Using the ‘Right to the City’ approach to include migrants and other “others”

I was reminded today by various organizations on twitter that it is International Migrants Day. Migrant, a term that has fascinated me for a long time. What is it that makes someone uproot his or her life and go to a new place, start from scratch, face all sorts of hurdles including social rejection and cultural deprivation, to eventually carve out a new life in this adopted place? On the face of it, migration sounds rather unpleasant and yet, it has been a recurrent phenomenon for centuries!

Migration may be forced (slavery, bonded labor, displacement due to war, infrastructure projects, etc) or voluntary (usually to avail of a real or perceived opportunity), but the status of the ‘migrant’ is fraught with difficulty. In India, economic growth and a changing economic structure along with urbanization has meant an increase in rural to urban as well as urban to urban migration across the country. There are several aspects of migration that are fascinating and need to be studied to develop a contemporary understanding of how our urban centers (these ‘engines of economic growth’, yea!) function and grow. However, citizens and governments usually perceive migrants (esp low-income migrants that belong to the informal economy) as unnecessary and unwanted, people who are competing for meager resources, and would like to wish them away regardless of their dependence on migrant labor for a large proportion of informal and often difficult (read undignified) jobs in the city.

For my research on housing for migrants in Gurgaon therefore, I have been trying to put together a rights-based case for why the city needs to accept the migrant situation and address it squarely, with a focus on housing and employment. I was struggling with something that appeared obvious. I was heartened therefore to hear today from some of the contributors to the newly released book titled ‘Urban Policies and the Right to the City in India: Rights, Responsibilities and Citizenship‘, brought out by UNESCO and CSH and edited by Marie-Helene Zerah, Veronique Dupont, Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal. The book draws on Lefebvre’s ‘Right to the City’ approach, which the UN hopes to leverage to urge governments to adopt a more inclusive approach to city planning and governance.

At the workshop I attended today at the Centre for Policy Research, Ram B Bhagat, author of the chapter on ‘Migrants’ (Denied) Right to the City made a hard hitting point. He pointed out that policy makers in India refuse to acknowledge or address the issue of migrants squarely. There is no policy that accepts migrants and attempts to give them the basic rights they are denied by virtue of having no identity or documents in their adopted place of residence. He spoke about representation by civil society before the 12th Five Year Plan requesting the inclusion of migrants’ rights and the subsequent exclusion of any such provision in the Plan.

In the chapter, he clearly outlines the contradiction between an Indian citizen’s Constitutional Right to relocate to any other place within the country and the refusal of local governments to grant a migrant a form of identity via which he/she can avail of the basic services and amenities required to live a life of dignity. The paper identifies several exclusionary practices and advocates for the use of a Right to the City approach to include the voice of the migrant in the policy discourse. At the very core, Bhagat argues for the recognition of migration as an “integral part of development” and the placement of migration at the core of city planning and development. I couldn’t agree more and I’m happy to find validation for my thoughts and the assumptions on which I am carrying forward my research work.

On a larger scale, such a Right to the City approach that accommodates multiple viewpoints and consultations and redefined citizenship, imbuing it with a participatory framework is the way ahead for many of the situations that disturb us today. I am reminded of this as I observe the rabid hatred and suggested use of violent and retaliatory actions to “teach a lesson” to the rapists in yesterdays heinous incident on the Delhi bus. While the rapists deserve to be punished swiftly and severely, I question the construct that we have, positioning the rapist as the convenient “other” in general discourse even as we know that may incidents of rape in the city are perpetrated by men known to the victim (though not in this case)! The “other” is omnipresent in all our critiques of the failures of our cities- slum dwellers, beggars, municipal workers (or shirkers), apathetic policemen, the ‘system’, the rich, the poor, the flashy bourgeois, they all threaten us while we remain helplessly virtuous. It is a ridiculous situation, for surely we are the “other” for someone else!

To build an inclusive city, we would need to begin with inclusive mindsets that promote dialogue, debate, awareness and provide space and opportunity for free speech and expression. Even as we speak about the need for safety and improved security, better law enforcement, etc….. we all know that moving towards a society of intense and perpetual surveillance is not a viable proposition. Though theoretical, the Right to the City is a good starting point for the State (especially local government) to build a relationship with citizens and radically change the way cities are governed. Idealistically, I believe that there is a collective action that can be taken to address many of the issues that we urgently need to resolve.

About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on December 18, 2012, in Politics & Citizenship and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. In the middle of ramblings about the delhi rape case, the mention of the word ‘migrant’, prompted me to read on. I soon realized you have covered a different aspect. “Migrant” and “right to city”. Agree that migration is essential to development, provided migrants are “educated” and they mean it for development, not to see it as an opportunity to unleash their greeds of various natures (financial leading to thefts, sexual leading to rapes, emotional leading to violence-domestic/public etc.). HIndi also has the word, “sabhya”, English also has the word, ‘decent or cultured’. Core aspects are values and education. If the migrants don’t bring it with them, it is not rocket science to understand that they don’t deserve the city! They, as someone put it rightly, deserve concentration camps!

    • Thanks for responding! No law-breaker deserves the city. Unfortunately, the city is by definition an amalgamation of many different cultures. Whose definition of “sabhya” and “asabhya” do we go by? That is what the law and the Constitution are supposed to uphold. In the event of the failure of these institutions, things take an ugly turn. Btw, there is no correlation between migrants and crime necessarily. The rapists may or may not have been migrants, or the thieves, or murderers, etc….and who is a migrant in a city like Delhi? How do you define migrant? Is 5 years enough? Many people who have lived in this city for over 30 years are still not accepted by the formal system…it is a complex issue. Finger pointing is not a solution. Law enforcement and empowering victims to register cases, depose in front of the courts is. Creating awareness (among police and judges as well!) coupled with stronger punishment will help, I hope!

      • On one of your previous blogs relating to city planning, i remember having touched the topic of population density and that infrastructure services etc have to be designed for an ‘x’ amount of populace. Leading on from that, I would still say, migration to cities like delhi, it is high time is stopped and checked. And further while it is being checked, check that are they educated. This blog is in english, we are discussing in english, Most of the news channels are discussing in english, the posters are in english, but do the culprits know english. Timeline in the past, at which time i think this check should have started was the time the infrastructure started to get burdened. (in response to delhi is largely migrant population) Only 650 cop vehicles for the size of roads, number of vehicles, extent of road network, is a joke, and blaming it on cops for not doing their duty is another not serious aspect.
        But, you are perhaps right, that these people may still emerge from the existing populace. But, not if systems had been checked from beginning and checkers/controllers/cops are sizable themselves in the area under their control.
        I agree it is a complex issue, but attribute even that to population explosion. And still keep injecting more people? existing families are going to have kids, so its growing anyway. Crime rate is not going down unless some tough measures are taken.

      • Are you serious? Migrants should know English? Where is that coming from?

      • Of all the points, you pick that one..:D
        Read “education,” read culture, read “sabhya”.
        Me, you, us, all those who think that was wrong, must be “sabhya”.
        Then there are who don’t.
        System of checks is what I am talking about. And the scale and proportion of checkers vs. population.
        Thanks for this outlet, Mukta!

      • Point taken! A vital component of tackling crime is awareness building among citizens and capacity building of those who desk with criminal cases. The soft factors that are psychological and cultural need sensitive handling. How do we make that happen? Also, in the face of inevitable urbanisation how do we create employment and opportunity for people, skill them to avail of these? How do we create more urban space and infrastructure to accommodate aspirations of people?

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