Empowerment of locals first

Mumbai has a huge and growing migrant population. And Mumbai has conspicuous ‘sons of the soil’ insisting that priority in employment MUST go to locals. They have ransacked offices, issued ultimatums (and threats), targetted migrants from specific places. I disagree with their methods and I also see them applied unevenly (show me the objections to Gujarati migrants, for example). At the same time, I think there is an important value in what they are saying. And not just for Mumbai.

As inequality grows in India, more and more people are migrating to the cities. Part of the story is what is widely believed – that cities have opportunity. The other part is also that vast tracts of India are simply being cleared for corporations and their people abandoned to landless destitution, or are simply neglected in development to the point of unsustainability. These people land up in cities not only because cities hold hope of jobs, but also because they have been destroyed in their original homes.

Consider tribals who continue to live in forests being targetted as criminals and Maoist supporters. The story of Soni Sori is the tip of the iceberg. There is systematic “pest control” happening to clear out lands in demand. It is little more than a massive drive to empty out the mineral rich homes of the adivasis. Arundhati Roy has written extensively about this. This quote from “Capitalism: A Ghost Story” is telling:

Only days after the Chhattisgarh government signed an MoU for the construction of an integrated steel plant in Bastar with Tata Steel, the Salwa Judum, a vigilante militia, was inaugurated. The government said it was a spontaneous uprising of local people who were fed up of the “repression” by Maoist guerrillas in the forest. It turned out to be a ground-clearing operation, funded and armed by the government and subsidised by mining corporations. In the other states, similar militias were created, with other names. The prime minister announced the Maoists were the “single-largest security challenge in India”. It was a declaration of war.

P Sainath’s reports on water privatization from around 2005 onwards contain horror stories of people being charged impossible rates for irrigation water and put into situations where they have little option but to sell land or starve. A quote from “How the deal was done“:

Back in Maregaon, Chavan points out: “This village lost canal water because people were too poor to pay the old charges. The rates plus fines crossed Rs.1 lakh for us and it got impossible.” Rambhau Mahajan had to pay the equivalent of one acre of land — Rs.25,000 — in order to be able to sell four acres to survive.

To make a long story short, the water was made so expensive that no crop grown in the region could sustain such charges. The bills of water were made more expensive for people with more than two children. Multiple taxes were levied, and non-payment by a few in the village could get water blocked for all. People couldn’t even sell their land without clearing dues first. Is there any wonder that there are suicides? Is there any wonder that people sell their lands and migrate to find work?

This is not progress. This is the desperate grab for opportunity for survival being peddled as progress. AUN report on urbanization says:

As a result of these shifts, developing countries will have 80 per cent of the world’s urban population in 2030.

This may seem like a good thing, but it is worth thinking that if urbanization is such a good thing, then why would developed countries have only 20% of the urban population?

Ok, leave aside this for a minute. India has a large population, and low energy reserves. Our pursuit of goals is all about industrialization, which minimizes human effort and needs more energy and takes a heavy toll from the environment. How is this ever going to result in better employment, energy independence or even ensure people have pollution free environments to live in at all? To feed this monster, we are promoting the corporatization of everything. Large farm holdings run efficiently, etc. Nuclear plants to keep this monster going. But even then, where will the jobs come from? We are already running into this problem. Rural people can migrate to urban areas when life becomes impossible, but what happens to the locals of urban areas when life becomes impossible for them as their meagre opportunities are up for grabs by more and more people?

Leave this aside too. There are allegations that migrant populations add to crime. I have no statistics for this. I haven’t searched. I will, and insert later if I find. So, I am not claiming this for fact. At the same time, migrant populations adding to crime does make sense, because they have no social anchors or any need to maintain their standing in society. Think of it as you going on your first hidden date. You may barely speak with each other in your own locality, but will act like husband and wife in a different place where no one knows you. Obviously you are not committing a crime, but if you were inclined to crime, would you find it easy among people who know you, or people who don’t? It makes a lot of sense that behavior is more reckless among strangers where stakes for disapproval or alienation are low.

This is not to say that all migrants are evil, or that migration should be banned completely or even that migrants should be discriminated against. At the same time, the cost of the rampant migration from the promise of “equal opportunity” overburdens cities and also increases stress for opportunities among populations as well as abandons vast tracts of the country to people who would like them abandoned. Development being defined as movement toward cities makes it increasingly easier to neglect villages.  In the long run, it is going to create pigeon colonies out of people, with vast, lush regions handed over to corporations, because no one else can survive the manufactured hardships.

Leave that aside too. Every place has a potential to work and earn. When people proudly proclaim India is one country and anyone can settle and earn anywhere, why is it that an urban person cannot buy agricultural land and stay in a village, if a person from a village can come and stay in the city? Because the design is to cluster people in less and less space and less and less resources. Factories have no problems buying rural land. It is normal citizens who do. The people making expectations that cities should accommodate everyone who takes a whim to be there choose to see only the rights of migrants in this situation. The desperation of the country to survive and cities being the only visible alternative has led to the blatant confiscation of the right of the people to their land in cities. The fantasy is that cities belong to no one, and everyone is equal. You wouldn’t approve of urban people going and outnumbering tribals in their land, and competing for the food naturally available in the wild, would you? Of course, cities have greater resources to accommodate more people, but it is a mistake to think that those resources are infinite and should not be guarded. Or that people who originally belong to the cities have no special right to their land over migrants. Or that they shouldn’t try and enforce boundaries when things become unsustainable.

There needs to be greater focus on development. On uniform development of India – even though cities remain hubs of civilization. There needs to be effort to sustain populations where they live instead of forcing them to cities. It is  not about opportunity. It is about survival for most migrants. If they could live on land they own and make a living, would they choose to wash your dirty dishes and live in hovels and servitude? The other problem is that when “posh” people claim equal rights for all Indians in cities, they are thinking of working professionals living in flats. Because of course, it is the norm to be blind to the poor. Our sense of majority is limited to those with voice, but the number of migrants with respectable jobs and sustainable work are very, very few. The vast majority inhabit slums and have no clue what they are doing with their lives beyond surviving and at most, saving for a rainy day. My maid is a second generation migrant who still lives in rented rooms and stores clothes in bundles. They have property in their village, but they would have to sell it and become homeless anyway, or starve, because there are no opportunities. Does she like working as a domestic servant? No. She has no choice. This isn’t a migration of opportunity.

We cannot kick out these migrants. They need to survive. Whatever fuck up we have become as a country, we have become together. At the same time, the right of locals to secure resources for themselves in their land should be respected. While burning buses is wrong, there shouldn’t be a need to burn buses over this. There needs to be serious attention paid to rural development and urgently, so that people are able to sustain themselves in their beloved lands with dignity. There still will be migrants chasing rainbows and India is a country for all, but we need to do something to manage the desperate bulk of them before things go into anarchy and we end up in a fight for survival in the supposed lands of opportunity as well.

Such thoughts are finding fertile ground in many places as people find the current systems unsustainable. One such site with alternative economic and development solutions is “Slow Money” – an attempt to begin fixing the economy from the ground up. Many thoughts worth thinking, but when it comes to the holistic development of India, one that is stuck in my imagination is:

What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?

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About the Author

Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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