Tuesday, December 23, 2003

moving for a living

Delhi attracts some 200,000 migrant labourers every year. It's a life of toil and hardship. But those with drive and hope--and more than a little luck--can create a better future for their children.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in December 2003).

"THE DAY THAT WE ARRIVED, it was pouring rain," recalls 32-year-old Guddi, a migrant labourer who came to New Delhi with her husband and two children last year. "The train only stopped at the station for a moment, and by the time we realized that we had to get down, we hardly had time to jump off and grab the children. We had brought everything with us--flour, dal, pots and pans--but we left it all in the train. We got down with nothing but the clothes on our backs."

Like many new migrants, Guddi and her husband went directly to a cluster of hovels, next to a construction site, where other labourers had set up camp. With no food, the family went hungry until they found work the next day.

"What did I think about Delhi?" says Guddi. "I guess I noticed some big buildings, but I didn't look around much. All I saw was that there were many, many buildings coming up." And all that construction meant that what they had heard was true: Jobs would be easy to find in the city.

That promise of a better life--even if it means endless days of back-breaking labour--brings more than 200,000 migrant workers to Delhi each year to work on the city's many construction sites. Between 1991 and 2001, the population of Delhi increased by more than 4 million people. About half of that rise was the result of migration. Delhi's not alone. According to the Census of India, the country's urban population stood at around 285 million, or just under 28% of the total, in 2001, compared with 218 million, or just under 26% of the total, 10 years earlier.

The mobile population creates a host of problems, according to Neera Chandhoke, a professor of political science at Delhi University who has studied rural-urban migration. "The growth of shanty towns puts tremendous pressure on services, whether it is medical care or transport, water or power," says Chandhoke. At the same time, the close quarters and poor conditions of the shanty towns, combined with fierce competition for jobs, often results in tensions between the various regional communities brought together in the city. In addition, says Chandhoke, "competition over jobs leads politics in all kinds of unpleasant directions" including strident, and even violent, opposition to those viewed as outsiders.

Delhi has escaped the worst side of anti-migrant violence, the professor says, though it's no stranger to riots. "Overall in our survey of Delhi shanty towns we didn't find much direct conflict," she says. "But we did find a lot of resentment."

Chandhoke's team also discovered that government bodies seemed to have no idea just how many migrants it was dealing with in the shanty towns, most of which are built illegally on public land. "We were told that a particular shanty town had 1,000 people in it. When the team went there we found that 10,000 people were living there."

While jobs attached to public infrastructure projects attracted migrants to Delhi in the 1980s and early 1990s, today a private building boom is absorbing most of the capital's migrant labour force. In Delhi and two suburban areas, Gurgaon and Noida, close to 3 million square feet of commercial and residential space is planned or due to be built over the next 18 months, says Sanjay Verma, an executive director at real-estate consultants Cushman & Wakefield.

As Indian builders use very little mechanical equipment or prefabricated materials, building is done almost entirely by hand. Every 100,000-square-foot project employs around a hundred labourers who must dig out foundations with picks and shovels, mix tonnes of concrete, and tote and lay in place thousands of bricks with nothing but muscle power. "It's very labour-intensive," says Verma.

And relentless: Men strain over picks and shovels for hour after hour of the day, or graze their shoulders lifting and placing bricks. The women seem to have it even harder: Every morning they wind cloth around their heads to make a flat carrying surface, and all day long they carry load after load of bricks--12 at a time--up to their partners working in the building above. "There's not a minute to rest," says Guddi. "It's back-breaking labour. But at least I can work. I miss the village a lot, and every now and then I want to go back, but there's no point. All my family is there, and I miss them, but there is no work. What choice do I have?"

Guddi's 12-year-old son, Anil, misses the village, too. "People are always fighting here, and there I could play in the river. There's no river for me to swim in here in the city." That's an understatement. The 500 or so rural labourers who are building the luxury Sun City apartment complex in Gurgaon live in a sprawl of squat, brick huts, without running water or even windows. The ground is littered with trash and discarded construction materials. A few houses have televisions. No one has a toilet. The air (like much of Delhi) smells of burning dung. Despite all, though, nobody wants to leave.

"Most migrants come to earn money or because they have problems in their villages," explains Bhagya Lakshmi, a programme coordinator at Delhi Mobile Creches, a non-governmental organization that provides food and schooling to labourers' children. "Sometimes drought, floods, or debt forces them out, or their land is too small to support the family." Because most villages still work on the barter system, moving to the city offers their only chance to earn much-needed cash. Still, even after they arrive and find work, migrant workers face many challenges.

"The biggest problem they face is that they don't have regular work," Lakshmi says. "They may get only 15 or 20 days of work in a month, and they get paid only after 15 days of work. Sometimes they have difficulty getting their money if the contractor shuts down the project for some reason."

Migants' children also face difficulties. Unlike in the village, where relatives can look after the children, on the building sites the adults all work from dawn to dusk. Mobile Creches works to shore up the gaps and give the children enough education to get them into government-run schools, but the NGO can't cover every site. And even if a child does get into school, chances are that its parents will move to another site after only a few months. With each move, the child has to qualify and gain admittance all over again. All those interruptions mean it's easy to fall behind.

Though the obstacles are great, the experiences of migrants who came to Delhi earlier suggests that some--those with the right combination of hope and drive--can manage to give their children the opportunities they never had themselves.

When 36-year-old Naramdas came to Delhi in 1986, he had nothing. No land. No work. "The day I left home, everyone was in tears. Five or six of us went to the train together. I kept looking back over my shoulder at my family until I passed out of sight. At first I couldn't decide whether I should stay or go back home." Today, Naramdas is a skilled mason, and all his children are in school--a rare accomplishment for any of Delhi's poor. "I know I cannot move back to the village now," he says, "because that would spoil things for my children. I have to stay here and work so that my children can study. I am working so my children can become something. One day, I would like my son to be a doctor, or maybe a teacher."