Precarious Transitions: Mobility and Citizenship in a Rising Power

Over the summer of 2020, millions of migrants streamed out of Indian cities in the wake of the ill-planned lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 March 2020. The most conservative estimates suggest 30 million internal migrants in India (Ministry of Finance, Government of India 2018: 267). More realistic estimates peg the numbers at 140 million (Rajan et al 2020). If even half the most conservative figures are trekking back home, we are likely to be witness to the forced migration of at least 15 million people criss-crossing the country to get back to their homes. These numbers most likely dwarf the migrations wrought by the partition, estimated between 10 and 12 million people. At a time, millions have been cut adrift by the Indian state, we need to urgently reflect on what it means to be a citizen.

What meanings do citizenship hold for mobile populations? As a theoretical concept and a juridical category, citizenship is firmly anchored in assumptions of fixed territories and bounded populations. Several of these assumptions are challenged by political and economic transitions that mark the contemporary world. While some aspects of these transitions, such as political democracy and economic growth have contributed to unprecedented movement of people across local, regional and international borders, others, such as burgeoning inequalities and sedentary conceptions of the political community have rendered these transitions precarious.  

India’s 100 million circular labour migrants exemplify this “precarious transition.” The country produces dollar billionaires rising at the rate of 17 per year. Yet, more than 800 million Indians eke out a living on less than $2 a day. India’s democracy, imperfect as it is, has contributed to shaking the hierarchies that underpinned its social landscape for at least a millennium. But political and institutional constraints on people’s mobility remain, made possible by a sedentary conception of citizenship that does not take into account the mobile character of the population. Such constraints exacerbate socio-economic inequalities and poor people’s vulnerabilities.

The Precarious Transitions research project explored internal migration in India against the backdrop of rapid but uneven economic growth, political change and social transformation. The project design was multi-sited, reflecting the multilocational reality experienced by itinerant labour migrants. The ethnographic component of the research entailed that my research team worked closely with select families in a single village in the State of Bihar. While two researchers circulated along with migrant labourers between different localities for work, a third focused on the family members of the migrants who stayed back in the village. In addition, the study combined two surveys, covering 10,000 households, which gathered primary data from multiple “source” and “destination” locations, with group discussions conducted in almost 20 locations across India.

Brick by BRIC
Ankur Jaiswal, 4 December 2016
Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir
Labourers from Bihar construct a primary school in the erstwhile northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Internal migrants lay the foundations for India’s rapid economic growth, enabling the country to join the emerging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies.

A major component of the research was implemented in Bihar, whose 100 million people contribute significantly to the growing ranks of India’s labour migrants. The issue was raised in the election campaign of the state’s opposition parties in the just-concluded Vidhan Sabha elections. The post-poll survey conducted by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies–Lokniti suggests that migrant households, who made up 42% of their sample, preferred the opposition Mahagathbandhan (MGB) alliance over the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) by 5% points.

Atul Anand, 10 June 2016
Araria, Bihar
Workers in the eastern state of Bihar board minibuses to railway stations from where they will take trains to destinations often over 2,000 kilometres to the south and west of the country. Family members see them off before returning to their own domestic and waged labours.
Sleepover at the Station
Atul Anand, 31-07-2016
Saharsa, Bihar
Workers in Bihar wait to board trains to destinations often over 2,000 kilometres to the south and west of the country. In the absence of proper night shelters, they sleep on the railway platforms during their wait.
The Man in White
Ankur Jaiswal, 28-05-2016
On the train through north India
Men, women and children journey from eastern India to destinations in the country’s more prosperous north-western states. A labour contractor (such as the man in white) mediates between them and potential employers.

Escaping Caste: An Emerging “Rurban Cosmopolitanism”

The study departs from structuralist and culturalist explanations of labour mobility that either emphasise the salience of economic "pull" and "push" factors or highlight the importance of shared norms and values that supposedly motivate people to migrate. Rather the research situates migration from Bihar in the context of political change witnessed in the state during the 1990s which shook a calcified social structure and incubated ideas of social justice which in turn spurred people’s hopes for dignified lives. The study finds that migration is important for rural Biharis because it offers them the chance to move beyond the occupations and relationships that in their home villages are determined by caste. 

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of the people who iterate between different locations in India affiliate with historically oppressed communities, collectively known as Dalit Bahujans. These communities are driven by internal distinctions and have been labelled as ‘primitive’, ‘low caste’ and as ‘untouchable’. Caste is writ large across each panel presented in this journey.

Markets on the Move
Atul Anand, 23 November 2016
Ludhiana, Punjab
Vegetable vendors in towns across the north-western state of Punjab ply their wares on handcarts. They wheel their carts through the town by day and set up shop in allocated markets till late into the night. 

The research points to the ways in which Dalit Bahujan migrants combine different occupational identities—such as that of labourer and employer, and of industrial worker and agricultural farmer. Their political engagements straddle their rural and urban locations. 

Imagining a Dignified Future
Atul Anand, 4 August 2016
Ludhiana, Punjab
Workers congregate in squares across India to hire out their labour to the highest bidder. A billboard to honour B R Ambedkar, India’s foremost champion of social equality in the 20th century, reminds them not to give up on their imagination of a dignified future. 

Their repeated circulations between town and country make both these locales familiar to them, signalling an emerging “rurban cosmopolitanism.”

Circulations I
Atul Anand, 12 September 2016
Ludhiana, Punjab
Many workers return to their villages after receiving wages. Others remit monies through family, friends and neighbours. Although workers increasingly use financial institutions to route remittances, people continue to rely heavily on social networks. 
Urban Worker and Rural Farmer
Zaheeb Ajmal, 19 March 2017
Araria, Bihar
Gyanesh Mandal, who returned from the state of Kerala a few months ago, inspects his family’s sunflower crop. Gyanesh works as a floor assistant in a factory that manufactures shoes. Gyanesh plans to return as soon as the crop is harvested.
Labourer and Employer
Zaheeb Ajmal, 29 July 2016
Araria, Bihar
Kapuri Rishi supervises labourers who transplant paddy saplings on his farm. He works on the production line in a factory producing gas cylinders. His wages from labouring in a Bengaluru factory allows him to hire labourers for this arduous task. 
Circulations II
Ankur Jaiswal, 27 May 2016
Khagaria, Bihar
Millions of workers across India circulate between town and country throughout the year. India’s extensive railway system serves as a lifeline for labour migrants as they travel to and from their homes and destinations of work.
Circular Capitalism
Atul Anand, 29 June 2016
Araria, Bihar
A vendor at an open-air spice market sells his wares to customers. Earnings from sales in rural markets help people to save in order to migrate, just as remittances from vending elsewhere enables them to market their wares in rural markets. Such “circular capitalisms” are commonplace across India and, arguably, most of the world.

Sedentary Citizenship: The Antinomies of Freedom

The study highlights the vulnerability and marginalisation of migrant workers. Social and political rights in India are not portable. The country’s elaborate social protection regime hinges on the provision of entitlements to sedentary populations and excludes mobile people. Likewise, voting rights in the country remain tied to people’s villages of origin, effectively disenfranchising labour who are not always able to be present in their villages during elections. Key dimensions of citizenship—the rights to social entitlements, such as food subsidies and their right to vote—are invalidated the moment they leave their rural homes, where these entitlements are registered. Such a sedentary conception of social and political citizenship effectively restricts the population’s mobility. Coupled with the precariousness of informal employment in which labour migrants find themselves, the research points to the "immobile foundations of labour mobility" in India.

Ankur Jaiswal, 29 December 2016
Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir
A typical shack in which migrant labourers across India live. Between 10 and 12 workers from Bihar lodged here through the winter of 2016 when temperatures plunged to less than 2°C. 
Bare Necessities
Ankur Jaiswal, 28 June 2016
Ludhiana, Punjab
Lodgings of construction workers hired on casual contracts by the state government to build a university. Several groups of up to eight transient labourers lived here in quick succession through the summer of 2016, when temperatures touched 40°C. 
Pay Day
Ankur Jaiswal, 10 September 2016
Ludhiana, Punjab
Workers at a construction site gather around their labour contractor to receive wages.  Contractors often advance cash to workers, adjusting these against wages. Workers’ dependence on contractors means that workers rarely ever know their employers. 
Visible Risk, Invisible Despair
Omkar Gupta, 18 December 2017
Mumbai, Maharashtra
A migrant from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, Omkar Gupta sustained a serious injury while using the rubber moulding machine in a factory. The machines had no sensor, and the workers were not provided with any safety gear. Accidents and deaths are an everyday reality of several migrant workers. Seeking compensation under the Workmen’s Compensation Act is considered a privilege.
Below the Bare
Shreyas Sawant, 18 December 2017
Mumbai, Maharashtra
Migrant workers employed in Mumbai’s manufacturing and recycling clock in 12-14 hours of work daily. They earn less than the minimum wages declared by the government. In this bangle-coating unit in Mumbai's bustling Taar Gully area, workers who are mainly from the eastern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar earn Rs 6,000 a month. Some units also employ children below the age of 14 years.
Hanging by a Thread
Jitendra Pandey, 18 December 2017
Mumbai, Maharashtra
Jitendra Yadav works in a denim garment factory on Khairani Road in Mumbai. In this industrial, employers and workers boast about manufacturing all goods “from A to Z.” The migrants employed in the units here live inside the premises. In several cases, they are not paid overtime wages and are made to live under heavy machinery including boilers. 

Labour migrants do not only construct buildings, fire brick kilns, manufacture footwear, drive buses, but also sweep floors, clean trucks, sew clothes and deliver goods. They are indispensable to its economic growth. Their iteration across the country makes the idea of India a concrete reality. They build India from below.  

Constructing the City 
Ankur Jaiswal, 9 June 2016
Ludhiana, Punjab
Migrant workers are critical to the success of India’s construction sector, which underpins the country’s rapid urban growth. Despite this, their employment remains precarious, contracts are unheard of, and they rely on employers and contractors for basic provisions like food and shelter.
 The Mill
Atul Anand, 16 April 2017
Ludhiana, Punjab
Migrant workers are the backbone of flour mills such as this one, where wheat and paddy from the countryside are processed for consumption by India’s burgeoning middle class. They work over 12 hours a day and are allowed only one holiday a month. 
Behind the Discarded
Rameshchandra Prajapati, 18 December 2017
Mumbai, Maharashtra
Recycling is one of the most prosperous industries in Mumbai city, which provides employment to a large population of migrants. Every spare part is further pushed back into multiple product manufacturing chains. Here, Prajapati, a migrant from Basti in Uttar Pradesh, documents the workings of the metal scrap industry.
Inside the Tinderbox
Tushar Shetty, 18 December 2017
Mumbai, Maharashtra
Factories in the city's industrial area are tinderboxes. Tushar Shetty, a juice maker, has documented workers employed in a machine cutting unit. The units are dense, dimly-lit, poorly ventilated and have no provision for drinking water. They also have to pay additional money to use the public toilets that are located nearly a kilometre away from their workspaces.
Everyday Risks
Gokul Sharma, 18 December 2017
Mumbai, Maharashtra
A rather rare sight in Kurla's bustling Taar Gully, scaffolding material worker Gokul Sharma has documented a unit where workers are provided with safety gloves. However, workers continue to face the danger of losing their eyesight on account of constant exposure to sparks and heat.

Although migrant workers continue to be reviled and viewed with suspicion across the country, some states are beginning to recognise their contributions. In July 2017, Kerala’s Kochi Metro Rail Limited organised an official feast to thank the 800 migrant workers who were employed in the back-breaking job of constructing the metro. 

More recently, the state government has initiated the Apna Ghar scheme to provide dormitory-style housing for migrant workers. The government already offers free health care to its migrant workers. In 2010, Kerala became the first state in the country to provide benefits to job-seekers under the aegis of the Kerala Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme.

Apna Ghar (Own House)
Bhavanam Foundation, 7 November 2018
Palakkad, Kerala
A newly constructed housing complex designed to house 600 migrant workers in the State of Kerala. The complex is among the first in a series of dormitories that the State government proposes to build to meet the rising demands of housing by migrant workers. 
New Destinations
K Ravi Raman, 21 July 2018
Palakkad, Kerala
Kerala has emerged as an attractive destination for migrant workers from across India. Emerging research suggests that the factors for the State’s attractiveness to migrant workers range from the generous welfare provisions to higher wages and the “respect” accorded to workers in the State. As a State that exports labour to the Gulf countries, Kerala exemplifies the connections between internal and international migration. 

Also, in 2010, Punjab became the first state in the country to institute a migrant welfare board aimed at safeguarding the rights of migrant workers in that State. The Government of Maharashtra’s Department of Labour has partnered with the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Disha Foundation to initiate a grievance redressal cell dedicated to managing wage-related disputes between migrant workers and their employers. Other state governments such as that of Rajasthan and Gujarat are aided by NGOs such as Aajeevika Bureau who provide legal counselling to migrant workers, thereby enabling them to understand their entitlements under the law. 

Nevertheless, the Indian state, which presided over one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the world prior to the onslaught of the pandemic, could have done more.

Precarious Transitions and Disjunctions of Mobility and Citizenship in Postcolonial India

The continued social and political exclusion of circular labour migrants in India point to the antinomies of freedom. On the one hand, they are freer than ever before to journey to the destinations of their choice. But those very same freedoms disqualify them from exercising their social and political rights. 

The social and political exclusion of circular labour migrants inhibit the citizenship claims of some of India’s most vulnerable people, denying them the very right to have rights. Furthermore, they limit the potential of India’s economic growth and stunt her urbanisation. Perhaps most tragically, they prevent workers’ migratory journeys from translating into meaningful social mobility, thereby fragmenting possibilities of India’s transition into a country whose people enjoy the benefits of economic development and political democracy. 

The pandemic exposed the fault lines searing through state and society in India. The lockdown exposed the disjunctions between mobility and citizenship in India, exposing the immobile foundations of the former and the precarious trajectory of the latter. Modi’s announcement gave Indians exactly four hours to prepare for the lockdown. With little reliable information available, migrant workers (like everyone else) wanted to be with their families back in their rural homes during such a time of crisis. For many, there was little choice as employment opportunities in the towns shrivelled up, landlords threatened to evict them from their homes due to impending non-payment of rents, and markets shut down without them getting a chance to purchase essential food items necessary for their survival. As transport services shut down, they were compelled to undertake their journeys on foot, traversing many hundreds if not thousands of kilometres to get home. 
Over the next few months, national and international newspapers reported horrifying stories of migrant workers being harassed, humiliated and brutalised by the Indian state. One video emerged of the police accosting migrant workers walking from Jammu to Bilaspur through Badaun in Uttar Pradesh1 beating them up and forcing them to continue their journey leaping life frogs. Another emerged of police spraying migrant workers returning to their homes in Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly district ordered to strip and then being sprayed with chemical disinfectants purportedly to sanitise them.

Hundreds of people have died trying to reach their homes (The Wire Staff 2020).  Some (like 39-year-old Ranveer Singh) collapsed due to exhaustion, having walked 200 kilometres on foot under 35 degrees Celsius. Others (such as 18-year-old Lauram Bhagora) were run over by speeding vehicles on Indian highways. A one-year-old baby was among four people killed in a fire as they walked through a forest since no motorised transport was available. In May, 16 migrants were mowed down by a speeding train when they fell asleep on train tracks due to exhaustion. More recently, migrant workers aboard the special Shramik Trains initiated by the government died of hunger and dehydration since neither food nor water was available. A woman on one of those trains died soon after alighting her destination station also due to hunger and dehydration; a gut-wrenching video has been circulating of her little toddler trying desperately to wake her.  

Although the Indian economy is critically dependent on the country’s millions of migrant labourers, the state in India remains suspicious of its internal migrant workforce. In “normal times,” it seeks to politically and socially exclude them despite their Indian citizenship. Mobility promises members of historically oppressed communities an escape from caste but their precarious livelihoods disclose the immobile foundations of mobility. The pandemic has exacerbated this tendency and revealed the precarious trajectory of citizenship among migrant workers in India.


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