On March 24, Dilip and Chitto heard about the countrywide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19. Panicked, they tried to reach the railway station in Mumbai hoping to get on a train to make it back to Mayurbhanj district in Odisha. It was too late. They would spend the next month in their basti with no money, cooking whatever little food they could find, trying to sleep away the remaining hours — hoping to keep at bay the constant hunger, paralysing anxiety and desperate longing to be home.
Lockdown has been brutal on India’s urban poor, especially on the daily wage earners who work in the city far away from their villages and families. Thousands have rushed back, hiding in vegetable trucks, walking miles — babies in arms, bundles of belongings on heads, dehydrated, desperate and literally dying to leave the city. Neither Dilip nor Chitto find this surprising.
“When you feel vulnerable or when there is a problem, you want to be back in your own place, in your own community. Here, with no ration (grain) or water, we don’t know if we will survive,” says Dilip. Chitto agrees that it would have been different had they been in the village. “If we were home, somebody would worry about us and at least the community would jointly have food to spare,” says Chitto.
Both say that while employment in the city is key to their survival, when it comes to important life events — a marriage, a death, a local fair, a religious festival, or even a problem—these are times when you return to your roots, to where you really belong.
Telephone interviews* with 50 residents of eight bastis in Mumbai reveal similar opinions. Almost half of those surveyed had friends and neighbours who had left the city, and each of them knew at least 25 people who had fled back to their villages. Security, they believe, is the single most important reason for why people went or want to go back home. This was expressed as emotional security of being with loved ones, financial security to tide over an extended period of no income, and the physical security of owning land or a home in the village, literally having a place to occupy.
From their responses, it is clear that the overcrowded megacity feels risky to most. Perhaps less because of the virus and more because of their belief that the city’s resources are simply not available to the urban poor. Today, as Covid-19 cases in Dharavi (Asia’s largest urban settlement) are on the rise, the precarious life of the slum dweller is in spotlight. But the fact is, it was always precarious. In the blue tarpaulin-covered tin shed basti of Govandi, or the low-income public housing colonies in Mankhurd, doctors had already flagged the dangerous proximity, lack of space, and the risks of infectious disease.
The experience of living constantly on the edge can possibly be linked to the “outsider” label that has been hard for daily wage earners to shake off despite spending several years working in Mumbai. Dilip and Chitto, for instance, are no strangers to this city. The men remember leaving their villages as teenagers, going first to neighbouring cities like Hyderabad and Kolkata before ending up in Mumbai.
Chitto is uncertain about what to make of his relationship to the city. “Home is my village Kukudapada in Odisha. The city is…” he trails off, not knowing what to call the experience of working 70-hour weeks, paying a sizable chunk of what he earns for 40 square feet of space to occupy, in a room he shares with eight and a public toilet he shares with over a hundred. Unlike him, Dilip has no illusions. “The village will always be home; the city is simply my place of work,” he says even after having lived and worked in Mumbai for over a decade.
The notion of home is a complex one, as researchers and migration scholars acknowledge. When we asked residents of Mumbai bastis about how they define home, they described it as an experience more than a space in three broad terms. The first was around community and connectedness — having family, parents and elders around. The second was linked to feeling anchored: home is seen as the place of origin. The third theme was related to a sense of health and wellbeing. Villages, in their minds at least, were linked to open spaces, land, access to green areas, less pollution, better hygiene, and fresher food.
Only two of the 50 people interviewed believed there was any connection between “home” and the place where one went to work, regardless of the number of years spent there. The tragedy, of course, is that “home” is also the place they all had to leave in order to simply survive.
The conflicted feeling that arises from working and living in a place that is in fact so separate and far from “home” does not imply that daily wage earners or migrant workers do not acknowledge the positives. Beyond the obvious fact that there is employment and there are jobs, the biggest advantages of urban life were listed as the presence of doctors and hospitals, markets and schools. It is important to note, however, that the mere presence or proximity of infrastructure and services does not imply access. A UNICEF report (2012) argues that the common belief about urban children being far better off than those in remote villages and districts is inaccurate. Urban children in the poorest neighbourhoods of cities are frequently excluded, unable to access school, police, and free health services because of poverty and discrimination.
The daily struggle for survival has an impact on the confidence, sense of belonging, and security that most transplanted people experience. Author Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: Lost and Found described Mumbai as a hostile city groaning under the pressure of its population. “The city doesn’t want me any more than the destitute migrant from Bihar, but it can’t kick either of us out. So it makes life uncomfortable for us by guerrilla warfare by constant low-level sniping, by creating small crises every day,” he says, encapsulating the experience of people in bastis and their daily struggle for food, water, and access to toilets, buying vegetables only at the end of the day, because that’s when they got the cheapest rates.
Migration scholars also point out that the feeling of being an outsider is emphasised when one grapples constantly with chronic uncertainty, impermanence, and transience. Based on repeated experiences of being denied rights or being turned away, the poor daily wage earner is never assured that the city is his home or even that he has a right to the city.
It is not uncommon for a poor parent to have their child denied admission in a government school because they did not having the appropriate identity documents. This is only possible in an environment where poor and marginalised groups are either unaware of their child’s right to education or of the state’s duty to deliver on this promise. Neither does their experience in the city instill in such groups the confidence to access their right.
Dilip knows firsthand how impermanent life can feel and how easy it is to lose everything in this city. He tells the story of how he missed one day of work during the monsoon because he was ill, and was instantly fired, with no notice, no explanation, and no safety net. Chitto believes one should probably return home when there are financial shocks. He believes support can come in the form of families taking care of each other, small interest-free loans from family and friends up to 5,000 rupees, extra grain or food from community members, and the likelihood that community members are quick to activate their social networks to help find new jobs locally or out of state. “In the worst case, most us have a little land and can eat vegetables we grow, so we would not starve.” In the city, it is impossible to miss even a day of work,” reiterates Dilip, emphasising just how difficult the period post-lockdown will be.
In the end, survival wins over living life. Almost all those interviewed said people would return to the city for work once this was all over. This raises the question of what cities must do to prepare for a post-lockdown phase, which may present even tougher conditions related to coronavirus, monsoon flooding, malaria epidemics, or market realities. In such planning, policymakers, planners and administrators need to address the needs of this enormous but excluded group. What will it take to do this?
Author of Can We Solve the Migration Crisis, human rights lawyer and professor at Harvard Kennedy School, Jacqueline Bhabha asks countries to address what she calls the “acceptance, reception, and compassion crisis,” while designing policy. In the local domestic context (and perhaps belatedly for many who arrived in Mumbai years ago) this calls for an urgent review of the city’s collective response to the urban poor. First, to truly accept that those in slums and makeshift pavement homes are not returning to the village, but are here to stay and contribute to the city and therefore must avail of opportunities, as is their right.
This acceptance will be demonstrated when planning and administration addresses the specific needs of the group in terms of ensuring social protection and a sense of community. And finally, civil society in Mumbai also has an enormous responsibility to its workforce. Not merely to engage piecemeal through philanthropy but also to participate actively, as citizens, employers, landlords, owners, and administrators at schools, hospitals, businesses as media and cultural influencers. Every citizen has a right to the city.
*Telephone interviews by Jayshree Balwade and Khushboo Motihar with 50 residents of Mumbai bastis in Wadala Transit Camp, Malwani, Govandi, Raey Road and Antop Hill.