'I Don’t Have the Option to Rent a House': How Migrant Workers Differ From the Urban Poor

The mass exodus of migrant workers from cities after the nationwide lockdown has amplified the housing crisis for migrant workers in cities.

‘Low-income migrants’ in cities have always subsumed under the blanket, but arguably vague, term ‘urban poor’. This categorisation overlooks the mobility dimension of migrant workers’ lives where they are constantly moving between places in search of work, following capital. The government’s own estimates also indicate that with each passing year, the rates of migration in India are increasing.

This ongoing ‘circulation’ between places is what makes the needs, including housing requirements, of migrants different from those of the other ‘urban poor’ in cities. While central and state governments have launched several housing policies over the years to promote ownership-based housing for the ‘urban poor’, but the housing requirements of migrant workers remain neglected.

The mass exodus of migrant workers from cities after the sudden announcement of a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus has amplified the housing crisis for migrant workers in cities. Migrants were forced to leave due to their inability to pay rents for rooms after losing their jobs.

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In response, the central government launched the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHCs) – a new rental housing policy targeted towards migrant workers – as a sub-vertical under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) mission. This policy aims to achieve “Housing for all” and “incentivise public/private entities to leverage investment for creating affordable rental housing stock” for the low-income migrant workers in cities.

It is thus crucial to understand what housing means to migrants in cities? And how can cities be made more liveable for migrant workers? To answer some of these questions, I interviewed several migrant workers in the national capital region to understand their experiences and perspectives.

An asset, but not necessarily shelter

Suraj Das, a 42-year-old migrant worker from the East Medinipur district of West Bengal. lives with his family in Chirag Delhi. He first migrated to Delhi in 1999 with the help of his elder brother, who was also working in Delhi, but recently moved to Gurgaon. Over the last 20 years, Suraj has lived in multiple neighbourhoods across Delhi, and yet he maintains a strong connection with his village – he visits his village at least twice a year to meet his parents.

He works as a security guard at a guest house in the morning from 5 am to 11:30 am and then sells bhaji (fried vegetables) in the evenings from 5 pm to 9 pm. “After working in Delhi for the last 20 years I have bought a house with my elder brother in Sangam Vihar. But I don’t live there because I work in Chirag Delhi. I rent a one-room apartment in Chirag Delhi, which allows me to do both the jobs everyday,” he said.

For Suraj, buying a house in Chirag Delhi was an investment in his future, but he prefers to live in the rental accommodation which allows him to change his housing location with the change in his work location and do multiple jobs at the same time to augment his earnings.

An opportunity cost that affects remittances

27-year-old Bittu Bansal, another migrant from Rajasthan, lives with his grandmother in Malviya Nagar. He previously lived with his parents in Jagdamba camp. His father had a transportation business, but had to end it after he became a victim of fraud, and was subsequently forced to sell his jhuggi (slum) at Jagdamba camp, and returned to his village in Rajasthan. Bittu decided to stay in Delhi with his grandmother. He now runs a tea stall and lives on the pavement.

“Nobody can change the past. Now I have to run two families, one in the city and another in my village. I don’t have the option to take a house on rent. If I did that, how will I send money to my parents?” The opportunity cost of renting a home would mean the inability to send any savings home. He has taken a conscious decision to not take a room on rent to run two households from his limited income.

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Preserving cultural ties, and enabling skill-based networking

40-year-old Ismile Khan is a second-generation migrant who lives with his family in Seemapuri and runs a scrap or waste recycling ‘kabaddi’ enterprise. His father first came to Delhi from West Bengal’s East Medinipur district thirty years ago. After working in the city for more than two decades his father was able to build a double story house in Seemapuri for his family.

Ismile now lives on the ground floor and rents out the top floor. His parents moved back to their village due to the lack of space. Ismile who now has a growing family of his own rents out the top floor. “My parents are old and couldn’t continue their cycling work in the city. So they decided to return. I only rent the room to known people from the village who are skilled and understand the waste-picking trade,” he said. For Khan, the house is a means to supplement his household income, sustain his ethnic-network and maintain ties with his home in Bengal.

Finding familiarity

Altab Hussein, a 30-year-old migrant, is from the Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal. He lives with three other male migrants from his village. In the last few years, Hussein has worked in multiple cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kochi. After the nationwide COVID-19 induced lockdown he managed to find work as a mason in Delhi through his friends and connections working in the city. He now works under a Delhi-based contractor and his roommates – who also hail from the same district – work under him as labourers.

“Living with people from the same place gives me a sense of familiarity. We have similar tastes; we cook food together and distribute the room rent equally amongst ourselves which also helps to reduce the cost of living in the city,” he sadi. For Altab and other single male migrants, these shared spaces enable them to build further connections which anchor their mobile lifestyles across cities in search of work. It also helps them to maximise remittances that support the money order economies back home.

Also read: COVID-19 Reverse Migration Calls for Long-Term Rural Development Planning

These narratives have shown that the housing requirement of migrant workers is different in the city from those who engaged in a temporal cycle of migration. It is not always a self-owned physical space or dwelling unit where they can ‘settle’ or live permanently. It is more so, an affectional space that provides migrants with the flexibility to move depending upon the availability of work, to build networks, reduce the cost of living, maximise remittances and sustain in networks in multiple locations.

Malay Kotal is an urban researcher working on issues of housing and migration. He is currently working as a research consultant at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi.