Settlers Unsettled: How can Bengaluru Retain its Dynamic Workforce?

May 13, 2020


Bangalore is a city of migrants. But we do not know yet how many of them have left the city in the wake of the pandemic. With the lockdown partially lifted, many more may want to return home. There are indications that they may not wish to hurry back. The idea of home has never seemed so important to them as now. So that leaves a big question for this city of Bengaluru, which depends on its migrants for many day-to-day operations to keep it humming. What will Bengaluru look like in the interim? Which services will be affected? How will the city cope? Also, how have we treated the migrants in this crisis? What has the government done? What have been the experiences of the migrants; what would they want in the future? Will this shock treatment the city faces help us change our attitude and our dealings with migrants? Will we be more welcoming? Will we respect their rights Rohini Nilekani moderates a panel featuring Gayathri Vasudevan, Manish Sabharwal, Ramani Sastri and Divya Ravindranath.

This is an edited version of a panel discussion moderated by Rohini Nilekani, on the consequences of the pandemic on Bengaluru’s workforce. The panel featured Gayathri Vasudevan, Manish Sabharwal, Ramani Sastri, and Divya Ravindranath.

I am a migrant to Bangalore, a city which is now my own. My husband Nandan was born here, but I only got here in 1984 and fell in love with it right away. I was born in manic Mumbai, so to come to a city of trees and gardens where people strolled about in a relaxed sort of way was novel and marvelous. When I started my work here as a journalist, I used to take bus number 20 from Jayanagar to St. Marks Road where my office was. But soon after that, the city began to change and people started arriving from around the country. Older residents resented people like us from the IT sector, who had taken their pensioners’ paradise and turned it into a struggling mess.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s I got the opportunity to work with several organisations including the Akshara Foundation, and through that work I met people living in slums and tenements who were not as lucky as I was. So while we understand that migrants can come from all classes, castes, and walks of life, we need to focus on those who are more vulnerable. Cities in India depend on migrants, and their narratives often make up the best and the biggest chunk of Bangalore’s history. In the past few months, the vulnerable migrant has haunted India, awakened our conscience, and brought our attention to their suffering as they try to get home. The inadequate and sometimes inhumane response of the state has filled our minds.

In Bangalore, we don’t have accurate data on how many migrants have left the city in the wake of the pandemic, and how many more will leave once the lockdown is properly lifted. States are now crafting new policies to retain and attract investment, which will create more opportunities for people in their own states, so there may be a new dynamic of labour availability. On the other hand, many migrants are desperate to return and get their jobs back, because despite the emotional security at home, they need financial security. As of now, we don’t know if deepening rural distress will result in new migrants coming to the cities as well. So how can we fashion the city to be more welcoming of its migrants so that we can be part of a flourishing economy and society?

Employers and the State Need to Provide Solutions

We need to consider the public infrastructure and policies that we will need. As Gayathri notes, our everyday lives will not work without migrants. Many people had not realised exactly how important they were in our lives, which meant that we didn’t bother with their working and living conditions. They were in our neighborhoods, but they were invisible. With the mass migration now, Gayathri predicts that the country is going to see a worker surplus and worker deficit areas, and Bangalore may be a worker deficit area. How we have treated workers is going to reflect in the numbers who decide to come back. Manish disagrees on this. According to his estimations, maybe one million out of the 40 million migrants in the labour force will go home. So he doesn’t think there’s going to be a shortage of labour since most companies are at 25% capacity utilisation, which will slowly increase going forward. India doesn’t have a jobs problem but a wages problem, he argues.

The question now becomes how do we bring workers back? Divya reminds us that it is unviable for workers to live in a city when there are no wages and no employment. People want to go home because they feel like there is some support structure there, so how do we ensure that these structures are maintained in the cities so that they don’t feel like they have to leave? It will be very difficult for workers to come back, especially after this experience which is going to also have an emotional and mental impact. We need to also start thinking about solutions, which must be a combination of responses from employers as well as the state. Wages must be something that enables them to sustain themselves in the city where costs are higher. Safe working and living conditions are important as well. We often think of migrants as male workers, but many are female, so we need to keep their needs in mind, like access to health care resources, childcare facilities, etc. These are the things that workers want from their employers and from the state.

We also need to start thinking about a range of housing options, says Divya. There are short-term migrants, semi-permanent migrants, and seasonal migrants, in addition to people who move permanently. These vulnerable groups come just for a few months, and then return to do agriculture in the village. So we need to have housing arrangements for all these workers. We also need to realise there are various kinds of sectors, and workers have specific needs in each of these sectors. For example, garment workers live in clusters whereas construction workers are the most mobile because they move from site to site. One of the main issues is that migrants are still considered to be outsiders, despite having lived in the city for generations. They live in informal settlements that are unrecognised by the city, and they are completely disconnected from any services that the state provides. By now, they should not be feeling like migrants but as part of our city. They should be able to have housing here, vote here, and make legitimate demands of the state and their employers.

Investing in Skilling Workers

Ramani explains the industry perspective on migrant workers, where contracting companies provide accommodations and invest in ensuring healthy and hygienic conditions for workers. During the pandemic, he states that project sites now have doctors checking workers every three day and providing information sessions about what COVID-19 is and what the symptoms are. Companies have also endeavoured to provide grains as well as cash, but because workers come through a labour contractor, it is difficult to keep track and ensure that the workers are being treated well. Ramani suggests that we need labour law reforms or better laws that ensure workers’ welfare. Another issue he points to is the need for investment in skilling workers, so that they can advance in sectors and find better employment.

Gayathri agrees that one of the biggest issues now is the lack of skilled workers. There is nobody who is working in the vocation who actually knows the vocation. We need to democratise skilling. Vocational education has been monopolised by a very narrow definition of how it has to be.

Today, we have engineers and doctors who have added to that group. We have a lot of colleges that are producing significantly good graduates. But if we look at the lower segment of work that is there, skill is still a problem. India has 6 lakh gram panchayats out of which 2.5 lakh are absolutely unviable. But we do have 7,000 census towns which could possibly be at a population of one lakh. So if we’re able to actually develop 7,000 census towns, that could be revolutionary. Bangalore is not Bangalore alone, so could we move to Hosur, Anekal, Jigani? The continuum that we’re able to create is very important as we move forward.

In terms of larger companies taking care of its workers, Bangalore is made up of small builders, neighborhood construction sites or restaurants. We were neither policy-wise ready nor did we have the foresight to ensure better working and living conditions for these workers in the event of something like a pandemic. Gayathri hopes that the focus on occupational safety and health will go up tremendously. As soon as the middle class fears for itself, it will wake up to doing things better for everyone.

Rethinking India’s Labour Laws

India has 63 million enterprises, and only one million of them pay social security, Manish points out. Only 19,500 have a paid up capital of more than 10 crores, and it’s important to recognise that wages depend on productivity of enterprises. We don’t need 63 million enterprises. The US economy is eight times India’s and it only has 23 million enterprises. So many of these are not self-employment, they are self-exploitation, and our labour is handicapped without capital. Indian labour laws have 17 definitions of wages, 22 definitions of workers, and 19 definitions of enterprise. It’s impossible to comply with 100% of India’s labour laws without violating 10% of them.

The other issue is that 90% of India is informally employed, which means that labour laws are irrelevant and the labour aristocracy is the only one getting the help. Our current system is not working. That doesn’t mean there should be some non-negotiables like health and safety, portable social security, and realistic minimum wages. We need to formalise the Indian labour force, a challenging task when there are 63 million enterprises to hold accountable. So labour laws are an important part of the reform program. We need calibrated labour laws which don’t encourage the treating of labour as a disease and automate.

On the one hand, there is so much regulation in India that we don’t even understand. I often say that every time you wake up in India, you have already broken three laws because we have so many complex laws. So we also need to acknowledge the difficulties that employers face in being able to adhere to the laws and regulations while also ensuring their workers’ needs are met.

To Manish, reform happens when problem, opportunity, and timing come together. India can’t be run from Delhi. It’s important for labour laws and land markets to be handed over to chief ministers. The lack of competition among states is one of the reasons why employers find it hard to have a factory with 100,000 people in India. There’s not a single factory in India with 100,000 people. There are more than 100 in China, because we would just never risk having 100,000 people in the same place.

Seeing Workers As Human Beings

If we want to start envisaging a better city for our workers, we cannot afford to disconnect them from food systems and basic public infrastructure. The kind of work they do is often extremely taxing, both physically and mentally, but we don’t think of them as people beyond requirements of just wages. We need to start thinking about them as people who have other needs like all of us. None of these can be done either by the state or the employer alone, it has to be a good mix of both. In the corporate sector, people talk about improving work conditions because that’s necessary for better productivity. But we never hold labourers to the same standards. The state also has to think about ways to let people enjoy the city. Migrants may move for income, but they’re also coming because the city is a space of aspiration, and they want to be here. We have to think about workers in all these terms rather than just bodies that are going to be labouring day in and out.

We also need to understand that most of the workers in the informal sector also belong to communities with high rates of malnutrition, anaemia, etc. One of the questions Divya asks is how are workers going to work long hours without all the other supportive infrastructure. Through her field work at various construction sites for over four years, Divya notes that the situation is very bad in terms of health outcomes. So while we focus on productivity, we need to keep this reality in mind as well.

There’s also the issue of caste that plays a role in this, because most of the construction sector workers will either belong to the OBC caste or be Dalits. Depending on the sector, there will be certain caste distinctions. And we are seeing how that plays out, even with the kind of response the state has given in the last few weeks, Divya notes. The fact that international migrants were brought in special planes but no transport was arranged for interstate workers makes it impossible to ignore the caste and class issue.

Additionally, public infrastructure for women and sanitation is an issue for everybody. Gayathri suggests that perhaps it is time for the state to define what health infrastructure entails in more broad terms, she argues. So a health infrastructure could include electricity and water, which you cannot run hospitals and clinics without. We need to divide this between what the state needs to provide and what an employer needs to provide. Gayathria remembers a Bangalore where children would play on the roads, cycling up to Vidhana Soudha easily. She lives in Jayanagar now and notes that Tilak Nagar and Padarayanapura are containment zones. This just shows us that the city grew in a manner which was not acceptable to its health. She feels that the last two decades were about mobility, but this next decade is about health infrastructure.

The Future of Our Cities

In terms of whether migrants will return to cities, Manish is positive. He argues that for them, employment is as important as it is to the employer. So the labour will come back. If we look at the last 20 years in Bangalore, from March to June, about 30% of migrant labourers go back to the fields. This time it is maybe 10% more. But he is confident that they will come back because there is nothing to hold them back in their hometown. The problem with the lockdown is that only certain people can work from home. People who do physical labour can’t. The lockdown doesn’t work as a one-size-fits-all model, and we need to allow for that.

The key is to ensure better housing and working conditions for all, says Divya. We know that many safety measures, for example, are not followed at all. There are no child care facilities on site, even though many migrant workers move with their children. From her experiences in the field, at the construction sites, she notes several sanitation issues as well. Access to healthcare is another huge problem. A large number of workers suffer from TB, and increasingly many workers have multiple comorbidities because NCDs are on the rise. So we need to be able to give them access to better health care services. For this to happen, we need a good public health infrastructure and COVID-19 has taught us that if we don’t have that in place, we’re going to run into huge problems in the future. They also need for better access to food systems. For example, the Public Distribution System has to be portable. Many migrants are not able to access it when they’re in the city, and their families need it back home. We need to be able to experiment with different things, but to make the PDS portable is absolutely crucial at this stage.

In addition to vocational training and access to health care, water and sanitation are crucial now, says Ramani. We also need to create clusters with social infrastructure, and even if it is state-funded and rented. In terms of public health, all the developers have been requested to insure at least all the workers who are working for them.

Manish argues that entrepreneurs cannot substitute the state. What the state needs to do is formalise, urbanise, industrialise, financialise and skill. Only 55% of our labour force works in farms. Additionally, we need to skill and work on education simultaneously. When we think of the children of migrant labourers in Bangalore, their non-access to education is truly frightening because they are coming from various places and can’t study in their own languages. We also have to urbanise better. This doesn’t mean more people migrating to Delhi, Bombay, or Bangalore. We need 200 cities and more than a million people.

Unless we open up and learn from this pandemic, we are not going to get very far. We need to ensure lasting changes In terms of health, COVID-19 has taught us that we’re all interlinked, and we need everybody to be healthy so that we can be healthy. The fate of migrant workers and the fate of Bangalore are tied together, and we have to co-create the kind of governance we need, both for ourselves and all our migrants who are going to be coming in and who are already here.



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