As Migrants Begin their Long Trudge to Nowhere, A Note on Migration in Delhi


Most of the people in Delhi, like in rest of India (according to official estimates, 92 per cent of India’s work force comprises of informal labour) earn their living from working in the informal sector. There is extensive academic literature on this subject.  Typically, informal economy is that which does not find mention in official data, is not formally registered and regulated and falls outside the tax regulation.

The concept of informality became current in economic and social thought in the early 1970’s. It has since been re-considered and re-interpreted. The idea that the informal sector presented a liminal space for workers waiting to be absorbed by the formal sector, has been negated. Instead, current trends suggest that a majority of the Indian work force (approx.92%) labour under short-term informal contracts.  Well-known labour historian Jan Bremen has somewhere written that the fact the informal economy is not officially regulated does not imply a complete absence of regulation. There are many unofficial means of regulation. Quite often activities that do not possess registration and legal sanction get denoted as informal or ‘underground’. This practice results in the official erasure of the economic value of the goods and services produced therein. It also serves the purpose of masking the over-exploitation and socially-levered extortion to which the most unprotected and vulnerable members of the working class are subjected.

This is not an academic article. It is primarily a sketch of the nameless and faceless mass of people that we see trudging along the highways in these lockdown days. It is mostly based on anecdotal evidence and modest experience that I have of working with labour unions and NGOs. I just try to broadly map the political-economy and sociology of those who work in different informal sectors of Delhi

The Broken Data

According to official data of the 2011 census, 30 per cent of Delhi’s nearly 20 million (2 crore) Delhi’s population live in slums. However, this is clearly an underestimation.  Other studies have shown that nearly half of the total population lives in slums.

Vast majority of the people who live in slums are migrants. There are several sectors that employ these migrants and very scattered data is available on the subject. The largest sector employing the migrants in Delhi is the construction sector, which comprises of over 11 lakh workers, out of which only 37000 are registered. So only these people will be able to avail the schemes announced by the Delhi government during the lockdown. Other large sectors which employ mostly migrants are waste-picking (3-4 lakh), cycle rickshaw (5 lakh, until e-rickshaws came along), street vendors (3-4 lakhs), garment workers (3 lakhs),  auto rickshaws (2 lakh), taxi drivers (2 lakh), housemaids ( 1 lakh), Nepali workers (1 lakh plus, they mostly work in small dhabas) and e-rickshaws (1.5 lakh). Besides them there are numerous other sectors where the migrants work, like the huge industrial areas in Delhi and small factories. Many of these sectors are relatively recent and outcome of rapid urbanisation, housing societies and e-commerce. Jobs like security guards, delivery boys, restaurant workers, plumbers, electricians, dhobis, car cleaners, and other such jobs cater to these new demands.

But because there is no data, the above figures are certainly conservative and the real numbers in each of the jobs mentioned above will actually be much larger.

Sociology, Caste & Occupation

There is always a close resemblance of the sociology (kinship, caste, region) of the rural hinterland in the everyday lives of migrants in Delhi. So migrants working in certain occupation and a certain locality come from not only a particular region of India but also belong to certain caste. These hierarchies and locations also define their relationship with the state and the kind of discrimination they face.  So for example, all the traditional chowkidar, who used to keep us alert with their sound of stick and whistle at night, (before the uniformed guards) came from just one district, Acchan in Nepal, and they all belonged to one particular dalit caste. Similarly, vast majority of the waste pickers come from Malda, Murshidabad and neighbouring districts of Bengal. Most of them are Muslims, and are accused of being ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’.

There was huge migration post liberalisation from Bhojpur region of Bihar and eastern UP.   The first generation of uniformed gaurds mostly came from eastern UP and were upper caste (Mishrajis, Pandeyjis).  That was also the time when the Punjabi auto rickshaw drivers became a minority to the upper caste auto rickshaw wallas from UP and Bihar. Very large number of plumbers in many parts of Delhi are from Odisha, car cleaners from AP, rickshaw pullers from Nalanda, Katihar, Purnea in Bihar.

However, many of these occupations are getting democratised and their social profiles are getting diversified. All informal sector workers face a certain degree of violence, harassment and abuse. But there is often a correlation between the degree of harassment and the status of the particular occupation in the labour (and caste) hierarchy. So we often see a cycle rickshaw puller being slapped and his tyres being deflated. But a auto or a taxi driver driver may get away with a chalan for same kind of offence. (Something similar to the way chemical was sprayed to migrants in Bareilly, as opposed to those who arrived from abroad at airports). The violence is also getting democratised and now those who get away are lucky.

This migration post 1990s changed the demographic profile of Delhi in such drastic manner that the political and electoral hegemony of Punjabi refugees and Jats, mostly associated with the BJP, has been taken over politicians belonging to UP and Bihar. Now many leaders in the Delhi political power structure cutting across parties belong to these region (Shiela Dixit, Manoj Tiwari, Sanjay Singh, Gopal Rai etc).

Demolition of and Relocation of Migrant Slums

There have been regular forced and sometimes ‘planned’ demolition of slums. The most notorious was the Turkaman Gate demolition during the emergency carried out by Sanjay Gandhi. It has been excellently documented in a book For Reasons of State: Delhi Under the Emergency by John Dayal and Ajoy Bose. They were relocated in east Delhi. Similarly there was a big demolition in Nizammduddin and relocated in Bawana region north Delhi.

In mid 1990s, hundreds of industrial units were closed on the pretext of curbing pollution that led to large scale displacement of labour. The industrialist then sold that land at lucrative price to real estate developers, who build malls and housing societies when the real estate sector was booming.

Another brutal demolition took place in 2004 at the Yamuna Pusta to make DTC bus shed for the Commonwealth Games. They were resettled in north Delhi’s Bhalswa. But there have been many other frequent demolitions. Friends like Amita Baviskar (her recent book Uncivil Society), Dunnu Roy who heads Hazard Centre, Harsh Mandar (Karwane Mohobat) and has been working with the homeless, Gautam Bhan and others have done detailed studies on these subject. Several womens groups like ActionIndia, Sablasangh, Jagori a dn others besides many small trade unions have been  working with these communities and are doing extensive work with the migrants in these troubled times.

Published in Kafilaonline :

In Bihar CM Nitish’s Constituency, Dalit Weavers Upset With Modi

The Quint: 17 May 2019

“Dinosaurs became extinct because they refused to change with the times. And that’s what has happened to the Communist Party of India (CPI) in (Bihar’s) Jehanabad and Nalanda. They (CPI) were ruling these districts in the 1980s and early 1990s but were dogmatic and refused to accept new social realities,” says comrade Ambika, the district secretary of Jehanabad’s CPI.

Another comrade adds, “If Begusarai is Leningrad, then by that logic, Jehanabad is Moscow”. In a manner of speaking, they are right. Unlike Begusarai, where the CPI only won the seat once in 1967, Jehanabad elected a CPI candidate, Ramashray Prasad Singh, four times in a row (1984, 1989, 1991 and 1996). In neighbouring Nalanda constituency, the CPI won thrice (1980, 1984 and 1991).

The extent of CPI’s popularity can be imagined from the fact that it won both seats in one of the biggest elections (of 1984), when the Congress, led by Rajiv Gandhi, swept over 400 Lok Sabha seats.


Two Decades Later, Will Ranvir Sena Massacres Change How Victims’ Families Vote?

The Wire: 12 May 2019

I walked straight to young Manish Chaudhary’s house in village Lakshmanpur Bathe. His house now doubles up as a memorial to the 58 victims killed by the dreaded ‘upper’-caste paramilitary Ranvir Sena, on the night of December 1, 1997. I first met Manish in 2001, when he was 10 years old. Since then we have met regularly on my many visits on assignment for an NGO.

We exchanged pleasantries and I informed him that the purpose of my current trip was not related to any NGO work, but that I was trying to report on the upcoming elections. I wondered how the survivors of the massacre would vote in the context of what had happened in the village. He instantly responded, “Hua kya tha! Ghar mein ghus kar mara tha. Jaise Modi ne Pakistan mein ghus kar mara hai (The obvious happened! They killed us by entering our houses, just the way Modi did in Pakistan).” I asked him who he will vote for. “I will press the button on the lantern [the election symbol of the Rashtriya Janata Dal].”


Will Caste Faultlines Help BJP in UP’s Awadh Region?

The Wire: 26 April 2019

Mohanlal Nishad swims to the shores of the river Gomti with the last catch of fish in his hand. He has had a good day’s work. He lives in Arjunpur village in Sulatanpur. He confidently says he will vote for the mahagathbandhan (MGB), but adds hastily that if his netas(leaders) from his biradari (community) tell him to vote for the BJP, then he will follow their diktat.

Another elderly Nishad, Mithailal, who runs a small paan shop, says diktat or not, he will vote for the BJP.

Sushila lives in Milkipur block of Faizabad district and teaches in a private school. She belongs to the Kori caste, the same as President Ram Nath Kovind. Sushila is annoyed with the BSP because she believes it is a party of Jatavs.

Suresh Pasi is a young bubbly man from Barabanki district. He earns his living doing on-the-job-training at a mobile repair shop. He says, “Sab kuch jaatiyee samikaran par nirbhar hai (the outcome of the elections will depend on caste dynamics).” He adds that he will vote for the BJP because he is fed-up of the “casteism and communalism” practiced by other parties.

Mitailal, Sushila and Suresh belong to non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit castes and live in rural UP.


Reimagining Crafts in Contemporary Times

The Wire: 31 March 2019

The Delhi Crafts Council (DCC) held its iconic annual exhibition-cum-sale, Kairi, on March 14-16 in New Delhi. This year, along with Kairi, the DCC also held an exhibition called Navodit Shilpi to showcase products made by artisans who have been awarded the Kamladevi Puruskar. These awards were instituted way back in 1986 and till now, over 180 young artisans have been awarded.

The event gave us an opportunity to have some thought-provoking conversations with craftspersons about the current status of handicrafts in India, especially at a time when there is a growing perception that handicrafts as a sector is fast losing its relevance.

The general wisdom is that artisanal products will survive in limited circles such as exhibitions organised by NGOs indulging in nostalgia. It is also believed that crafts will not be able to keep pace with modern realities – like the rapid pace of urbanisation, the automation of production, digitisation and changes in tastes and consumer behaviour. The overwhelmingly young population of India is aspirational and has little time to appreciate the detailing that goes into handicrafts.


The End of An Era– Mohd Sporting, Ambedkar Stadium & Football in Delhi

In Kafila: 18-11-201

Caught up in the launch of the Indian Soccer League (ISL) and its promotion by television and big Bollywood stars, very few noticed that the Kolkata based 123-yr-old Mohameddan Sporting, has effectively decided to close down due to a financial crisis. According to its management, they will stop playing for a year outside Kolkata and have disbanded the senior team.

The historic Mohammedan Sporting won the Calcutta league 11 times, the IFA Shield five times,  the Rovers Cup six times, the DCM tournament four times and the Federation Cup and the Durand Cup twice each.

Mohameddan Sporting, along with Mohun Bagan (established 1889) and East Bengal (established 1924) were the most popular clubs of India for over a century. Mohun Bagan drew its fan-following from the elite and the aristocracy of Bengal and its aim was to inspire young people to lead a principled life: for example, More

Look Within

outlookindia.  Jul 01, 2013

The real challenge is not external. The Indian state and the J&K government would do well to first acknowledge the mistakes committed in the past and engaging with the people of Kashmir to find a way forward.

There have been five attacks by militants in the Kashmir valley since February, killing at least 23 security men. These attacks and the 24 June killings of eight unarmed army men by militants have once again raised the bogey of the return of insurgency to the Kashmir valley. This has resulted in a widespread conclusion  that in no time at all militancy will be back in the valley; the situation has even been compared to the situation in the mid 1990s. More

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries