The Migrant Worker in India’s Urbanization Trajectory

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”    -Jane Jacobs

Urbanization as Development

The pace of urbanization in the Global South, particularly in India, is pivoted on large-scale migration from hinterlands to cities and medium towns in search of livelihood. The unequal resource distribution among certain castes and agrarian distress, as collateral damage, in rural areas are some of the major reasons for increasing city-ward migration in India. A staggering 100 million circular migrants can be an outcome of the above mentioned possible causes of deprivation in rural areas. The globalization has positively influenced the growth of the middle class and its expansion in India (Chatterjee, 2004). The globalization failed to trickle-down its positive effect to the hinterlands rather the same phenomenon, relentlessly, exploited the natural resources in hinterlands to boost the accumulation in cities and its global economic chains in particular (Sachs, 1997). The workers with ever denigrating living conditions had remained to be the lowest in the global value chain (Saxena, 2018). The increasing uneven development is the result of the development framework that our system has started embracing since the economic reforms. As Arturo Escobar (1994) argues that the uneven development and the unbridgeable economic inequality are inherent to Market Economy.

Related: Rural-urban continuum and causes of rural-urban continuum

Exclusionary Urbanism and Policy Outlook

The mega projects in the Indian city, worth thousands of crores, fail to serve the majority of its citizens due to its exclusivity in the policy framework. Metro project is the only large-scale investment made in last twenty years in Mumbai towards the mass transit while the Coastal Road Project and Bandra-Worli Sealink, worth thousands of crores, are under implementation to serve the commuters by cars who are 7% in number. Such exclusionary urbanism had always an instrument to hierarchically prioritize the citizens on the basis of ability to pay tax. The other form of the same is the prioritization and preferential treatment of incoming migrants by the city authorities, and city in itself (referring to communal politics and native repulsion towards migrant workers- son if the soil), on the basis of skill set and their destination sector (formal/informal sector) which clearly exemplifies the exclusionary policy outlook and the gravity of repulsion in the city.

Lower Parel

The increasingly minimal role of the state to address the problems and deprivations of migrant workers is the clear depiction of the crisis of society (Sachs, 1997). The intervention of the state, required in safeguarding the worker’s right to dignity of work and the safe/protected workplace is dismal. The externalities of such apathy in policy outlook have overarching vulnerabilities involving the increasing dependency and exploitation of worker and the possible fatalities due to improper implementation of labour protection laws in ensuring the safety and security. The possibilities of such apathy in policy framework and systemic failure might replicate the likes of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. The fact that a major chunk of these migrant workers is employed in poorly regulated sectors like textiles, construction, small-scale industry, rickshaw pulling, food processing, domestic work, security services, sex work, low-end eateries and street vending illustrates the necessity of greater attention of policy-makers before it deteriorates further.

Related: The Urban Dichotomy: Capitalism and Urbanization

Migrant Worker in the City

The relentless efforts of the city to be on the global picture and to showcase as a resourceful space, through projects promoting the infrastructure development, is to attract international capital and also to draw human resource from hinterlands and towns to be employed by the invested capital. This demand of the city for human resource is preferentially techno-managerial class and not the traditionally skilled (referring to traditional artisans) or unskilled although they fill the gaps of the formal sector through the informal sector (referring to domestic workers, construction workers, security services etc.). The technology and finance are bridging the gap between the cities in the global age while the very phenomenon is collapsing the chains of nexus between the city and its rural surroundings. In this global age of connected cities and isolated hinterlands, the rule of survival of the fittest has transformed into the survival of the richest as the status of migrant to a city as a technocrat or an investor is welcomed into the system with incentives. Both the roles of technocrat and investor are symbolically rich and essentially contribute to the city’s accumulation whereas the city’s turf remains repulsive to poor, despite their efforts to formalize their existence.


The inability of policy-makers to accept the migrant worker by facilitating the provision of subsidized food-grains and fuel due to the identity crisis is ultimately leading to the existential crisis of the migrant workers, as they are unable to find a way out. The dependency of the worker on the employer for availing the basic services and as the only support system in the time of crisis doesn’t just reveal the status quo of the worker’s vulnerability but it also strengthens the masses’ rhetoric of that the democracy is blind and deaf to demands/necessities of the poor. The realization of the worker to possess dual ration card and dual electoral identity card in order to gain access to subsidized services and to gain recognition from the political system as a potential vote bank is a gradual development which may not be feasible in every individual’s case considering the dynamics like temporality and the sector of employment. Corporators play a major role in Indian cities in mobilizing these migrant workers to create a faithful vote bank by helping them in availing their double identity and ration cards.

The low or no negotiating power of workers with employer for wage is further crippled with their exclusion from banking system due to the territoriality of the policy. Exclusion from banking system has impacts beyond just a secured savings account. The monthly transfer of money to family back in the village remains the major concern to hold an account rather than availing any kind of other banking services which are largely unknown to them. The recent Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana was solely intended for financial inclusion of those who are lacking bank accounts, basically poor and rural. The territoriality of the same policy failed to help the migrant workers (urban) as they lacked recognized address proofs in the city while it succeeded (also questionable due to data manipulations and increase in inactive accounts) in rural areas. While all this exclusion in policy jeopardizes the migrant worker, the inscrutable measures like demonization had collapsed the entire informal sector and left the lives of migrant workers beyond restoration to normalcy for a long time. During the consequential turmoil of demonetization, many migrant workers left their jobs and resorted to returning back to their villages. Demonetization tested and succeeded in obliterating the resilience of informal sector.

The systemic exclusion of migrant workers in policy-making has led to the absence of data. The absence of data will be disadvantageous to formulate policies targeting the migrant workers. This vicious circle can be tackled only by a shift in policy outlook of our native masters. The necessary steps to be taken in accepting the migrant workers and to collect the data to serve them. The continuity of bureaucratic and political blind eye towards the migrant worker might further worsen the situation to subvert the system itself.

Conclusion: Reflections and Policy Recommendations

The post-independence visionary leaders of our country over-emphatically envisioned the self-sustaining villages and romanticized the idea behind it, asserting the notion of, villages as Indianness (Chatterjee, 2004). Thus, despite rich and poor differences rural voter, also because of the staggering 67% India’s population as rural, remained to be the important player in the game whereas the lack of idealistic visions for urban created political vacuum between the urban voter, as a vote bank, and politicians (Ibid). Therefore the rich and the poor in the city are continuing to be on either side of the political spectrum since the rich can lobby or contribute to political parties and urban poor remains as the victim of several political manipulations or being left out. Maybe the migrant worker still has a long way to gain acknowledgment from the politics and bureaucracy.

The migrant workers’ encounter with territoriality of the policy rendered to their invisibility or dual visibility, as the policy is spatially bounded. The absence of some kind of sub-structural paralegal arrangements (Chatterjee, 2004) for the inclusivity of the migrant worker into the system is not to be neglected since such arrangements in several Indian cities had been successful in formalizing and providing the amenities to urban poor, slums in specific (Banerjee, 2010). I believe the absence of necessary data to address the identity crisis and absence of amenities provision is to be dealt with commissioning a government missionary to collect the data of migrant workers and their conditions. It can be the first step in formulating further long-term policy solutions. Though it seems utopian to skeptics, the proper implementation of Aadhar (UIDAI) is instrumental to dilute the spatial boundedness of policy. It redefines the territoriality of policy and, subsequently, enables the migrant workers to avail basic amenities like subsidized food grains and fuel. As an effect it will also emancipate the migrant worker from the clutches of dependency.

Note: The article is largely inspired from The Invisible Migrant article written by Prof. Amita Bhide, Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai


Banerjee, S. G. (2010). Revisiting Accumulation By Dispssession. Delhi: Sage.

Bhide, A. The Invisible Migrant. Infochange News & Features, August 2013.

Chatterjee, P. (2004). Politics of the governed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sachs, W. (1997). Post Development Reader. London: Zed Books.

Saxena, D. S. (2018). Understanding the role of “place” when addressing labour rights in global supply chains. BlogURK .

Also Read: Influence on Urban Planning by Kevin A. Lynch