Thursday, February 25, 2016

Migrant Labour and the Big City

As if a symbol of the immense inequality that characterizes life in any big Indian city, large buildings with jewellery shops that cater to the affluent classes conceal a community of migrant rickshaw pullers from the sight of passing cars on the busy road. These migrant workers are integral to urban socioeconomic life but excluded from the benefits of citizenship. Living in slums, they are harassed by the police and ignored by an apathetic government. Yet, as they tell me, despite all of the issues it entails, living in the big city is far preferable to life in the dry countryside from which they come. “My village was very dry this year, as the rains never came”, says Ram Vilas, a rickshaw puller who came to Delhi merely six months ago. Despite having completed secondary school in his village, plying rickshaws was the only job he could find when he came to live in Delhi. Back in his village in Datia District in Madhya Pradesh, there is no government support for poor farmers. His family remains in the village, but he is not satisfied with the education his two daughters receive there.

Yet all is not stark. Conditions appear to be improving, even if slowly. Thanks to Maitri, Ram Vilas now has a Ration Card, UID Card, and Below the Poverty Line (BPL) card that enables him to access government benefits. Health camps are regularly organized. Awareness about HIV, and the importance of safe sex is spreading among the rickshaw pullers because of Maitri as well. The shelter built by the Delhi government for the homeless in the community is well maintained, mostly thanks to its caretaker, Fotolal, a jovial middle aged man himself a former rickshaw puller. Under government schemes, two flush toilets were recently built for members of the community. There is an anganwadi and free food is provided to the children of some of the rickshaw pullers who have brought their families to live with them in Delhi.
On my way out, these observations leave me with a sense of cautious optimism about the future. I am optimistic because of the concerted effort on the part of non-profit organizations such as Maitri, amongst others, to improve the lives of migrant workers in big cities. However, the structural conditions of an iniquitous economic system that oppress migrant labour continue to exist. Immense wealth has been created for a tiny sliver of the Indian population because of rapid economic growth. However, much of this growth is jobless, with large sections of Indian society left out. Many of those excluded come from rural areas, since Indian agriculture is in deepening crisis. For a basic livelihood, farmers need to migrate to the big city, where jobs are scarce. As I see it, only when all levels of government assume the democratic mantle of working for all people, by investing in housing, healthcare and education for all citizens, can the conditions perpetuating poverty and inequality be eliminated.

Shatrunjay Mall
Connecticut College

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