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The invisible migrant

By Amita Bhide

The city is harsh terrain for the roughly 100 million circular migrants who move around the country in search of livelihoods. The territoriality of policy renders them invisible, denied access to essential services such as housing, subsidised foodgrain and bank accounts. Urban policy needs to be re-imagined to understand the realities of migrants

The World Development Report 2009 titled Towards aNew Economic Geography argues that uneven development is a fact that needs to be accepted. Its arguments have strengthened the policy thrust in several developing countries, including India, towards promoting urbanisation as an engine for economic development. This has led to an emphasis on infrastructure development and reform in cities.

Inadequate policy attention has, however, been paid to migration which is the other side of urbanisation.

Globalisation and the advancement of transport and communication technologies have made migration a facet of everyday life. Cities competing with each other for global investment recognise that they need to attract migrants. These are migrants who make critical strategic decisions on location of capital, and who could be anywhere in the world. Attracting migrants is one of the reasons for large-scale investments in improvement of city infrastructure in India through projects like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). Migration of this category is obviously not just being accepted, it is being welcomed.

There is another category of migrants created by these very forces of development and connectivity. These are poor migrants who come to cities in search of better livelihood opportunities. Deshingkar and Akhtar (2009) estimate that there are roughly 100 million circular migrants in the country, based on a survey of grey literature. A bulk of these migratory movements are directed towards cities in sectors such as textiles, construction, small-scale industry (diamond cutting, leather accessories, etc), rickshaw-pulling, food processing, including fish and prawn processing, domestic work, security services, sex work, small hotels and roadside restaurants/tea shops, and street vending (Deshingkar and Akhtar, 2009). They find refuge in slums which are today being hailed as an ‘integral feature of Indian urbanisation’. These migrants who contribute significantly to the city’s economy remain on the periphery of society (Kabeer, 2005). A review of existing policy initiatives indicates a bias towards territoriality, rarely acknowledged. This article argues that an acceptance of various forms of migration is concomitant to the pursuit of urbanisation as a development strategy, and calls for a thorough policy reframing.

Migrant encounters with cities

The Indian Constitution recognises the right of movement.  As such, there are no restrictions on inter-region, intrastate and even interstate movement of people in the country. Similarly, there are no explicit bans or restrictions on entry to Indian cities. However, this is a far cry from the acceptance of migrants as legitimate citizens of cities. Several policies of state and city administrations are territorial in their orientation and discriminate against migrants, depriving them of basic amenities and development opportunities. Further, in recent times, city-level politics have tended to exclude migrants with the son-of-the-soil argument. Migrants therefore find cities extremely harsh terrain in which to survive. While this may seem like a very generalised statement, it holds true in particularistic ways for various groups of poor migrants.

Circular migration, implying the ongoing movement from village to town and city, and vice versa, significantly differs in temporality. Thus, there are those who migrate for a few days or a few months or perhaps a few years. Those who come for a few months are greatly dependent on contractors or local contacts; as they become more familiar they begin to seek footholds in the city. This is where their encounter with territoriality begins. The following is a review of some forms of territorialities experienced in Indian cities.

Services such as subsidised foodgrain, basic amenities and access to bank accounts enabling money transfers are extremely critical for migrants who move away from homes and who support dependants back home. Each of these services is linked to proof of local address.

The ration card is a document that guarantees access to subsidised foodgrain through the public distribution system. As such, it is a critical document for a neo-migrant. In several cases, migration splits the family thereby necessitating access to subsidised foodgrain in two places.  

The ration card is part of the public distribution system and has a colonial legacy in a controlled food market. In post-colonial India, it was unofficially elevated to a citizenship document in the absence of other widespread proof of the same and the dependence of a large section of urban citizens on public sector supply of fuel. These legacies are expressed through the protocol of issue of ration cards.

Of late, the ration card has been interpreted as a food entitlement project and there have been attempts to improve its targeting. This has included extending entitlements to several groups with uncertain addresses such as the homeless, destitute women, and migrants. However, these transitions have not been accompanied by changes in protocol. For migrants who may be dependent on their local contacts or employers for shelter, proof of address is not forthcoming.  This means that the provisions of government resolutions fall flat in the wake of practices that demand local addresses, proof of the same, and verification procedures.

What is true of the ration card applies in equal or more measure to other services like basic amenities (which are often linked to number of years of stay in the city) and bank accounts (requiring introduction by an account holder). Without access to subsidised foodgrain or fuel, migrants need to seek food options available in the market. Their access to basic amenities is contingent on the nature of shelter provided by their employer, its legal and policy status and the load on these services. Transfers to dependants are irregular and linked to friends or fellow villagers’ return visits in the absence of bank accounts. Each of these services is thus territorial in its orientation and adds burdens to the life of the migrant in the city, rendering him vulnerable.

Migrant market in Ahmedabad
Migrant market in Ahmedabad

A major window of opportunity available to migrants in the past was the political route. Migrants formed an important part of political constituency-building. This enabled them to gradually build footholds in the city. In the recent past, however, migrant groups in several cities have been targeted by political mobilisation based on the son-of-the-soil argument. Viewed as being responsible for the denigration of local culture and adding to the load on city infrastructure without contributing to it, migrants in a number of cities have been subjected to violence, harassment and intolerance.

Lack of services and political expulsion make migrants more dependent on their employer who becomes larger than life -- provider of a job, route to basic services, and support system in times of crisis. A vicious cycle of invisibility is now created with the migrant absent in crucial city data, the invisibility further resulting in non-access to city services and support systems.

The sole route available to migrants in this environment is the route of subversion. Realising that access to services is contingent upon citizenship to the city, the process of gaining a foothold begins with attempts to create new ration cards and enrolling names in the electoral register. Circular migrants with stakes in two places thus often have two ration cards and two electoral identity cards. This is essential to counter the territoriality of policy. Invisibility is thus countered by a dual visibility. And gaining such a foothold is not an easy process. It requires consistent, positive stake-building and may not be a choice available to all.

Re-imagining policy towards an acceptance of migrants

Migrants, in particular circular migrants, tend to be invisible in data and policy. Lack of a distinct political voice, an interface with the city overly determined by the employer, and invisibility translate to an overall position of extreme vulnerability with few supports and recourses in times of crisis. The individual struggles of migrants gain significance at a macro level because it also means that migration does not emerge as the balancing factor in uneven development, carrying the gains of urbanisation to ‘backward’ regions of the country. A positive acceptance of migration, inclusive of poor migrants, is essential for better gains for migrants as well as to manage the unevenness of development.

The core areas of re-imagination are, of course, policies for the improvement of work and living conditions. Current urban policies that seek to rehabilitate slums fail to understand the accommodativeness of these settlements towards migrants. Rehabilitation policies displace migrants; they need to be designed in such a way that they retain these accommodative modes. Labour legislation has consistently failed to reach out to migrants and informal sector workers, both in matters of understanding their realities and in their execution. While several models available in the country illustrate effective modes of improving the work and living conditions of these workers, there is a need to incorporate the learning of these experiences into the framing of legislation and its protocol.

Another important area for re-imagining policy is to extend basic entitlements such as food, social security and banking interface to people who are mobile. The UID (unique identity) project attempts to give an individual identity to every Indian citizen, irrespective of place of residence. As such, it has the ability to redress the issue of uncertain address and move beyond the limitations of state government schemes faced by interstate migrants. However, it must be understood that the inability to provide services to migrants is only partly linked to address proof or the lack of it. It must be backed by an overhaul of protocol, and the restructuring of services and entitlements at both source and destination to respond to the dynamic realities of households inhabiting multiple places, requiring support at both ends. The actual gains to be made from UID thus remain suspect.

The National Urban Poverty Reduction Strategy which could pioneer such changes is sadly remiss in its understanding of migration and its links with urban poverty. It proposes a safety net for the urban poor comprising food and energy subsidies and wage employment on a geographical basis on the basis of being a slum resident. These could be critical entitlements for migrants, but the likelihood of their exclusion from services as they have no locus standi as residents of slums is high. The links between migration and urban poverty thus need to be appreciated and acknowledged by policy.


In a context where urbanisation is pursued as a development strategy, acceptance of migration is essential. Migrants form an important component of the urban poor. Current policies are experienced as territorial and enhance the vulnerability of migrants in Indian cities. This blindness of policy is attributed to the invisibility of migrants in data. There is a need to redesign data systems to render them visible and to reframe policies to make them inclusive of migrants. Failure to do so will exacerbate uneven development in the country.

(Amita Bhide is Professor and Chairperson at the Centre for Urban Planning, Policy and Governance, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She researches on issues of urban poverty, migration, housing and citizenship)


Naila Kabeer (ed) (2005). Inclusive Citizenship: Meanings and Expressions, Zed Books, London
Deshingkar, P and Akhtar, S (2009). Migration and Human Development in India, Human Development Research Paper 2009/13, UNDP

Infochange News & Features, August 2013