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The bald story: We need migrants and we need to talk about diversity

The buzz on migration has been growing the past few years, but it is hard to connect the dots on economic, social and right-based approaches the to the issue and even harder to understand migration in the context of urbanization and globalization, both forces that are fueling and shaping the mobility of human beings across the world.

The tragedy off Italian island Lampedusa with the drowning of 300 African migrants served to highlight the conflicts and contradictions, and how confused our understanding is on the issue of migration. This morning, The Hindu carries an excellent interview of Francois Crepeau, who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. A few points he states helped me put things in perspective and am paraphrasing the highlights here for you.

1- Economies need migrants (widely rewfering to low-wage, illegal migrants in the international, esp European context) because they do unskilled, low-paid jobs that no one else wants to do and are regularly exploited while doing so

2- They subsidize industries (he cites the example of strawberry picking) that have low margins. If we really want to do away with illegal migration, we would need to subsidize or improve these industries, not clamp down on migration, which clearly is the backbone on which these industries survive. This sort of analogy holds equally true of internal migrants from rural areas to cities, except that there is no question of illegality (except for countries like China where systems like hukou restrict mobility).

3- The sovereignty of nations is hugely compromised by globalization and there is a sense of loss of control, hence an over emphasis on the protection of boundaries and clamping down on migration. It’s a misfit solution to a complex problem.

4- The plain fact is that politicians are “not up to the task of telling their populations that we need migrants-doctors abd engineers, but also we need low-skilled or unskilled migrants.” Crepeau states that this is because the discussion on migrants becomes about national identity and societies are simply not ready to accept change. There is therefore the need for a great discussion on “diversity policies- on who we are and how we see ourselves in 50 or hundred years.”

I couldn’t agree more. We do not need to see migration from a perspective of paranoia and suspicion. We cannot protect our boundaries of caste, clan, class forever. We, in India and especially in urbanizing areas of India, need a civic engagement and dialogue about diversity. In our schools and colleges, in our drawings rooms, in our workplaces, we need to talk about inclusion, humanity and human rights, we need to learn to accept the ‘other’. If we refuse to do so and continue to build the walls higher around us, we will leave behind for our children a world unlivable- a battleground, a barren waste.

Can smartly designed private all-rental developments be the answer to housing woes? April 10, 2012

Imagine for a moment that a migrant entering a city could apply to one of several private housing rental companies, choose as per availability and simply move with minimum baggage into a serviced, privately managed property that fits her budget. Imagine too, that these private rental developments are scattered across every city, serving major commercial districts and built along mass transit corridors. I’d go one step further and imagine that private managers of rental property see advantage in offering these to low-income and middle-income families, so that the economies of scale make these profitable.

While working on the Jalti Jhopdi project these past ten days, we were discussing the problem of migrant housing during a site visit. The discussion was with a colleague who is not an architect or urban planner, but has worked extensively with communities in Gurgaon. In her opinion, the only solution was for the government to facilitate the setting up of managed rental housing to be made available to migrants for a year (they pay Rs 800-900 for terrible, little hovels at this point!). During this year, it could be possible through a network of NGOs and employer organizations, to equip families with identity papers, a basic understanding of how things work, livelihood for the adults, schooling for the children vocational training, etc so that they can carry on with life with some dignity. Her thought stayed in my head even as I wondered at the complete lack of government response to the unique problems migrants (at all income levels) face, especially in emerging urban centers like Gurgaon.

Yesterday, I read about Ikea starting a private, all-rental housing project for 6000 homes in Portland, Oregon and I felt the dots starting to connect. Five-floor high apartment blocks, car-free neighborhood, new urbanist aesthetic, but all in Ikea’s modular non-fussy style is what they seem to have in mind. The project targets middle class families and is pretty much a no-frills offering.

The Indian property market is certainly missing organized rentals as a logical step to home ownership, mostly because of low returns. Of course, there are barriers and risks to private companies attempting large-scale rentals. But it’s worth thinking about, especially in urban areas with high inflow and outflow of people, in new industrial towns and for low-income populations all over! We return to the need for policy initiatives to encourage this sector. Housing across income groups is a serious issue across India. Innovations to encourage quality rentals would take a lot of stress of a young, mobile working population and do wonders to the character of our urban settlements! Such a provision would make employers really happy and perhaps a partnership between large employers and developers is one way to start these off….


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