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  • Writer's picturemaithilee Sagara

Home Away from Home? Improving migrant workers' housing conditions is key to India’s growing economy

- Mr. Anurag Anthony, Dr. P. Jayapal and Dr. Amita Bhakta

May 2023

Surat, Gujarat’s second largest city and the 9th largest city in India, has demonstrated its economic potential through its thriving textile, diamond cutting and polishing, chemical, petrochemical, natural gas, and construction industries. As one of the largest destinations in India where informal workers seek a chance to improve their lives, Surat is part of the urban engine contributing to 60% of India’s economic growth. Surat caters to approximately 11.5 lakh migrant workers from 12 linguistic communities across the country, who are part of a nationwide population of 410 lakh interstate migrants who according to the 2011 census, leave their home states and come to India’s cities in the search for better opportunities. Yet, on arrival, housing is one critical factor shaping their experiences in the city that remains neglected, aside from the occupational hazards, meagre pay, and extended working hours. As Surat becomes one of the fastest growing cities in India, ensuring that the often-unseen workers driving the city’s economic boom have adequate living conditions is key. Affordable rental housing for migrant workers must be part of India’s future development plans. The heart-breaking scenes of desperation as migrants fled cities and walked in for endless days during the COVID-19 pandemic, back to their rural communities in the absence of viable transport options are etched into our collective memories. In response, the Urban Management Centre (UMC) in Ahmedabad wished to delve deeper: why were so many workers leaving Surat? In late 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, UMC came together with the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) and the Southern Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SGCCI), and initiated Empowering Migrants for Building Resilience through Comprehensive Entitlements (EMBRACE) – a programme to holistically support migrants to feel at home in the city, and to serve as a model for wider national uptake.

Affordable rental housing: a right for migrant labourers

Circular migration of workers between Surat and the most populous district in Odisha, Ganjam, is an annual phenomenon. Estimates indicate that between 8 to 10 lakh textile workers from Ganjam have been driven to Surat’s power loom factories through a range of push factors, among them, small land holdings, low literacy, and the long-term historical marginalisation of their communities. As per UMC’s survey of powerloom workers in Surat, around 70% of them are single men, who at times lack access to basic government entitlements such as an Aadhaar card and health insurance. The movement of people along what is dubbed the Ganjam-Surat corridor spans over 30 to 40 years, with workers staying in the city for various periods of time and with different individual circumstances. Ganjam’s Odia community in Surat is closely-knit and takes pride in their identity. However, on arrival to Surat, whilst the Odia community wish to stay in close proximity to each other, finding adequate and affordable rental housing is significantly challenging.

Figure 1: Worker operating a powerloom

Migrant workers find themselves in mess housing, an emerging form of accommodation in Surat. Characterised by their long 10 by 30 feet halls, mess housing scarcely provides the comforts and basic necessities for migrant workers to feel at home, driving mass exodus of migrants from the city during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they faced squeezes on their incomes to pay the rent. Whilst their salaries can reach up to INR 25,000, 80-90% of their wages are sent back to Ganjam in remittances. Although 73% of the workers have a bank account, 98% are paid their wages in cash, which is sent home through informal cash delivery agents at a 1% commission. According to UMC’s estimate, around INR 3,500 crores is remitted from Surat to Ganjam annually. Half of what remains is put towards daily expenses and rental of mess housing, where inadequate sanitation facilities with overflowing water are placed next to the kitchen, in a building with poor lighting and a lack of ventilation. A peaceful rest in these bunk beds between shifts is a rare luxury in these dingily lit messes, where 11% of migrant workers face living in overcrowded and noisy conditions of up to 100 people in a room. There is an urgent need to find routes to affordable housing with good living conditions for migrant workers.

Figure 2: Conventional mess housing

Making Surat a home for migrant workers

In partnership with the SMC and SGCCI, UMC decided to find a way to support the migrant workers to enable them to fully adopt Surat as their home, through the EMBRACE programme. The Migrant Cell, a city-level body supported by the local government has led efforts to address the rights of migrant workers and established the Migrant Support Committee. At a workshop with the Migrant Support Committee in July 2021, UMC recognised the critical role played by government initiatives such as the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHC) Scheme, launched in the wake of the mass exodus of rural migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst Surat has identified 498 dwellings for workers to datefrom which 227 units have been allocated to migrant workersthese efforts barely begin to scratch the surface. The vast potential of unused private property in the industrial belts of Surat should be used as part of the solution to provide workers with a secure place to stay. The EMBRACE programme identified ways forward to using unused property to give migrant workers a home, where vacant accommodation can be immediately operationalised for use. The Migrant Support Committee noted that extending the option for SMC-run shelters under the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM), for the homeless and the informal workers as their first point of stay, is pivotal for ensuring the mental and physical comfort of workers upon their arrival to the city. Whilst being a temporary housing option, dormitories provide the predominantly male and single migrants arriving in cities such as Surat with a clear window of time in which they can focus on pursuing employment opportunities and finding long-term accommodation solutions.

Public agencies and public-private partnerships could lead the way in utilising existing Government funded vacant houses in cities such as Surat, by converting them into ARHCs. Public and private entities could lead in building, operating, and maintaining ARHCs on their own land, supported by transport services to and from work for low-income migrant workers. Sustaining the long-term use of unallocated housing by migrants requires different approaches. Monitoring the allotment of housing to migrants and facilitating a tie-up between entities and public or private bodies for migrant workers requiring accommodation is a start. Land records could shine a light on where ARHCs can be built on vacant land in the city, and become the seed of change for future housing models, at the same time, consultations with industries shifting outside the SMC area can help to accurately understand the demand for housing. Through a cost-benefit analysis, stakeholders can understand the feasibility and potential of joining ARHC schemes, to replicate the model used in Surat to give migrants across Indian cities a secure and affordable home. Identifying partners for the operation and maintenance of AHRCs, such as voluntary and non-governmental organisations could further encourage land-owning institutions to participate in the scheme.

Working with private property owners to modify their houses to make them fit for rental, paves a way for the ULBs to make strides in giving migrant workers a secure home. Guidelines on housing quality and occupancy standards, norms for minimum basic infrastructure provisions, and benefits/ incentives such as property tax rebates for landlords are essential to resolving the housing crisis faced by migrants in cities like Surat. Funds for constructing convenient pay-as-you-go hostels for men and women for a fixed period of stay could be established through strong partnerships, in which migrants contribute as much as they can, and the state and ULBs foot the rest of the bill. Working women’s hostels in Surat can ensure that women workers can also access safe and affordable housing.

The way forward: lessons from EMBRACE’s work along the Ganjam-Surat corridor

Providing housing for a population of largely single male migrant workers needs to be shaped by a range of factors: the considerable number of single-room rental options with/ without food and other provisions, the extent of inter-state migration, the extent of housing supply in informal settlements including slums and chawls, accommodation near work sites, availability of vacant housing, demand for home ownership including within informal colonies, provision of employer-linked housing, and average duration of migrants’ stay, considering the fact that many migrants have stayed in the city for over 10 years.

The overcrowding of migrant workers in Surat’s mess housing is symptomatic of a need for urgent change. Though both the states of Odisha and Gujarat are benefiting from the growing economy of urban areas such as Surat, and industry owners are paying appropriate wages, the informal nature of employment for migrant workers has to end to ensure that they can access appropriate housing. Letters of contracts, access to and updation of Aadhaar cards, insurance, healthcare services when required and education for their children, achieved through collectivisation by UMC, are only the beginning. In the longer term, local government must act to monitor living standards in mess housing. A positive future for workers drawn to Surat’s industries can only be found if the local government works together with industries and the Ministry of Labour and Employment, to resolve the housing crisis faced by migrant workers in particular. The convergence of bodies such as the Migrant Cell and DAY-NULM’s city livelihood centres can lead to alternative and data-driven solutions to cheaper mess housing, improving the health and wellbeing of workers living in unsanitary conditions. Integrated efforts to provide housing alternatives to mess housing can be enhanced through centralised apps, as were used in the EMBRACE programme to facilitate registration, sharing, and monitoring housing that had been allocated to workers.

Multi-pronged approaches are required to meet the housing needs of a diverse migrant population. In light of continued growth of the number of migrants in urban India, an approach to ensure that migrants can make a home in the city, needs to cover a range of options, including shelters, dormitories, hostels, rental housing and ownership housing. Housing options need to be promoted parallelly and simultaneously on a continuous basis, rather than one at a time. Appropriate housing options for migrant workers can be implemented only through efforts which are cooperative, encourage participatory stakeholder engagement, identify and implement solutions.

We need to examine whether our cities are only catering for their citizens, or also for seasonal workers who are part of urban India’s invisible floating population. As India comes out of the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming clear that home ownership is only part of the solution to the country’s housing needs. Access to appropriate housing for the migrants that are key to urban India’s successes and economic growth, through good times and bad, is needed for them to truly feel at home.


About the Authors

Mr. Anurag Anthony

Mr. Anurag Anthony is the Chief Technical Officer at Urban Management Centre. He is an expert in local government management across sectors including heritage management, urban design, water-sanitation and community engagement.

Dr. P. Jayapal

Dr P. Jayapal has over 35 years of experience in the field of urban and regional planning with major contribution in housing and infrastructure development. His work areas largely include addressing urban poor, urban infrastructure planning and development, urban finance, and policy advocacy related to urban housing and livelihoods. He has led several initiative at HUDCO for 2 decades.

Dr. Amita Bhakta

Dr. Amita Bhakta is an interdisciplinary freelance consultant and researcher. She has a BA (Hons) Human Geography and an MRes Geography at the University of Leicester, UK. She then joined the WASH sector where she became the first Indian woman with Cerebral Palsy to complete a PhD (2013-2019) at the Water Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) in the School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering at Loughborough University, UK.

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