COVID Lesson for India: Migrant Workers Must Get Social Housing

It is important that we look at slum rehabilitation & social housing through a disaster management perspective. 

4 min read

One of the most significant visuals that is going to remain in the minds of people once the lockdown restrictions are lifted, is the hoards of migrant labourers stranded near city borders. The majority of them grabbed whatever they could in a polythene bag, held their toddlers in their arms and tried to walk down miles to reach their villages in the absence of inter-state trains and buses.

Amid the discussion about how to provide relief and ration to these migrant workers, it is also important to find out where and in what conditions were these people residing all this while and what led to such a mass exodus.

Nearly 1.7 million
Estimated number of homeless residents in India, as per 2011 Census.

An Invisible Work Force: More Than Meets The Eye

The urban poor predominantly reside in slum clusters known as Jhuggi Jhopri Clusters (JJCs), Unauthorised Colonies and Resettlement Colonies. Geographically, the JJCs are close to the central core and other fully developed areas of the cities, as the poor try to reside closer to their workplaces. Unauthorised Colonies are built on lands that were not formally meant for housing and have expanded over the decades. They are also scattered across the cities, but mostly along the outer edges of the existing built-up area. Resettlement colonies are also found mostly along the peripheral areas.

These people live in crammed, rented accommodations hosting upto six persons in one small room.

Many of them are workers in dhabas or factories, and sleep on the roofs of the same shop or inside the factories themselves. Such industrial estates are often located in the peripheral areas of the city or just outside the municipal limits. Housing and Land Rights Network states that at any given point, there are roughly 2 lakh homeless persons in Delhi alone, while Census 2011 also indicates that there are close to 1.7 million homeless residents in India.

Roughly 2 lakh
Number of homeless people in Delhi alone, at any given point, as stated by Housing and Land Rights Network.

The Poorest Live In Worse Situations Than Slum Clusters

During this lockdown, slum clusters managed to fairly retain their population, while the migrant labourers residing in Unauthorised Colonies and Resettlement Colonies or on the pavements, were predominantly the ones who tried to move back to their villages.

This trend might be because over time, JJC residents, who have better access to city level infrastructure than persons living in peripheral areas, have accumulated the requisite documentation work (ration card, Aadhaar, voter ID, etc) which enables them to claim state benefits. Whereas people living on the margins are often not ‘settlers’, and move from one vocation to another as per the availability of opportunities.

Hence, contrary to the belief in policy and political circles that the poorest of the poor reside in slum clusters, it has been observed during this pandemic, that the poorest of the poor live in even more precarious circumstances and conditions.

This ought to compel the government to reimagine the discourse around provision of housing for the poor in cities.

These people always existed, and many previous studies highlighting the plight of rickshaw pullers, labour chowks, industrial workers, etc have been conducted.

However, the scale and magnitude of the collective informal sector was never fully established, especially through the lens of their spatial clustering and residential typology.

Fear Of Rapid Transmission of COVID in Slum Clusters

One of the greatest fears around controlling the outbreak of COVID-19 has been the fear around the rapid spread of the virus once a slum resident gets affected. Dharavi, in Mumbai, one of Asia’s largest slums, has already recorded 49 COVID-19 cases, and seven deaths related to the virus.

With people living in cramped spaces and sharing public toilets with inadequate water supply, it is difficult to maintain personal hygiene.

The situation in slum clusters could become worse in no time if each case is not traced and isolated quickly. The privilege of social distancing, isolation and quarantine in separate rooms or on different floors, is not applicable to low income settlements where the majority of households reside in one room accommodations.


Govt Must Move On From Obsession With ‘Smart Cities’ to ‘Smart Regions’

The situation also gives us an opportunity to revisit the age old argument for mainstreaming regional planning and developing more economic centres in India. The government must move on from their obsession with ‘smart cities’ to ‘smart regions’, so that the number of people migrating to the megapolis of Delhi and Mumbai can be contained in Tier II and Tier III cities. This is a long term intervention and requires a concrete shift in mindset as well as policy focus.

However, at present, it is an urban challenge to accommodate the large number of migrant populations in cities, and provide them with safe and habitable living spaces.

Another important feature which is stuck in policy lethargy is the debate over housing ownership and rental housing. Even after many attempts and multiple models to initiate mass scale rental housing projects, they have been discarded as failures, and concerted efforts to reimagine the idea after fixing the shortcomings is not being undertaken.

However, from the pandemic experience and the way landlords asked daily wagers to vacate their homes when they failed to pay their rents, again urges the need for State intervention in the provision of rental housing for the poor.


Looking Beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to pause and reflect upon the unjust cities we live in and the process which shapes such cities. We have two choices moving forward: to continue on the same path of market-led development, or choose a new path where we try to balance and prioritise the needs of the urban poor and accommodate them in our ‘smart’ cities.

It is important that we look at slum rehabilitation and provision of social housing through a disaster management perspective.

Our cities will have to mainstream the provision of social housing for the poor, both owned and rental housing as part of its mega infrastructure narrative to lay a solid foundation for creating healthy and sustainable cities in India.

(Aditya Ajith is an Urban Planner based in Delhi and works on the issues of housing and informality. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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