Unravelling the living conditions of Migrant workers

coronavirus migrantworker

In the Post-COVID situation, the issue of migrant workers has come to the forefront. While on the one hand, it provides an opportunity to reflect and correct, on the other hand it also brings out the deeply held biases in Government decisions. While Migrants go on to build a city, they never form part of mental frame of the decision making bodies. Initially, challenges of millions of migrant workers were never taken into account before announcing lockdown. Recently news which also emerged was of builders lobby in Karnataka influencing Government to cancel ‘Shramik Express’ so that construction workers stay back and construction activities do not get affected. Also in the news was of Chief Ministers of Punjab, Karnataka, Haryana and Gujarat calling counterpart in Uttar Pradesh and expressing concern over the flight of labour which can lead to economic activities coming to a halt. These instances show the political economy factors, where Government becomes active representatives of the interests of economic elite in urban areas rather than the most impoverished.

Being creators of cities, migrants deserve their rights over the city. However, their living conditions continues to be pathetic. In the current conditions, it is important to take a deeper dive and look into their living conditions. The recently released report titled ‘Unlocking the Urban: Reimagining Migrant Lives in Cities Post-COVID 19’ by Aajeevika Bureau delves into this subject.

The book talks of the concept of ‘circular migration’, a pattern where migrants leave the rural locations and work in urban areas for a period of 3 to 9 months. Two cities are discussed. Ahmedabad, which sees flow of circular migrants from the adjacent districts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and distant states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Surat, which receives migrants from Southern Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Ganjam district of Odisha. Ahmedabad has an estimated 1.3 million migrant workers working in five sectors construction, manufacturing, hotels & restaurants, head loading and domestic work. In Surat, among others it attracts about 0.8 million Odia migrants primarily in the textile industry. In Ahmedabad, the migrants within the state are tribals (Bhils) or those from lower caste households. Those from outside are from other backward caste (OBC) and General Caste households. In Surat, the migrants are from Scheduled Caste (SC) and OBC communities.

The report looks into the living conditions of migrant workers in relation to housing, water, sanitation, food and healthcare. How the migrants negotiate access to basic facilities and services and how the urban policies affect the lives of migrant workers are discussed.

The post liberalisation urban growth is based on the dual processes of dispossession and exploitation. While on the one hand, the rural population is dispossessed from their land, water, forests and traditional livelihoods, on the other hand they are forced to move to urban areas in search of employment. Manufacturing and Service sectors in order to be globally competitive in the value chains need to keep their costs down. This results in casualization of employment, where under labour reforms agenda labour rights are curbed. Migrants turn into cheap sources of labour subjected to exploitation. Neither the state or employer agencies invest towards improving the living conditions of the workers.

The migrants lack the citizenship rights. Lacking identity documents, they are seen with deep suspicion by the state and local populations. Lacking voting rights in host locations, they are not able to influence politically. The relationship of the migrants to the city is that as sources of cheap labour and that as those excluded from urban governance facilities and services, which relegates them to informal and insecure living conditions. Their current living conditions are discussed: –


The circular migrants in Ahmedabad stay in open spaces, rented rooms or within the worksites where they are employed.

Rented rooms are of 88 to 2020 square feet rooms, kucha or pucca. About 4-5 family members live and pay an average rent of Rs. 3,000 for 1010 size room. Single male migrants share room with others and share an amount of Rs. 1,125 per month with 4 persons residing. Sometimes, those who are less able to afford rent, about 15 persons stay in 1010 square feet rooms. In many cases, the rooms are windowless and unventilated. The rental houses are informally run and maintained. Migrant’s relationship with landlord to negotiate and bargain remains limited. They experience simultaneous patronage and exploitation. With this, they have lesser ability to demand services towards electricity, water and sanitation.

There are also workers who stay at their worksites. These could be construction sites, factories, restaurants hotels and dhabas and platforms in market place. Under this arrangement, migrants are dependent on contractors or employers for advance cash, health shocks and emergencies. They are also responsible for facilities such as water, sanitation, food and cooking fuel. The simultaneous dependence of workers on contractor for work as well as stay facilities limits their bargaining power. Those who live in worksites are paid much less than the others. There are also migrants who live in open spaces. They sleep and cook in informally constructed shacks. They face constant threat of eviction and harassment by police, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, Railway authorities and local residents.

In Surat, migrant workers who primarily work in power-looms reside in rented shared or bachelor rooms, mess rooms and rented family rooms or houses in informal settlements. In rented bachelor rooms about 3 to 10 persons reside in 100 square feet rooms. There is a common toilet for about 50 persons. Rent is in the range of Rs. 2,500 – 4,000 for an entire room. Mess rooms are usually close to power looms. About 100 workers stay in a 500 to 1,000 square metre area. Each worker gets assigned a space of 3 feet by 6 feet area for sleep. About Rs. 400-600 is paid towards rent by a migrant residing in mess rooms besides Rs. 1,800 – 2,200 towards mess. There is no ventilation and summers become extremely unbearable. In rented family rooms, women besides unpaid family work undertakes activities such as sticking sequins on clothes or cutting threads. The work is poorly compensated. An amount of Rs. 2,000 – 3,500 is paid towards rental for such rooms. The houses lack safety exits in case of fire accidents.


In Ahmedabad, those residing in rented houses accessed either individual toilets or shared toilets. Those residing in worksites either were making use of pay and use toilets or were into open defecating. Those residing in settlements in open spaces were making use of mobile toilets. With multiple users of toilets and limited water availability, there were problems with maintenance of cleanliness of toilets. Women find it difficult to access gender neutral toilets. They are forced to defecate before 5 am in the open, sometimes 2 kilometres away from their locations. Those making use of pay and use toilets, end up spending about Rs. 300 a month towards toilet usage.

In Surat, five out of six migrants were dependent on shared toilets. Bathing, washing and cleaning utensils were done in a corner connected to drainage. Though there is closed drainage, sewage lines are filled up. Gutter lines contaminate drinking water supply. In rains, water logging is common. Garbage collection was considered to be good with door to door collection. However, officials consider migrants responsible for unclean environment.


Less than one-tenth households utilised the taps installed by Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. The water supply technically is for 2 hours in the morning and 1 hour in the evening. However, it is arbitrary. About twenty residents for upto about five to six households need to fill water during the period. Those residing in market spaces are forced to buy drinking water at Rs. 20 per litre. For the ones residing in construction and manufacturing locations, they need to get water that gets supplied for the said purpose. No access to treated water exists. Migrants are made to move from one residential society to another in search of water. The daily usage of water remains much below the prescribed norm of WHO of 100 litres usage per day. Untreated nature of water also makes them susceptible to water borne diseases. In Surat, the sources of water include bore-wells, piped water and government tankers. Water supply is erratic in specific months of the year.

Food and Cooking fuel

In Ahmedabad, none of the migrant households had access to public distribution system. They relied on open markets. Expenditure on food was high with the highest among those who lived in open spaces. The average expenditure on food was about 50% with slight variations among different occupational groups of migrant wage workers. In absence of storage spaces and cash, these were brought on a daily basis. There were also instances of workers taking tobacco to suppress hunger. Those in open spaces made use of anything for firing which could include garbage, pieces of plastic or cardboard, wood shavings etc. For those in rented locations, they rely on kerosene, gas or firewood. Cooking is done in cramped rooms. In Surat, migrants were able to procure LPG cylinders. However, they had to procure from black market at Rs. 950 to 1,200 per cylinder.


In Ahmedabad, migrant workers are subjected to a range of illnesses and accidents which include fevers and common colds, tuberculosis, dengue, malaria, jaundice, typhoid, respiratory and skin diseases. They are also prone to accidents, burns and cuts. In absence of a good public healthcare system, they go to private hospitals. Documentation work involved in public hospitals makes them to go to private hospitals. Costs sometimes go from a few hundreds of rupees to sometimes even over a lakh. In Surat too, dependence on private health care providers is higher. Health care costs ends up being about two and half times of what is incurred in village.


Children of migrants face difficulties in accessing education. Less than one-sixth of the households had put up their children in Anganvadis. For accessing school, Gujarati medium schools do not take children from other states where other languages exist such as Marathi, Odia etc is spoken. Only one out of seven children were immunised.

Each of the household earns income of Rs. 7,000 to Rs. 20,000 and about Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 11,000 is remitted to their villages. Given the shortage of income, investments on education, health care, shelter becomes difficult. Social connections such as with politicians, municipal office is limited. Hence they have limited abilities to influence decisions for their welfare in their favour. Documentary proofs such as voter id, aadhaar card, bank pass book are not with everyone. Hence providing address proof for accessing welfare schemes such as rations becomes difficult. Even the ones who have the said documents find it difficult to get the ration card.

Problem of circular migrants

Unlike the settled sections of urban poor, migrants cannot access services as they are not designed as per the needs of migrants. With neither the state nor employers guaranteeing those services, they rely on informal networks for accessing services such as housing, water, sanitation, food and healthcare. Informal arrangements in the larger political economy reduces their ability to negotiate such as demanding rental agreements, electricity receipts, demanding improvements etc. Accessing services through such networks are inadequate, arbitrary and comes with high physical, mental and economic costs. With neither the state nor employer agencies in charge of provisioning, the poverty conditions only get reproduced even for the next generation.

Migrant relationship with city

Migrants view the city as a place for maximising savings, which can be invested back in the village. Policy too emphasizes on permanent residence or domicility and does not recognize mobile citizenship. Just like permanent claims to urban basic services is legitimate, temporary claims to housing, water, sanitation, health care services should be recognized.

The national and state level policies on urban development, housing, health, livelihoods, sanitation, food security, women and child development, industrial development are inconsiderate of the needs of migrants. Labour migrants are at the receiving end of discriminatory politics and enumeration exercises. Urban development programs emphasise on the need to prove domicile status or permanence of residence in the city. Only this makes them eligible to access entitlements in housing, water, sanitation, food, nutrition, education and early child care. Hence there is a sedentary bias against the migrants. The urban planning exercises in its spatial planning exercises fail to take into account the movement of the migrants and addressing their needs. All the programs of urban development such as urban housing (PMAY) are hardly applicable for migrants.

Despite the huge contribution of migrant workers to the building and development of cities, there is hardly a recognition and acknowledgement. Their unique needs are not taken into account. In the absence of voting rights in cities, they have little possibilities to assert their unique needs.

Evictions are a part and parcel of everyday life experiences of migrants. They undergo these in pavements, railway or municipal lands and under flyovers. A systemic bias and discriminatory attitudes of officials contribute to this.

Pathways for inclusive cities

The report suggests pathways for building migrant inclusive cities. Provisions for accessing services must be legally mandated. The employer liability, accountability and responsibility must be fixed. The policy design should enable migrants to become part of networks such as workers unions, NGOs, community based organizations (CBOs) who can be approached to respond to their needs. Gender sensitive needs of migrant women need to be factored in. Provision of services needs to be delinked from domicile status. There need to be recognition and legitimisation of informal migrant settlements. Employer provisioning needs to be laid out. Public provisioning by state for housing, water, sanitation, healthcare, need to be factored in. Frontline workers and state level officials need to be sensitised in supporting and responding to the needs of the migrants. Bureaucratic procedures need to be simplified to respond to migrant needs. Spaces for fostering and building collectives of migrants and networking with platforms working on labour rights need to be ensured. Political agency of migrants need to be constructed.

Migrants form a legitimate constituency of urban citizens and hence deserve equal entitlements in public services. Hence a radical envisioning of citizenship is required, where not the domicile status but migrant contribution to cities should become the basis for providing them with services. Their entitlements to rights and their rights to the city need to be recognized.

The report provides greater details of how various schemes and policies both in theory and practice excludes migrants and how it results in their poor living conditions. It also lays pathways into how a radical envisioning could improve this situation. An important reading to understand migrant issue.

T Navin works with an NGO as a Researcher




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