Anjali Karol Mohan, India
'As in the photo of the daal packet, it is reassuring to see that there are civil society organisations that are promoting the message of equality especially during this time of crisis'.
Prior to COVID-19 taking centre stage as a global pandemic, a two-part seminar series called 'The "Southern Tilt" in the Urban Embedded Wisdom and Cultural Specificity as Pathways to Planning' was held in Colombia and India. The series sought to evolve planning approaches and methods to shape city futures in Latin America, Asia and Africa, geographies that promise to be the future of urbanisation. The main objective was to establish relevant and appropriate vocabularies, methods and processes to comprehend, steer and manage the emerging urban. Animated discussions on informality, migration, housing, land, displacement and conditions of displaceability had, in my opinion, made for a successful seminar. Six weeks later, however, while the discussions seem to be woefully inadequate in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, the objectives of the series could not have been more pertinent.
India announced a nationwide lockdown from 24th March 2020 to 3rd May 2020 with the worst hit being India’s millions of migrant workers. The lockdown has perpetuated a structural violence as cities grind to a halt. With no work keeping them in the city, many have returned to their villages while still more are stuck between the village and the city. The unprecedented reverse migration and attendant displacement never really figured in the seminar series discussions. Nor were there any discussions on the critical link between public health and city planning despite epidemics and ensuing health considerations historically being pivotal to planning cities in the past As narratives urge a re-focus on public health, issues emerging over (de)densification, housing, sanitation and water continue to blur the line on whether to call this a health crisis, a humanitarian crisis, or an urban crisis largely created by the urban. Semantics aside, one thing is certain: it will have far reaching implications in more ways than can be imagined and will persist over a prolonged period of time.
Cities and city planning have consistently excluded the poor. Visuals of migrants fleeing cities due to COVID-19 could not have been harsher in re-enforcing the reality of the exclusionary city. Migrants are often undocumented and considered illegal, yet they are an essential edifice of the city. From a spatial perspective, informal workers and their places of residence are more invisible than not and herein lies the main issue. The current crisis is allowing us to clearly see — albeit temporarily — how ‘visibly-invisible’ migrant workers are within our plans and programmes. The absence of documentation denies this edifice, its crucial linkage to the city. An emerging imperative, therefore, is to move from the undocumented, illegal, yet essential to the documented, legal and essential. To this end, recent developments to include informal workers in employment data has increased visibility in various databases, though their utility is limited. Within the Indian context there are three observations that point to a way forward.
First, clearly India’s policy makers and planners are not in sync with how cities function. While being cognisant of the built fabric and the related economy, there seems to be a lack of awareness of the sweat and blood that goes into rendering cities functional. This is evidenced by the announcement of a sudden lockdown with no policy directive to manage the immense exodus it was likely to trigger. Was reverse migration not anticipated? Had the government been cognisant of its own data, they would have known that datasets have been warning of a migration crisis, especially since the 2011 census that pointed to an unprecedented migration in India’s independent history. The record high urban rural growth differential (URGD) of the 2011 census was linked to distress migration. Now, in the pandemic context, migration issues have re-surfaced with a visibly harsher face, a critical reality that P. Sainath has been bringing to the fore repeatedly.
Second, the oversight mentioned above led to a massive state failure unfolding. State action catering to the invisible migrant has either been limited, delayed or both, and is in effect the reason behind the health crisis manifesting into a humanitarian crisis. Migrant numbers are daunting, even more so amidst arguments that data on migration is inadequate and limited.
Luckily, the vacuum created by state failure was rapidly and enthusiastically filled by non-state actors. Civic society organisations (CSOs), their networks and occupational connections pitched in to provide rations, cooked food, personal protective equipment, medicines and psychological support — all of which helped absorb the impact of the humanitarian crisis.
While the exodus itself is evidence of the state’s disconnect with grassroots organisations, non-state engagement with those same organisations emphasised the need for such engagement while generating evidence of the situation on the ground. In many places, CSOs have been mapping communities — largely enabled by technology — and collecting information to tailor appropriate responses. Thus, there exists massive urban information, arguably from the ground up that can be tapped for future policy development, as well as planning and programming.
Third, the ‘visibly-invisible’ are not a homogeneous group. It has varying forms and flavours, which means policy responses cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach. Mahadevia et al. discuss long-term permanent migrants, seasonal migrants and those tied to their employers, all of whom are constantly on the go. Gidwani and Ramamurthy (2018) discuss the differentiation within the informal economy and the social division of labour across ‘intersecting lines’ of difference and sites of employment to introduce ‘middle migrants’. These are migrants who have moved to the city recently but have maintained a deep connection with their homes in the villages. For them, home is still the village. Then there are those who have been a part of the city for decades but can scarcely afford life there and, as a result, are unable to claim the city as their own. While there are numerous reports of the former flooding the streets, recent reports on decades-old residents of Dharavi — one the largest slums in Asia — fleeing to their home towns have proven COVID-19 to be an indomitable feat.
Against this background, a fundamental question remains: how should policy and planners position the crisis as an opportunity to frame equitable and just cities?
First, we must empower the ‘local’ through decentralised structures and devolved functions. It is obvious now that the ‘local’ was not prepared to deliver, manage or plan for the emergencies that have transpired due to COVID-19. India’s decentralisation agenda of 1993 is far from operational, and barring a few states, sub-municipal planning and governance structures — such as ward committees — were clearly ill-equipped to deal with this crisis. States where strong and autonomous local institutions and networks exist have shown better readiness and action. Kerala has managed to flatten the curve thanks to its investment in human development and social infrastructure as well as its track record in instituting autonomous local self-governments. As Patrik Heller argues, decentralisation requires a balance between division of competence and authority between levels while creating structures and avenues for coordination. Kerala has invested in this balance in the past and was therefore able to deploy it when it was needed the most. Similar arguments have emerged in favour of the north eastern and central states in India. The relevance of the local, both urban and rural, cannot be understated and as a result, some states have resorted to unprecedented moves to strengthen the local. Strong centralised structures are being questioned in developed and developing contexts alike.
A second opportunity that must be leveraged are the numerous data points that COVID-19 has generated. Several CSOs, collectives and networks have yielded data on migrants and related challenges. Governments such as West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar have started registering migrants to operate relief schemes, thereby generating data. Others like Odisha are empowering their Panchayats (rural local bodies) to register migrants returning to their villages. Additional data points include welfare schemes, helplines, hospitals, shelter homes and quarantine centres and academia. Notwithstanding privacy and data governance aspects, making sense of this data is critical for deploying effective local interventions.
Last but not the least, the opportunity is ripe to nurture progressive partnerships with CSOs and academia given their ability for a worm’s eye view, innovation and ideas. In response to the exodus, India evoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005 that puts the onus on local administration to manage migrant movement. In response, Bangalore CSOs batting for local self-governance quickly filed a public interest litigation in the court demanding disaster management cells at the municipal and sub-municipal levels. The court was equally fast in in ruling in their favour. By not forging progressive partnerships with non-state actors, the state risks creating yet another ‘informality’ of non-state stakeholders.
Let this not be an opportunity lost. Equitable and just cities are a non-public health element critical to sound public health.
 COVID-19 has led to several debates on the term ‘migrant’ and its usage. The Chief Minister of the Southern State of Kerala in India, mentioned in an interview that Kerala has a problem with the use of the term migrant. Workers from outside the state are considered ‘guest workers’ and are treated as such.
Anjali Karol Mohan
Anjali Karol Mohan is a Bangalore-based independent scholar with a Masters degree in Urban and Regional planning and a PhD in Technology and Urban Governance. She is a partner at Integrated Design and teaches planning and urban studies courses at various universities.
Identities COVID-19 Blog Series
Explore expert commentaries curated by Identities on the dynamics between displaced migration and COVID-19.