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Migrants do more good than harm to Mumbai

February 10, 2010 15:22 IST

Amidst the acrimonious debate over migrants in Mumbai, the city's civic body in a report says that they contribute to the economic growth of the metropolis, writes Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Of late, much has been said about migrants in Mumbai.

There has been lot of semantics in the air, a lot of threats and lot of bemoaning, depending on which side one is on.

Two political parties, with nativism as their planks, are involved in competitive support for the sons of the soil. The Shiv Sena, which originally ran on that plank, has begun to try and retrieve the ground it lost to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

Amid this, I would like to draw attention to a fact. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai which has for long been run by the Shiv Sena, and which is its main political corpus, has actually said nice things about the migrants and their contribution to the city. This has been brushed under the carpet by almost the entire media which is otherwise quite actively reporting on the migrants' issue, linking it to the Maharashtrian identity.

A different take

It can be found in the Mumbai Human Development Report 2009, which was released in October 2009 by the then Shiv Sena Mayor Shuba Raul who had said then, ''The report is useful for sustainable development of Mumbai."

That report makes several points with regard to the migrants and the city of Mumbai, which for the purposes of the report confined itself to the precise geographic area which is administered by the MCGM, and excluded the rest of the metropolitan area's demographics.

The report, now brought out by the Oxford University Press as a priced title, is copyrighted to the MCGM. The copyright makes it as official as it can get in that the civic body owns up the report fully.

Worst scene among cities

Now what does it say? First and foremost, the percentage of the migrant population against the total population measured every decade by the Census -- the last being the Census 2001 -- was decreasing, but given the higher base every decade, the absolute number of the migrants was higher almost every time.

Secondly, that the migrants in most cases head for the slums, the influx guided by two facts: the push factor which operates in the rural areas of other parts of the country sends them to Mumbai. The pull factor is the livelihoods possible in Mumbai. It makes a clear point that Mumbai is not a preferred destination for residence but only for livelihood opportunities. That is because most migrants at the lower end of the economic strata head for the slums.

The slums, according to the 2001 Census, houses, on about 7-8 per cent of Mumbai's land, 54.1 per cent of the city's population in conditions that are hellish, worse than what they tried to escape from their villages. That accounts for close to 60 lakh people in slums, of at least one of two Mumbai residents striving to sustain themselves there. There is no other city with such comparable proportion of people in hovels.

Economy buttressed

The other point that the MHDR 2009 makes is that though the population in the city is ever on the increase, making for one of the most cramped cities in the world, with no lung space worth the mention, it has not hurt the economic interests of Mumbai. For instance, in the decade 1991-2001, the population rose steadily and so did the per capita income, except for a nominal fall in 1998.

Quoting official statistics, the MHDR 2009 points out that it continued to grow, 'implying that migrants may not have diluted the economic strength of Mumbai but may have actually contributed to it. In other words, migration has not been adverse (to Mumbai) but actually served Mumbai well'.

Most of these migrants learn new skills that are relevant to an urban population's needs, which, in their situation, represents a huge investment in time and costs, and then price themselves appropriately to cater to the demand, especially in the services sector. And then, 'become an integral part of the whole economic dynamics' of the city. They are 'more entrepreneurial in approach than is normally acknowledged'.

The report also admits that the migrants have their constitutional rights and they 'can be cited for only one fault they bring to the city with them -- the burden on the civic infrastructure but otherwise, they are participants in its economic growth'. They 'are not to be turned away for they cannot be so treated because of the ironclad constitutional guarantees; they have the right to free movement and taking up residences at places of their choice'.

Big share

The service sector's share in Mumbai economy is 'close to three-fourths of the total accounting for a large number of the working population. The proportion of the informal sector which is 36 per cent of the total income generated by the sector explains both the nature of the ever-growing economy and the migrants' role in it.' The migrants, by and large, are involved in the informal service sector.

Now, the question that arises is, why this dichotomy between the facts as the Shiv Sena-run civic body and the very party's approach to migrants as seen in the demand that knowledge of Marathi should be a criterion when assigning taxi licences? This is something the Shiv Sena ought to resolve because it cannot say one thing on the streets and as the entity that actually runs the city, plug something quite different.

That is to the extent the Shiv Sena is concerned.

Now, turn to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and its leader, Raj Thackeray.

Enterprise?

When Raj Thackeray was in the thick of the Sena's affairs before his cousin gained the ascendancy, he had started the Shiv Udyog Sena, an arm to facilitate the cadre's migration from search for employment to engagement in enterprise. That coincided with the Sena, in partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party, taking charge of the Maharashtra government. That arm is now virtually defunct -- a safe assumption as no one hears anything about it in the pubic domain anymore.

So dismayed was Raj with the persistence of the local Maharashtrian lads then, an insider had told me when I was an active reporter, that he had realised that teaching enterprise was tougher than he had imagined and all the locals wanted was salaried jobs.

Anything for survival

Obviously, the migrant population is willing to try anything for survival and some of them have now become bigger entrepreneurs including with abilities to take up fair-sized contracts, putting them in the upper-middle class category of the population. Even to compete here, the locals would have to show enterprise and ability to do hard work, for things in the informal service sector is not in the least easy. Knocks come easily and grit is called for.

And above all, the migrants came here because they could fill the gaps in the service sector. The question is: who left the gaps open to let them come in that we now ask the migrants be not entertained?

The Shiv Sena and the MNS should try to explain that. And in the meanwhile, reconcile the differing perceptions about the migrants that the Sena and the MCGM have. That would be something, really.

Mahesh Vijapurkar, a veteran journalist, was consultant-editor for the Mumbai Human Development Report 2009 project when it was being shaped

Mahesh Vijapurkar