What If Our Migrant Workers Had Safe Homes in Cities? Just Imagine

We must recognise that giving rental housing to workers will build residential infrastructure for a thriving city. 

Published
Opinion
8 min read
A migrant worker from another state looks through the window of his room in Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, during lockdown to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Image used for representational purposes.
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Think ye that building shall endure,
Which shelters the noble and crushes the poor?
-
James Russel Lowell, c. 1850

When the tragic exodus of tens of millions of workers from urban and industrial areas in cities and towns across the country is written into the annals of Indian history, it might be noted as the collective failure of India’s public and private sector employers and industrialists to ensure that their workers – who add the value to their goods and deliver their services – are inhabiting decent homes and have access to basic services. Especially in the cities, these were not part of the demands routinely raised by corporate honchos and businessmen when approaching governments and elected representatives, and workers have for decades been sent to live in hovels in the ubiquitous slums.

“The Sea of a Mighty Population... Heaves Uneasily in the Tenements...”

India’s imagination of how the poor and the migrant lives in our cities is shaped by the archetypal image of the chawl in Mumbai, which still exists and may accommodate ten people in a room the size of an elite kitchen. Many of the migrants fleeing from our cities were living in such inhuman conditions, no different from the slum-like tenements that housed over 25 percent of New York’s population after the American Civil War, documented through detailed accounts and photographs by Jacob Riis, who published ‘How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York’ in 1890. America put new laws in place to safeguard the lives of workers; after more than a century, India is yet to do so.

The central dilemma posed by such a housing crisis was captured by Riis in his inimitable style:

“The sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heaves uneasily in the tenements… The gap between the classes in which it surges, unseen, unsuspected by the thoughtless, is widening day by day. No tardy enactment of law, no political expedient, can close it. Against all other dangers our system of government may offer defence and shelter; against this not. I know of but one bridge that will carry us over safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts.”
Jacob Riis

Affordable Rental Housing For Workers: Foundation of a New Social Contract

A migrant worker carries his family on a bicycle on his way to his native place, during the 21-day lockdown across the country to contain the COVID-19, in New Delhi, Friday, 27 March 2020.
A migrant worker carries his family on a bicycle on his way to his native place, during the 21-day lockdown across the country to contain the COVID-19, in New Delhi, Friday, 27 March 2020.
(Photo: PTI)

The Government of India’s intention to promote ‘Affordable Rental Housing Complexes’ (ARHC) in Indian cities is a welcome acknowledgement of a major gap in our policies, and has the potential to alter the entire landscape of urban India. However, a word of caution would be apt. Unlike the glut of middle class and elite housing units that have preoccupied governments and developers till now, and which burdens our economy with a huge portfolio of stranded assets, workers’ housing is less a commodity and more an infrastructure to enable the transition of the workers and their families into an improved standard of living.

It is our responsibility as a society to ensure that the people who build the city can find a home in it; not through charity but by giving them the opportunity to make this economic transition without being dehumanised.

The Prime Minister of India had once said that “cities digest poverty.” It is by accommodating our workers that poverty is digested and converted through opportunity and human development. The fact that the city is where employers and employees might live cheek by jowl is the essence of the equity and social justice that cities are uniquely able to deliver. It is also the essence of the Gandhian principle of ‘trusteeship’ – that the employers, the dominant class that influence policy, should be concerned with the living conditions of their employees. Affordable rental housing for workers can be the foundation of a new social contract.

Migrants board a crowded bus to their native village, during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Ghaziabad, Saturday, 28 March 2020.
Migrants board a crowded bus to their native village, during a nationwide lockdown imposed in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, in Ghaziabad, Saturday, 28 March 2020.
(Photo: PTI)

Will ‘Affordable Rental Housing Complexes’ Offer Freedom to All Genders to Work at All Hours?

A few critical dimensions ought to be considered while framing the guidelines for the ARHC. First, it is important to get a better understanding of the demographic mix of residents, assuming the intent is to be inclusive rather than exclusionary. The official description of the direct beneficiaries – ‘migrant workers/urban poor’ – circumscribes a vast range of people who occupy the city. A few of these types can be extracted from the various schemes mentioned in the relief package, and each one reveals a different aspect. It can be surmised that street vendors, a large number of whom routinely slept on the footpaths of the city, should be accommodated. In that case, would the ARHC provide parking or storage space for their carts and vending platforms? All manner of ‘gig workers and platform workers’ will conceivably get access to this housing.

A significant issue will be gender.

The government has been bold in declaring that “all occupations [are] opened for women and [they are] permitted to work at night with safeguards.” The question will remain whether the ARHC can be designed and managed in such a way that the freedom for women to work at all hours and in all formal occupations is safeguarded.

How Will Rental Housing Complexes Be Distinguished From Slums?

It is fair to expect that the rental housing complexes will be distinguished from slums, not merely because they will have fancier construction – history tells us that neglect and squalor can convert even palaces into slums – but because they also contain the facilities that are required for organised living. Facilities like primary healthcare and fitness, convenience shopping, laundries (that can save water), grooming salons and entertainment parlours can make these complexes self-sufficient as well as manageable in the event of emergencies.

The management of the ARHC can include the single-window delivery of social protection schemes, now portable welfare benefits as well as rations and other emergency aid at the time of crisis. New and stringent standards of occupational safety and health must apply to the physical infrastructure and the operations and maintenance of the ARHCs.

ARHC Can Be Point of Delivery for New Re-Skilling Programmes

An aspect that holds particular promise is that the ARHC can be the point of delivery for new re-skilling programmes that have been envisaged for retrenched employees and migrants who may come back to a very different city than the one they left. If we imagine that these complexes can also attract a shift of tenants from slums into formal housing, we can appreciate the enormous pool of skills that will be available within the resident population. Take the example of a category of migrants that will be availing benefits under the compulsory afforestation scheme in the relief package, whereby ‘afforestation and plantation works’, ‘artificial regeneration and assisted natural regeneration’, ‘urban forest management’ and ‘soil and moisture conservation works’ can be undertaken by indigenous communities migrating into urban areas. These are ecosystem services and green jobs in the best sense of these terms, and they could regenerate and maintain urban green areas to create the green and blue infrastructure and the recreation areas for the city residents, which are likely to be in greater demand in the world of social distancing and greater health awareness.

Think then, of the numerous crafts and other occupations followed by residents of slums, and you can imagine the paradigm shift that can be effected through the appropriate design and planning of the ARHC.

How Will Enough ARHCs Get Developed in a Reasonable Time Frame?

A worker with a child on his shoulder walks to his village amid a nationwide complete lockdown, on the NH24 near Delhi-UP Border in Ghaziabad, Thursday, 26 March 2020.
A worker with a child on his shoulder walks to his village amid a nationwide complete lockdown, on the NH24 near Delhi-UP Border in Ghaziabad, Thursday, 26 March 2020.
(Photo: PTI) 

While the ARHC offers great potential for introducing a paradigm shift in the way that Indian cities are planned and managed, there is a challenge that could prove to be insurmountable. The scheme is meant to be implemented through three channels:

  1. Converting government-funded housing into ARHCs through ‘public-private partnership’, by outsourcing the construction and management of the complex to a concessionaire
  2. Incentivising manufacturing units, industries, institutions, associations to develop and operate the ARHCs on their own private land
  3. Incentivising state government agencies and central government organisations to develop and operate the ARHCs

Even if we assume that the land parcels exist and will be made available for such use, it will help to get a sense of the magnitude of this challenge by doing a simple back-of-envelope calculation. Assume that the government’s estimate of 8 crore migrants, who require food-grain assistance under this package of measures, is a proxy for the number of people who need the rental housing.

Migrant daily wage laborers make the journey to their respective villages on foot following a lockdown amid concern over spread of coronavirus in New Delhi, India, Friday, 27 March 2020.
Migrant daily wage laborers make the journey to their respective villages on foot following a lockdown amid concern over spread of coronavirus in New Delhi, India, Friday, 27 March 2020.
(Photo: AP)

There are numbers like ‘50 lakh street vendors’ that could be thrown into this reckoning – but the key question is: How will ARHCs get developed in sufficient numbers in a reasonable time frame if, prima facie, it looks like this scheme might require twice the number of units than have been sanctioned under the ongoing ‘Housing for All’ program: One crore houses in five years? A solution might lie in the Rs 70,000 crore boost being provided in the package for the ‘middle income group’ housing by extending the CLSS (Credit Linked Subsidy Scheme). It might fit into the first channel and be converted into ARHCs through PPP. This is also mentioned as an initiative to “create jobs” and is expected to “stimulate demand for steel, cement, transport and other construction materials.” There will be opportunities to extract value for workers and the urban poor from such a trickle-down measure.

ARHC is a Good Idea – But Will Need Extensive Research and Development

There will be a natural tendency to assume that the ARHCs can be high-rise blocks and that the land owners can fit more blocks into the land by reducing the distance between blocks. This may be difficult without violating building codes, and may be anathema in an era of social distancing. An immediate lesson can be drawn from Singapore, where the high-rises and crowded housing for workers were worst affected by COVID-19. Match that with accounts from the Mumbai region, where affordable housing blocks have been constructed next to polluting industries and sometimes five feet apart, with lack of sunlight and corresponding public health risks.

Migrant workers walk to their villages amid the nationwide complete lockdown, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus, in Ghaziabad, Thursday, 26 March 2020.
Migrant workers walk to their villages amid the nationwide complete lockdown, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus, in Ghaziabad, Thursday, 26 March 2020.
(Photo: PTI)

The Affordable Rental Housing Complex is a well-intentioned idea that will require extensive research and development (R&D). It is an opportunity to make Indian cities more liveable for all residents, and can be a game-changer in the urban sector. However, it will require the best experts and the most detailed analysis to become a reality that does not bear the risk of perpetuating the inequality, disempowerment and exploitative practices that it promises to replace.

We should recognise that, in the final analysis, providing rental housing for workers is building the residential infrastructure for a thriving city.

This allows India to create the ‘thick’ labour markets and to bring together the diversity of as-yet-neglected talent that is necessary to create an innovation economy.

(Jagan Shah is Senior Infrastructure Adviser in the Department of International Development (India), Government of UK. From 2013 to 2019, he served as Director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs. He tweets @JaganShah. 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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