Slums and the city: There would be no Mumbai without its outsiders

If Mumbai did not have migrants streaming in, it wouldn’t ever have been a city. At best, it could have been perhaps another of those quaint coastal towns, conceivably also hamstrung in its geographical growth because of the marshes. Without the migrants, it may not have had a cause to grow at all.

A UNESCO report on India’s internal migrants and their status released today has pointed to the reality that such people – not specific to Mumbai – seen as outsiders who inflict a burden on places where they move to, are in fact, a reason for all manner of growth, more importantly, economic growth.

 Slums and the city: There would be no Mumbai without its outsiders

A file picture of Dharavi - one of the largest slums in Mumbai. AFP.

Mumbai was a place to which migrants were invited to bolster its position. Mariam Dossal, in her book Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope – Mumbai (OUP, 2010) has detailed how Surat’s shroffs and banias were invited by the British. A year’s advance pay was on offer by the mid-18th century but “was not enough to attract persons to Bombay”.

However, by 1780s, she wrote, “more than 33,000” lived in the fortified part even now known as the Fort. The population of the city has since then grown - 1.2 crore presently - beyond perhaps the then rulers’ imagination and most certainly, beyond the capability of the present policy makers and administrators.

It couldn’t have been only by natural accretion of the population, assuming that the then migrants were the only one who moved in and then procreated. The huge leap in numbers from that 33,000 – the city was then the fort and the native quarters – testifies to the fact of Mumbai’s population growth being powered by migration.

However, since the late 1960s, the nativist philosophy of political parties like the Shiv Sena and the later breakaway splinter Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have been harping on the risk to the natives livelihoods from the migrants and there have been violent opposition to people from outside. In 2000s, it had reached a scary pitch.

The UNESCO study referred to earlier made two telling points. One, far from being a drain and burden, migrants are in fact providing subsidy, and two, that the migrants do accept to perform “dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs which the locals do not want to do” which is "different from stealing jobs". Anything that comes their way is good enough to work.

One fashionable reason for objecting to migration: their arrival had only ensured proliferation of slums. In an editorial today, unrelated to the UNSECO report, The Hindu made this point: “It would be incorrect to attribute migration as the principal reason for the increase in slums.” It was focusing on slumming of India and blamed poor housing policies.

That Mumbai had over half of it's population living in slums a decade ago made it an eyesore for the non-slum dwellers without realising the implications of a slum and cheaper labour for the service sector. The willingness to put up with appalling conditions, often over generations for most, was why Mumbai is able to stay ticking.

A finding of Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) has shown how the work taken up by slum dwellers “are not replaceable since those are neither remunerative nor attractive” for others to fight for. A quarter of slum households earn less than Rs 5,000 a month, which for a family of five, is below poverty line.

This narrative is by no means an argument in support of proliferation of slums which, across India, contribute some seven per cent of India’s GDP. It is, however, an effort to point out that migration - with which slumming is associated, poor housing policies compounding the factors – needs to be accepted as a reality.

The Indian Census provides with rich data on this facet of migrant component for any city, and for Mumbai residents, it would be a rewarding exercise to read. In 1961, the lifetime migrants were 64.24 percent of the population, and in 1971, it was 56.86; a decade later, 51.46, yet another decade after that, 37.46 and in 2001, 43.70.

The census counts them as a category of “persons enumerated in a given area at a particular Census who were born outside the area of enumeration but within the national boundaries”. In short, they constitute a very large part of Mumbai, decade upon decade and the manner in which cities grow and require manpower even as they offer livelihood opportunities.

The very act of a person residing in a place makes the person a local, even entitled to a domiciliary certificate but in Mumbai, a non-Marathi speaking person tends to be seen as a migrant regardless of when he, or his parents and grandparents settled down in the city. The discernible difference is in the language spoken.

The local versus the migrant issue had been a cause of concern even in the 1750s, as explained by Dossal where, the very local, the Koli community of fishermen had to be protected by prohibiting their employment as palanquin-bearers. But as the city developed, fishing wasn’t the preferred profession, neither was any menial task except for the poorer among the migrants.

Therefore, all residents of a city, any city, qualify to be its residents by the mere fact of putting down their anchors there and realising that despite the thin membranes of social, economic differences, they constitute a significant, even essential, part of the whole. Since a city has no doors – even if Mumbai’s icon is the Gateway of India – there can be no outsiders.

I often recall what Joachim Arputham, a leading figure in slum issues, a Magsaysay awardee said once, “Mumbai, with claims to cosmopolitanism, refuses to acknowledge that it was built by the poor migrants for the better-offs. To those not poor and not part of the slums, the migrant are a problem, the poor and their habitats best hidden but to be put to use”.

Updated Date: Oct 17, 2013 18:48:39 IST