The Largest Mass Migration in South Asian History

Jobless villagers keep pouring into the Subcontinent's exploding megacities. Urban life will be bearable only if now communities organise to help themselves.

It was easy to find Shivram Goregaonkar. His directions had been clear: "Shack number 194, near Matunga railway station." A rotund clay Ganesh – the god of success, Bombay´s reigning deity – welcomes the visitor. A signboard on the grilled window says, "Girish Tailors – Ladie´s, Jents and Allteration".

Shivram's pavement shack is just one among thousands of huts on Senapati Bapat Marg, patched together with asbestos sheets, plastic, canvas, jute, strips of plywood, bamboo and bricks. On one side is the railway track, across the road a branch office of the Bank of Baroda and a billboard trumpeting "Visapower". The floor above the bank houses "Seigneurs French Academy" offering middle-class Bombayites the cosmopolitan touch at a bargain. Nearby are grey residential buildings, many of whose inmates come to the tailor across the road. Shivram had fondly named the shop after his 11-year-old son, Girish.

It is difficult to miss the pavement shacks on Senapati Bapat Marg. They force themselves upon the senses as you drive downtown from Santa Cruz Airport. They have been there for decades, even when the road was known as Tulsi Pipe Road – after the huge concrete drainage pipes which the locals took over as living quarters before they could be placed underground. The pipe squatters were ultimately evicted, but many came back. That was when the shacks sprouted.

Today, one can barely see the rail tracks -they are hidden by the row of plastic-canvas-bamboo huts along the pavement, stretching along a 4-kilometre stretch from Mahim to Matunga to Dadar railway stations. Most of the pavement dwellers work as vendors, domestic help, casual labourers, scrap collectors or are in other odd jobs which constitute what experts call the "informal economy". In Bombay, as in most other cities of the Subcontinent, it is the informal economy that provides a livelihood to the swelling ranks of the urban poor, and a cheap service industry that makes possible the lifestyle of the urban rich.

Beautiful Bombay
Seventy percent of Bombay's labour force is said to be "informally employed", somewhat higher than Lahore's 60 percent. For people like Shivram on Senapati Bapat Marg, the term and the statistics have no meaning. He has little choice. Besides working as a tailor by day, he is also a waiter at the exclusive Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana Club in the evenings. Altogether, he makes about INR 4000 a month, just enough to support his wife and three children, and send Girish to an English-medium school.

Life has become a lot easier for the family since Shivram managed to get an illegal water connection inside his pavement shack. Now, he gets up leisurely at 7 am, climbs out of his bed in the loft, has a bath and a shave in the little corner beside the tap. Then he reads the newspaper, scanning for news about demolitions ordered by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Breakfast is a slice of bread and a hot cup of tea prepared by his wife. By half past seven, Shivram is ready to face the world. He pulls his chair outside and sits at his Usha sewing machine.

Many unemployed boys come to Shivram looking for work. He chuckles, recalling the days when he himself learnt the basics of tailoring watching a master tailor. Shivram works till 1 pm, has lunch and takes an hour's rest. Then, it is back to work at the sewing machine. Between four and five in the evening, he likes to spend time with Girish, supervising his homework. At six o'clock, Shivram dresses up in a crisp white shirt and black trousers, and boards a bus for the Willingdon Club. He rarely gets home before 11 pm, and on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, work continues past midnight.

Shivram was born in a village in the Raigad district of Maharashtra. The village offered no hope, he says, so he came to Bombay when just 14. A drop-out, he has worked as a loader, a delivery boy in a cake factory, a waiter and cashier in a gambling den. He has slept on railway platforms, survived on the generosity of total strangers, led strikes, and been handcuffed by the police. Today, he has managed to barely pull his family from poverty, but life on Senapati Bapat Marg is still not secure.

A few shacks away lives 36-year-old Mumtaz Hussain Khan, who provides graphic descriptions of the municipal demolition squads. In 1981, the shacks were razed and the squatters were driven out of the city limits, she recalls. They came back. In 1992, in midwinter, another demolition drive destroyed her shack and many belongings. She slept out in the open for more than a month. "But here I am back again," says Mumtaz.

The planners want to make Bombay an "international city", like Singapore or Hongkong, and this has Shivram worried. There is talk of wider roads, flyovers, beautification. The tailor knows there would be no place for the likes of him and other shantytown dwellers in Beautiful Bombay. Specifically, it is known that the Maharashtra State Government would like to convert Senapati Bapat Marg into a sweeping expressway linking the city to the airport. The pavement dwellers have refused to move until suitable alternative housing is provided, and the authorities have promised that all those who can prove that they have been on the pavements before 1995 will be rehabilitated. Where, no one knows.

Pavement population
Through all the ups and downs, Shivram has not lost faith in his city. He is a member of the Footpathvasi Nagarik Sangathan, a pavement dwellers' association, set up in 1991 with the help of groups like YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action). Today, the association has more than 3000 registered members, a majority of them from Senapati Bapat Marg. Members pay an admission fee of five rupees and a monthly fee of a rupee. The Sangathan has been trying to persuade all the pavement dwellers to start saving up to a hundred rupees every month, and it has nearly INR 300,000 deposited in a collective bank account. All members have documents to prove their contribution. Shivram is saving for a house. He says, "We don't want charity. If the government provides low-cost housing in a suitable location, we will take a bank loan. These savings will come handy as collateral."

Across town, amidst the concrete and glass of Nariman Point, Bombay's commercial hub, Aniruddha Joshi hopes that the government finally means business. The dapper, 34-year-old regional manager of a multinational computer firm is excited about the municipal corporation's new cleanliness drive. He especially likes the "chhi, chhi" campaign. Each time he sees someone spitting on the street, he sticks his head out of the car window, looks the culprit in the eye, and shouts "chhi, chhi' (shame, shame).

The squatters of Senapati Bapat Marg do not figure among Aniruddha Joshi's concerns except when he is driving to or from the airport. They just do not fit in with his neat plans for the city (and himself): "If only there were wider roads and fewer jaywalkers. If only there was not such a range of activities going on in the middle of the road – the flower vendor, the trinket seller, the men with pushcarts, the cyclists, the street urchins defecating on the road, my nerves would be less jangled. My driving time to the office would be down by 30 percent." The formal economy sees no value in the informal economy.

Aniruddha starts from home at 7:30 am to get to work a little before nine. He works till eight in the evening, partly to avoid the stampede on the streets. Even then, he rarely gets home before half past nine. On a weekday, Aniruddha barely gets to see his six-year-old twins. He is quite clear – if Bombay wants to become Singapore, it has to clamp down on this unchecked immigration of the poor from the rest of India: "We cannot afford it." It is difficult to say just how many are living on the Bombay pavements, but you can see the numbers especially at night, when the sidewalks all over turn into one gigantic open-air dormitory. One estimate puts the pavement population at 980,000, roughly 7 percent of Bombay's total. Three-fourths of the city live in "informal housing structures", said a 1997 study by YUVA and the Social Science Centre of St Xavier's College, Bombay.

The problems of squatters and slum-dwellers of Bombay are emblematic of the acute housing crisis facing almost every South Asian city today. This is a region where till recently, the overwhelming majority lived in the countryside, but rapid population growth alongside increasing landlessness and lack of work in the villages drive tens of thousands daily into the towns and cities.

Just 50 years ago, only 15 percent of Indians lived in cities. Today, amidst a much larger population, it is 25 percent. Bangladesh, the country with the highest density of population in South Asia, has seen its urban population jump from 4.2 percent to 15.7 percent in 40 years. Pakistan's has almost doubled since 1950 and today 32 percent of Pakistanis live in cities.

Salem to Dakshinpuri
The way the poor are streaming into cities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India today makes it the biggest mass migration in South Asian history. The new migrants settle in already overcrowded slums where non-existent sanitation and inadequate drinking water make life a living hell. But for many, this life is better than the hand-to-mouth existence in the jobless countryside.

This population ingress results in sharp income disparities. In Delhi, the top 20 percent of households earn more than 11 times the bottom 20 percent. There are such stark differences in other regions of the world as well, but it is only here that there is such an absence of basic facilities such as piped water, electricity, decent housing and health care.

"In every South Asian megacity you will find the tale of two cities," says Vinay Lall, director of the Society for Development Studies (SDS) in New Delhi. "They are poor not just in terms of money. In Bombay, Delhi, Karachi and Dhaka, they lack the amenities required to lead normal, healthy lives. The cities are choked."

The residents of New Delhi, designed by Edward Lutyens to be the capital of British India, are insulated from much of this – they have a separate municipal corporation which gets its money straight from the federal government. The rest of Delhi, however, suffers from a surfeit of power cuts, water shortage, congested roads and pollution.

K. Ravi lives in Dakshinpuri, which goes without power for four to six hours every night. He works seven days a week manufacuring voltage regulators, and sees the irony in this. He gets out of the factory at 10 pm, bicycles for an hour to get home, and finds there are no lights. The one-room house is too stifling to sleep in, so the family pull the cots out into the open. The next morning, there is no water in the tap because there was no electricity to work the pump.

For all the tribulations, Ravi is thankful he is not living in a shack. He is a migrant with three children from Salem district in Tamil Nadu. With his salary of 2000 rupees a month, and overtime of 15 rupees an hour, life in Delhi is barely worth it. And on nights when there is no electricity, he feels tired. "I don't feel like going to work the next day. But I have to. What is the choice? I have to raise the children."

The 1998 summer turned out to be the hottest of the century in Delhi, and the power distribution system collapsed. Dakshinpuri and much of the rest of Delhi went without electricity for hours and even days altogether. As the temperatures neared 47 degrees Celsius, angry citizens poured out into the streets and vandalised electricity substations. In the end, it was the monsoon rains, and not the municipal authorities, that brought relief.

Urban decongestant
As the urban crisis becomes more and more unmanageable all over, the challenge for governments is to reconcile conflicting visions of cities — between Aniruddha Joshi's on the one hand, say, and Shivram Goregaonkar's and K. Ravi's on the other. If there is one thing the authorities have learnt along the way, it is that ignoring the urban poor or pushing them to the periphery will not work. Large amounts of money are required to improve the urban infrastructure and make these cities livable, but who will pick up the tab?

To Aniruddha Joshi, the problem of Bombay is clearly one of management. "We have to decide. Should we or should we not make Bombay a nerve centre? If the answer is yes, then we must have some controls over the influx of people." Joshi is uncomfortable with questions about what to do with all those people. "We will cross that bridge when we come to it."

He is not impressed by the argument that the poor of Bombay provide a host of services close to home. "I do not mind going to a supermarket to do my shopping. It is more hygienic anyway. Fewer people have handled that food. I do not see why you need a maid to wash the dishes at home. It is easier to buy a dishwasher. If there were proper creches and play-schools, we would not need maids to look after our children all the time."

But Vinay Lall of SDS says no one can fix a holding capacity for cities. "It all depends on habitable space and the economic base. Take Tokyo. It has a high population and space constraints but it sustains itself because of high incomes. Anyway, India is a democracy. Constitutionally, you cannot prevent people-from moving from one place to another."

Interestingly, pavement dwellers and slum dwellers themselves do not want more migrants. Pramila Sawat, a young migrant says "People should be given work in the villages then they would not all come to Bombay"

And indeed, the pressure on the cities can be lessened by improving the quality of life in the countryside and providing employment opportunities in the villages. But rural deveopment has remained an ineffectual mantra all over – much as urban renewal has been, but on a much larger scale – so the city lights will simply continue to attract. In fact, many rural development projects themselves have the opposite effect of pushing the destitute villagers to the cities. Vinay Lall points to the Madhya Pradesh government's watershed management programmes which helped rich farmers and pushed the landless, low-caste labourers and marginal farmers to the cities.

With the rural influx continuing unabated 'decongestion' became the buzzword among urban planners. But what does it mean on the ground? In Delhi, there is a law demarcating a 30,000-sq-km area as the National Capital Region (NCR), which takes in towns up to a two-hour drive away. These towns are supposed to act as counter-magnets to Delhi, but how could the plan work when the towns suffer power cuts that last up to 12 hours a day. The roads are bad, the schools worse, good hospitals non-existent. Coca Cola and Pepsi have located their India headquarters in Gurgaon, just beyond the Delhi border, but almost all their workers live and commute from Delhi.

The counter-magnets have not worked because there is not enough money to develop them. The politicians have not allocated the required budget, says town planner Syed Shafi, "because most of them do not have a perspective beyond five years." R.C. Aggarwal, a member of the NCR Planning Board, agrees. The entire region has received INR 2.9 billion for its development over the last 10 years, a pittance given the ambitiousness of the plan.

Some hope was generated recently when the NCR budget was raised to INR 3.5 billion, and the Board decided it would approach the private capital markets for more money. But then, India's new high-profile Minister for Urban Affairs Ram Jethmalani made a series of policy announcements that went directly against the concept of decongestion. Jethmalani announced that anyone in Delhi would now be free to add an extra floor to their houses, the private sector would be allowed into the housing sector, and all squatter colonies would be given official recognition. Meant to ease the housing shortage in India's capital, these decisions are bound to lead to a collapse of the urban infrastructure.

Even without Jethmalani's proposals, however, no decongestion plan is going to work as long as the large cities get more amenities than the smaller towns and villages. Despite the many hours of power cuts in Delhi which had everyone tearing at their hair this past summer, Aggarwal points out that electricity shortages in the city are only 8 percent of the time. (It is 21 percent in Uttar Pradesh and 33 percent in Haryana.)

One rational suggestion for "decongestion" is "decentralisation", and the government should take the lead in this, says Aggarwal. Taking Delhi's example, he says that the departments which have no business here should be the first to go. For instance, with the nearest beach over 1000 km away, there is no need for the headquarters of the Indian Coast Guard and the Directorate of Lighthouses to be located in New Delhi.

Slums and services
Indian politicians take much pride in the 74th amendment to the Constitution, which sought to give more power to municipal bodies and to usher in urban reform. But this "harbinger of a new era of empowered and vigorous system of urban local self-government" has not really managed to move into the area of money supply.

Though the demand for municipal services is increasing, the local resource base is shrinking. Today, municipal bodies receive a smaller percentage of the government's development expenditure than they did 40 years ago. Citing one reason or another, state government after state government have blocked the transfer of funds to municipal bodies. The complaint of Rita Bahuguna Joshi, the mayor of Allahabad, is that "every time any municipality wants to carry out any development project, it has to keep running to the state government for money".

But the municipalities themselves cannot evade a share of the blame. Their tax collection has always been poor, and hardly a city has seen the revision of tax rates in the last few decades. Most crucially, the fees levied for vital services like electricity and water supply bear no relationship to the costs involved. With politicians reluctant to raise tax rates and user charges, the municipalities just cannot maintain the services.

"This kind of subsidisation is absurd," says Gangadhar Jha, urban finance specialist at the Delhi-based National Institute of Urban Affairs. It is in the poorest neighbourhoods that urban services tend to break down most often, at which point the citizens are forced to rely on private agencies at a much higher cost. The poor thus end up paying much more for basic amenities than the rich. In the slums of Delhi, residents often buy a bucket of water from a private supplier for the same amount as the richest citizens of the city pay for their monthly water bill. "If you must have subsidies, at least target them to those who need the subsidies," says Jha.

Interestingly, the very crisis of overcrowding, poverty and environmental degradation that is driving the teeming South Asian cities to the brink of disaster is also providing inspiration for fresh thinking and innovative solutions. Take "slum upgrading" for instance, with experiences in dozens of shanty towns across South Asia showing that it is possible to bring basic services to shanty-town dwellers. In Karachi, the Orangi Pilot Project (see following story) has shown how low-income communities can be innovative in setting up a low-cost sewer system. In Bombay, the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) is tapping mutual funds for the poorest sections of society. The Securities and Exchange Board of India has approved a pioneering mutual fund scheme for the poor with a minimum subscription of INR 1000. If the pilot project takes off, it is likely to be replicated in 15 Indian cities, including Delhi, Kanpur, Madurai, Pune and Coimbatore.

Meanwhile, five Indian cities (Tirupur, Ahmedabad, Pune, Vijaywada and Surat) are developing commercially viable infrastructure projects under the Indo-US Financial Institutions Reform and Expansion programme. Here and elsewhere, many city administrators have come to understand the need to look inward for resources. Seeking the helping hand of the state or central government has proved desultory. Last year, Ahmedabad issued a one-billion-rupee municipal bond, the first instance of an Indian municipal corporation tapping the capital markets to upgrade its water supply, sewage, sanitation and other infrastructure projects.

Tirupur, in southern India, is the hub of India's cotton knitwear industry. More than 300,000 people working in the industries here suffer from poor services, such as acute water shortage. The Tirupur Exporters Association took the initiative, and with the assistance of international agencies and the government, evolved an infrastructure development programme. In future, industrial water users will have to pay a competitive price and the project will use the cash flow to recover investment and upgrade services.

"Bombay First", an industry initiative to improve living conditions in Bombay, has come up with an innovative proposal of "business improvement districts", says the programme's Chief Executive Officer, WJ.N. Danait. Designed after similar urban initiatives in the United States, Danait says bids can offer solutions to more modest problems such as how to find additional funding for city renewal in the business areas and self-help in smaller residential neighbourhoods.

Danait points at several partnerships between industry and communities, such as the "Clean Up Churchgate" initiative, which involves residential associations and private enterprise. About 1.5 million commuters pass through the Churchgate area every day. These initiatives, admits Danait, are not a cure-all, and they deal with symptoms rather than causes, but then there is no magic wand to wish away the problems of South Asian cities at one go.

Overcrowding, pollution and breakdown of basic services are maladies that have become second nature to these cities. These problems will be around for a long time yet. Things can get a little better, but only if citizens themselves take the initiative in their own neighbourhoods and pressurise their representatives at the municipal level. Wherever things have got better in any South Asian city, and there are not too many examples, it is because the citizens and their communities have decided to act rather than wait for the dole. There is no sense in trying to solve all problems at one go, for there are too many, says Shafi. "Let's just do the things we can.".

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian