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Migrants are often denied legal, social entitlements as politics doesn’t address them, but things are changing.
At his rally in Delhi on Sunday, Rahul Gandhi addressed the bulk of his speech to migrants, as did Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. This is unsurprising, since workers from eastern UP and Bihar make up 30-40 per cent of the population in many constituencies, and the BJP and other parties also vie for these votes. The Congress state government has splashed out on welfare schemes, and recently regularised over 900 unauthorised colonies. Delhi politics is unusual in how receptive it is to migrants, the other end of the spectrum from Mumbai, where parties like the Shiv Sena and MNS exploit Maratha insecurities and derive their strength from harassing migrants.
In order to get registered to vote, migrants usually depend on political forces that are familiar from their place of origin, and are often alienated from mainstream parties in their new places of residence. Local politics does not always respond well to internal migration. Newcomers are viewed with hostility, the assumption being that they place a strain on public goods and “steal” jobs from the city’s traditional inhabitants. A recent UNESCO report gave the lie to this perception, pointing out that migrant workers are in fact service providers who contribute 10 per cent of India’s GDP. And yet, urban policy often does not accommodate their concerns while planning the city’s space, housing, or social protection, health and education provisions, and they are too occupied with defending their livelihood and shelter to exercise political voice.
But increasingly, as the remarkable rate of migration to cities changes the very character of urban citizenship, political leaders have begun to acknowledge the hard work and resourcefulness of those who uproot themselves and move. In Jhansi, Narendra Modi recently spoke of how it is the sweat of workers from all over India that makes Gujarat shine today. The UNESCO report revealed some of the ways political and civic structures are changing to accommodate these new aspirations. For instance, urban local bodies and municipalities like Coimbatore and Visakhapatnam have declared “citizens charters” to provide information about municipal services and redress complaints. Politics, too, will have no choice but to crystallise around their interests, as the swelling tide of migration alters their traditional calculus of caste and community.