has to offer.

Internal migrants seem to be viewed in a certain context: the city—a hostile place; the migrant— a victim striving to make ends meet; civil society organisations—rescuers of these victims.

The reasons for migration may vary—employment, education, distress or even marriage. The issues faced by people after migration also vary based on their specific circumstances. The issues faced by a Tamil software engineer in Mumbai are different from a Bihari construction worker in Delhi. The magnitude of social exclusion encountered by the latter is immense. On a closer examination, the reason behind migration is similar in both cases—availability of opportunities. However, the former is considered a contributor to development and the latter a disturbance.

Maithreyi Kamalanathan
Wayside shelter in Delhi

I work in Delhi with an organisation that tries to make the voices of communities heard. Recently, I had to do some research on the media portrayal of migrants for an upcoming conference. Out of the four online platforms chosen, two were the web portals of traditional newspapers and two were trending yet completely digital portals. This quick search revealed that collectively, 70 stories were published over a period of three months (June, July and August 2016). There were indeed a handful of well-researched stories published on all these portals. However, the stories that gained most attention were the ones that had a great deal to do with current political parties (National: The Kairana migration issue, International: The plight of Indian immigrants stuck amidst changing political scenarios in the United Kingdom and the United States).

Although a handful of interesting articles with cultural and art perspectives were also published, most of them seemed to fall into similar patterns. Internal migrants in India seemed to be viewed in a certain context: The city—a hostile place; the migrant— a victim striving to make ends meet; civil society organisations—rescuers of these victims. The idea is not to contradict this narrative, but to question the absence of other possible ones.

Maithreyi Kamalanathan
A roadside shelter in Delhi

We cannot obviously deny the truth in the narratives that exist. Issues of human trafficking and uninformed migration definitely deserve attention. But what about the ones that were brave enough to pursue their aspirations despite the difficulties? That woman who stepped of her house for the first time to work in a city? Household work coming to a standstill without the help of domestic workers who are mostly migrants? The link between the cheap labour they offer and the discounts we get on various things we purchase? Or the relationship between the prosperous parts of the city and the rag-picker who lives amidst the garbage dump? Who tells those stories?

There is still very little discussion about the women in the labour force and their contribution to development.

Because we all know who these individuals are and why they migrate. We've had enough sad images of them travelling on top of trucks and trains towards the city. Enough has been told about the drought and failed government policies that bring them here. Maybe not enough, but enough to shadow out the parallel images that could have been portrayed well. For instance, the underreported records of women migrating for employment. Till date the existing records of both census 2001 and NSSO 2007-008 report marriage as the only reason for migration for a majority of women. There is still very little discussion about the women in the labour force and their contribution to development.

There are larger discussions that have not seen the light of the day. Mostly they remain limited to academic circles. The conference I was researching for, I also happened to attend a bit of it, since my mentor was presenting in it. The information exchange that happened there barely reached the general public.

Maithreyi Kamalanathan
Busy city street

The concept of social remittances was something that grabbed my attention from the materials I took back home to read. It largely dwells on the transformations a migrant goes through at the destination location and the changes he/she helps achieve in the source location with the same. It can be as simple as the irrelevance of caste differences in cities when it comes to access to a public water resource, or the woman becoming the decision maker of a household in a village when the man is away earning in the city.

These narratives deserve as much attention as the stories of woe and exploitation that are portrayed most often. Women who have transformed into braver individuals; men who yearn to go back home; stories of acceptance and resistance towards harsh working conditions; the cultural shocks and gradual adaptations. All of them need to be told. They deserve the right to be heard. If informed decisions are the ultimate goal of anything, then the absence of perspective is nothing short of a blunder.

*Author bio: With a degree in journalism, Maithreyi Kamalanathan is a fellow of the current 2015-16 batch of the India Fellow Social Leadership Program. Her project is under communication for social change where she is working with an organisation called Ideosync Media Combine. She is currently wrapping up the production of a radio series on internal migration for UNESCO where the situation of internal migrants is being documented through lived experiences, facts and statistics.

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