Migration, Migrants, and Right to the City — A Lecture Excerpt
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Migration, Migrants, and Right to the City — A Lecture Excerpt

Migration, Migrants, and Right to the City — A Lecture Excerpt

It is an excerpt from a special lecture delivered by Prof. R.B.Bhagat (Professor and Head, Department of Migration and Urban Studies, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai) at the Centre for Work and Welfare (CWW), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi on July 9, 2020.

All of us know what has happened during the last week of April to the first week of June 2020 in response to the nationwide lockdown to stave off the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly millions of migrant workers started moving out of the city and marched towards their respective rural destinations. It shook the conscience of the nation, the memory of which will be etched for a long time. The topics of migration and migrants have come to the center stage of national policy-making discourse and also generated renewed academic interest. So, my concern here is that we are aware of the problems faced by the migrants, who have not been treated well, and a question is being raised whether they are the citizens of this country or not? Whether they belong to the state of origin or the state of destination or they are the responsibility of the Central Government? We have also seen the matter being seized by the Supreme Court, and the apex court has given directions to the Central and state governments to facilitate the transfer of migrants to their native places.

The question is why this magnitude of a humanitarian crisis of migrants’ exodus occurred in the first place, and how academically we can understand the problem locating the relationship between migrants, migration, and city. In the title itself, I have mentioned that migrants and migration are two separate terms, and conceptually it is necessary to distinguish between the two because it has implications in policymaking. When we look at our Constitution- The Right to Move is a fundamental right under Article 19 under Fundamental Rights. So, there is no question of debating whether migration is good or bad because it is an inalienable right of the citizens of this country. On the other hand, policy and programs should focus on migrants’ vulnerability and violation of their rights. Some of the important questions are as follows?

i) What are the migrant’s rights?

ii) How are migrants treated?

iii) Are migrants included in various policies, programs, and legislation?

India has numerous social protection programs and legislations but the category of migrants does not figure in most of them except The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979, which specifies the responsibility of contractors with regards to inter-state migrant labor. The act is largely applicable to contractor driven migration across state borders. The act is by and largely ineffective because of the informal nature of contractors. Much of the migration to urban areas are driven by the social network of friends, relatives, and kins. They are not covered under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979. On the other hand, the rural employment generation programs like MGNREGA mentions that it is designed to prevent rural to urban migration. However, most of the social security programs or legislative acts are silent about migrants and migrant labor.  

It is worthwhile to mention that there are two types of migration. One is voluntary migration and other is the forced migration. Today's lecture is not about forced migration, but it is about voluntary migration. It is a migration by choice unlike trafficking, displacement, and being a refugee. The voluntary migration is a means to enhance the development opportunities. It is freedom enhancing whereas forced migration is bondage laden with subjugation and exploitation. There exist several laws nationally and internationally to deal with various categories of forced migration. The term distress migration is also often used in policy circles, but if distress migration is accompanied with consent and choice, it cannot be treated as forced migration. In some parts of the country, there is widespread agrarian distress, but not all people have the means and opportunity to migrate. Migration by and large is associated with some agency and is largely network-driven. However, the distress of the households may be a reason for forced migration and this is an area where legislation and policymakers need to be concerned. The rural to urban migration is, however, is largely the result of voluntary action. Therefore, this is a domain of development policy rather than a domain of law and governance.

As rural to urban migration is mostly a city-ward migration, it is important to clarify what do we mean by a city or how we understand a city? A city is basically a relationship between people and place. People are making the place and changing the place. When a place acquires some level of concentration of economic activities and also the concentration of people, we categorize some places as urban and some urban places as cities. Thus, the city is a form of relationship between place and people, and people are a necessary part of it. But what is happening from the last few decades is that we see an increasing disconnect between people and place-making an entire city just another space. In other words, the city as a place is replaced by space. The city space produced seems to be in a concrete and built form and has become somewhat a commodity or just a product of consumption. It has emerged as a site of capital accumulation and wealth creation leading to inequality and deprivation not only within the city but also outside as cities are sucking the resources from the hinterland with little trickle-down in return. This has led to an increased rural-urban divide in India along with widening regional disparity in the country. This is how the disconnect between people and places has manifested raising questions of Right to the City?

As people have been disconnected from place, the question is how to restore people with the place? Right to the City is an urban imagination about how we can make and remake the city. A Right to the City envisions a city that is inclusive, sustainable, and people-centric. Migration is central to the constitution of people in a city. In this talk, I would also like to put before you the relationship between city and development and the economic and political process affecting migrant labor and their rights.

If we look at the role of the city or urbanization in the past, it has played a historical role in shaping polity and economic development. Historians have noted that the Indus Valley Civilisation was an urban civilization. We have Greek city-states where cities and their residents played an important role in the political process. In our country also, during the same time around the 6th century BC, there were several Janapadas, in the Gangetic valley and some of the Janpadas were also characterized as Gansangha or Ganrajya meaning thereby republic. These were more or less similar to Greek city-states. Later Janapadas grew into Mahajanapadas. Magadha was the largest Mahajanpadas among the sixteen mentioned in Buddhist literature, with Patliputra it's capital. Although the form of the city was different due to the level of technology and economy, its function as a political, administrative, and commercial center was fairly evident.

When we look at the Greek cities, there were three groups of people- citizens, metics (migrant), and slaves. It is worthwhile to mention that the Greek word for the city is polis, and for citizens, it is politēs. Citizens were those freemen who were involved in ruling excluding women, slaves, and metics. So, there is a very close connection between a city and its citizens. It also highlights the fact that cities played an important role in the development of a political organization. However, with the advent of industrialization, cities have grown not only in their population size but also as centers of massive economic and political power. In this context then, the cities as emerged in the Western European countries have been our role models. How have these cities evolved? What role has migration played? It is now obvious that cities of developing countries like in India follow a very different trajectory so far the role of migration is concerned with huge implications for migrants’ inclusion in the city. When industrialization took place in the middle of the 18thcentury in Western Europe, there was a massive rural to urban migration. Not only migration took place within the country but also huge emigration to their colonies happened. The rural by and large disappeared, agriculture was mechanized and there was no rural or agrarian distress as we see in different parts of India today. Although still a huge rural to urban migration is taking place in India, it has not been able to transfer the entire surplus labor from rural areas. On the other hand, rural areas in India are also growing demographically unlike the West European countries when they were in similar stages of urban transition.

Cities by the concentration of people, firms, and economic activities produce agglomeration economies conducive for production and economic efficiency. This is the reason why investment accrues to cities compared to rural areas. Returns are not only higher in cities but also increase with the increasing size of the city. The agglomeration economies not only increase production efficiency but also the production cost is low. Matching, sharing, and learning are other advantages in cities where demand meets supply, and people and firms may share information and learn from each other. The availability of skilled manpower, transportation, trade opportunities, banking, and credit facilities are easily accessible in cities. In a market-driven economy, cities seem to be indispensable for economic growth. As cities are a spatial organization, one can also look at them from the perspectives of density, distance, and division. Density is associated with larger markets, distance relates to the transportation costs and division stands for barriers that inhibit production, consumption, and economic growth. In all the three spheres, cities have distinct advantages and potential. Therefore, cities, economic growth, wealth, and capital accumulation exist cheek by jowl.

It is a misnomer that bigger cities are not better as far as economic returns are concerned. In fact, increasing city size provides increasing economies of scale and also increasing per capita income. Empirical studies show that when city size doubles the per capita income increases by 15 percent.[1] So, with increasing size and increasing economic growth, the city is bound to have migration. There is hardly any city in the world that has not grown due to migration. But the question is what happens to the migrants who constitute people of the city? Are they equally benefitted? Is the city inclusive and sustainable? These are some larger issues that Right to the City addresses.

Migration is central to the formation and evolution of a city and diversity is a natural outcome. A city is known not only for economic and occupational diversity but also for its social and cultural diversity. Diversity is also closely related to creativity and innovations and vice- versa. Thus, diversity as an outcome of migration should be looked upon as the strength of a city, not its weakness. However, sometimes diversity may lead to conflict due to political reasons, which is an anathema to the nature of a city and economic growth.

On the other hand, suppose if we want to have a homogenous city it is neither desirable nor possible because homogenization means the erasing diversity and disappearance of creativity and innovations. This is the historical experience concerning the growth of creativity, innovation, and economic growth related to the city. So, these are some of the positive sides of the city which shows how they have shaped our political, economic, and social systems historically in different phases of history. 

While cities have many positive sides, it must not be construed that cities do not have any problems. In fact, cities have a lot of problems. Most importantly, inequality within the city is glaring in India and many other developing countries; there is a huge presence of slums, and poverty and environmental degradation are conspicuous. Cities not only entail inequality within the city but also create regional inequality. The backwash effect of the city is greater than the trickle-down in most of the parts of developing countries. Cities are also dependent on resources from its hinterland. So the negative aspects of a city are larger issues when we observe from the perspective of underclass and migrants. It is also evident that those who have made the city are the people who are not able to enjoy its benefits.

The right to the city means who participates in the city, who are included in the city, who owns the city, and who controls the city. The idea of Right to the City was proposed by Henry Lefebvre, a French Social Scientist, in 1968 in a writing in French entitled Le Droit à la ville which means Right to the City. During 1967-68, there were some students’ uprising accompanied by workers’ protest in Paris. Lefebvre wrote this book during that time.

The main argument of Lefebvre was premised on the fact that cities have been turned into a commodity, and the use-value has overtaken exchange value. The commodification of cities has transformed them from a place to space. Cities have been converted into a consumer good. It is the consumption of space and not the consumption in space. The former is a real tragedy. This has created alienation of people from the place and urbanization is serving the interest of capital accumulation. The outcome is increasing inequality, poverty, and environmental degradation. The philosophy of right to the city addresses these problems in a larger framework of how to reconnect people with a place that has been hijacked by the process of urbanization at a particular juncture of history. Right to the City means participating in the decision of making and remaking the city. 

This concept of Right to the City has been further elaborated by David Harvey- a leading urban expert and social scientist. He remarked that the city generates capital and wealth which is moving in various circuits like manufacturing, built environment cum real estate, and financial market leading to continuous accumulation of capital. When manufacturing is not profitable, capital leaves and moves to the built environment; it may also create industrialization. Urbanization means continuous expansion of the built environment. It is not only construction but also reconstruction which is also known as redevelopment that is becoming more and more profitable. Also, the built environment is not only the area of wealth creation but also a place of hiding wealth. Such movement of capital is associated with rising consumption of urban space and the increasing importance of the service sector is creating a simultaneous condition of labor based on informalization, precarity, and insecurity. Informality means there is no social security, no job contract; jobs are also precarious, which means they are not of regular nature i.e. casual and temporary; anybody can be fired any time. With this type of informality, precarity, and insecurity, migrant workers are invisible. So, it was only when migrants came on the road due to lockdown in the wake of the pandemic, they became visible to the nation.

Thus, the capital through the production of urban space creates its own ally of migrant laborers to survive and prosper. Migrant laborers are treated as an input in production that performs 3D works (dangerous, difficult, and demeaning). They are not only workers in the informal sector but also invisible as they do not have an identity and the majority of them keep circulating between rural and urban areas. They are also insignificant so far as the vote bank politics is concerned as their names either do not figure in voter list or they are unable to go to their respective electoral constituency on the day of voting. The city is not only moving from manufacturing to the built-environment but also experiences the dominance of the financial market that is manifested through the speculative stock market, insurance market, and credit market. Financialization and urbanization of the city create a situation where money makes money without producing goods and services. This is why we see various financial crises occurring which are not always explained in terms of what is happening in the city from the perspective of space and place. It is to be recognized that cities are central to the understanding of the development and the occurrence of various crises. The recent migration crisis due to lockdown and pandemic must be located in the nature of the production of urban space and solutions must be sought in relation to the inclusive and sustainable cities and urbanization. The real challenge for the political system is how to spur economic growth and how to restore the city to the people. Right to the City provides a philosophical and theoretical framework to achieve this objective.

The right to the city is not an individual right but is a collective right. 

How to make our cities inclusive and sustainable and ensure that urbanization is regionally balanced which can protect the environment and ensure the livelihood of the people? We have to stop the commodification of urban space in the built form leading to environmental destruction. However, urbanization should not be viewed only as a problem but it can provide a solution as well. This requires structural and institutional changes in our policy framework. The issue is often trivialized attributing to unplanned urbanization, unregulated urban sprawl, and encroachment. As a result, the entire urban problem is being looked through the lens of governance and is seen as a failure of planning. The deeper structure of the production of urban space in the interest of capital accumulation, alienation of people from the place, and exclusion of migrant workers as city makers are ignored which need to be addressed through economic reforms. However, it is to be noted that any economic reform must be people-centric in the long run to achieve the goal of a prosperous and a happy nation. There is a need to have political reforms as well because local democracy, sustainability, and urban inclusion need to be vocal on local. Who owns the city also needs to be clearly defined? At the moment, there are multiple agencies owning and governing the city without control and command under a single body. The role of the mayor and elected representatives should be redefined; they should be made responsible and accountable like the city of New York and London. The Indian Constitution made provisions to strengthen local democracy through 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution for the rural and urban areas respectively. However, in reality, it is implemented half-heartedly.

Further, the right to the City is not only for those who are inside the city but also for those who are outside the city.  

Now the question is how urbanization can be helpful for rural development. We do not see rural-urban interdependence and consider rural and urban development separately.

We have different ministries at the central level to look after rural and urban development separately. However, there is a need to look into rural and urban development in an integrated way. The schemes like Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA) which India’sformer president Dr. Abdul Kalam had envisioned and also its present form is known as Rurban Mission could be helpful in the planned urbanization of rural areas. Urbanization should not be looked upon as a problem but it can serve as a part of the solution as well. It can play an important role in bridging the rural and urban divide and fulfill the imagination of the Right to the City. In such a situation, rural people would not have to migrate to urban areas, rather, the urban will reach out to rural areas. This approach of place and space will help in understanding our policy programs; going beyond the populist beneficiary and household approach in connecting people with place.

Recently, the Government has come up with a massive MSME program to boost economic activities. In order to have MSME start working in rural areas, we must have the adequate and good rural infrastructure. So the integration of the RurbanMission with development programs like PURA, MNEREGA, and MSME requires good planning and strategy for planned urbanization of rural areas. This integrated approach of development will help to restore migrants not only as formal citizens of the country but also as substantive citizens, whose political, social, and economic rights are protected. So, I think Right to the City is a theoretical framework that enables us to examine development through the lens of space and place, which is epitomized in the form of urbanization. It requires collective action, mobilization of people, and a functional urban democracy as a prelude to inclusive, equitable, and sustainable development.


[1] Bettencourt, L., & West, G. (2010). A unified theory of urban living. Nature, 467, 912-913.


Thanks are due to Dr, Simi Mehta, CEO & Editorial Director, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, and Ms. Vidya Yadav, Assistant Professor in Geography, Patliputra University, Bihar, for her help in transcribing the lecture.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.