As Migrants Begin their Long Trudge to Nowhere, A Note on Migration in Delhi: Jamal Kidwai

Guest Post by JAMAL KIDWAI

Most of the people in Delhi, like in rest of India (according to official estimates, 92 per cent of India’s work force comprises of informal labour) earn their living from working in the informal sector. There is extensive academic literature on this subject.  Typically, informal economy is that which does not find mention in official data, is not formally registered and regulated and falls outside the tax regulation.

The concept of informality became current in economic and social thought in the early 1970’s. It has since been re-considered and re-interpreted. The idea that the informal sector presented a liminal space for workers waiting to be absorbed by the formal sector, has been negated. Instead, current trends suggest that a majority of the Indian work force (approx.92%) labour under short-term informal contracts.  Well-known labour historian Jan Bremen has somewhere written that the fact the informal economy is not officially regulated does not imply a complete absence of regulation. There are many unofficial means of regulation. Quite often activities that do not possess registration and legal sanction get denoted as informal or ‘underground’. This practice results in the official erasure of the economic value of the goods and services produced therein. It also serves the purpose of masking the over-exploitation and socially-levered extortion to which the most unprotected and vulnerable members of the working class are subjected.

This is not an academic article. It is primarily a sketch of the nameless and faceless mass of people that we see trudging along the highways in these lockdown days. It is mostly based on anecdotal evidence and modest experience that I have of working with labour unions and NGOs. I just try to broadly map the political-economy and sociology of those who work in different informal sectors of Delhi

The Broken Data

According to official data of the 2011 census, 30 per cent of Delhi’s nearly 20 million (2 crore) Delhi’s population live in slums. However, this is clearly an underestimation.  Other studies have shown that nearly half of the total population lives in slums.

Vast majority of the people who live in slums are migrants. There are several sectors that employ these migrants and very scattered data is available on the subject. The largest sector employing the migrants in Delhi is the construction sector, which comprises of over 11 lakh workers, out of which only 37000 are registered. So only these people will be able to avail the schemes announced by the Delhi government during the lockdown. Other large sectors which employ mostly migrants are waste-picking (3-4 lakh), cycle rickshaw (5 lakh, until e-rickshaws came along), street vendors (3-4 lakhs), garment workers (3 lakhs),  auto rickshaws (2 lakh), taxi drivers (2 lakh), housemaids ( 1 lakh), Nepali workers (1 lakh plus, they mostly work in small dhabas) and e-rickshaws (1.5 lakh). Besides them there are numerous other sectors where the migrants work, like the huge industrial areas in Delhi and small factories. Many of these sectors are relatively recent and outcome of rapid urbanisation, housing societies and e-commerce. Jobs like security guards, delivery boys, restaurant workers, plumbers, electricians, dhobis, car cleaners, and other such jobs cater to these new demands.

But because there is no data, the above figures are certainly conservative and the real numbers in each of the jobs mentioned above will actually be much larger.

Sociology, Caste & Occupation

There is always a close resemblance of the sociology (kinship, caste, region) of the rural hinterland in the everyday lives of migrants in Delhi. So migrants working in certain occupation and a certain locality come from not only a particular region of India but also belong to certain caste. These hierarchies and locations also define their relationship with the state and the kind of discrimination they face.  So for example, all the traditional chowkidar, who used to keep us alert with their sound of stick and whistle at night, (before the uniformed guards) came from just one district, Acchan in Nepal, and they all belonged to one particular dalit caste. Similarly, vast majority of the waste pickers come from Malda, Murshidabad and neighbouring districts of Bengal. Most of them are Muslims, and are accused of being ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’.

There was huge migration post liberalisation from Bhojpur region of Bihar and eastern UP.   The first generation of uniformed gaurds mostly came from eastern UP and were upper caste (Mishrajis, Pandeyjis).  That was also the time when the Punjabi auto rickshaw drivers became a minority to the upper caste auto rickshaw wallas from UP and Bihar. Very large number of plumbers in many parts of Delhi are from Odisha, car cleaners from AP, rickshaw pullers from Nalanda, Katihar, Purnea in Bihar.

However, many of these occupations are getting democratised and their social profiles are getting diversified. All informal sector workers face a certain degree of violence, harassment and abuse. But there is often a correlation between the degree of harassment and the status of the particular occupation in the labour (and caste) hierarchy. So we often see a cycle rickshaw puller being slapped and his tyres being deflated. But a auto or a taxi driver driver may get away with a chalan for same kind of offence. (Something similar to the way chemical was sprayed to migrants in Bareilly, as opposed to those who arrived from abroad at airports). The violence is also getting democratised and now those who get away are lucky.

This migration post 1990s changed the demographic profile of Delhi in such drastic manner that the political and electoral hegemony of Punjabi refugees and Jats, mostly associated with the BJP, has been taken over politicians belonging to UP and Bihar. Now many leaders in the Delhi political power structure cutting across parties belong to these region (Shiela Dixit, Manoj Tiwari, Sanjay Singh, Gopal Rai etc).

Demolition of and Relocation of Migrant Slums

There have been regular forced and sometimes ‘planned’ demolition of slums. The most notorious was the Turkaman Gate demolition during the emergency carried out by Sanjay Gandhi. It has been excellently documented in a book For Reasons of State: Delhi Under the Emergency by John Dayal and Ajoy Bose. They were relocated in east Delhi. Similarly there was a big demolition in Nizammduddin and relocated in Bawana region north Delhi.

In mid 1990s, hundreds of industrial units were closed on the pretext of curbing pollution that led to large scale displacement of labour. The industrialist then sold that land at lucrative price to real estate developers, who build malls and housing societies when the real estate sector was booming.

Another brutal demolition took place in 2004 at the Yamuna Pusta to make DTC bus shed for the Commonwealth Games. They were resettled in north Delhi’s Bhalswa. But there have been many other frequent demolitions. Friends like Amita Baviskar (her recent book Uncivil Society), Dunnu Roy who heads Hazard Centre, Harsh Mandar (Karwane Mohobat) and has been working with the homeless, Gautam Bhan and others have done detailed studies on these subject. Several womens groups like ActionIndia, Sablasangh, Jagori a dn others besides many small trade unions have been  working with these communities and are doing extensive work with the migrants in these troubled times.

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