From the margins: Exploring Low-income Migrant Workers' Access to Basic Services and Protection in the context of India's Urban Transformation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science


Indian cities attract a considerable number of low-income migrants from marginal rural households experiencing difficult economic, political and social conditions at home who migrate in search of livelihoods and security. These migrants come from around the country as well as across the border from Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar to work in low-income manual occupations in a range of small-scale petty trade, service sector work, transport and construction work. Low-income migrants live and work in precarious conditions and are often denied basic amenities and fundamental rights. Poorly-paid intermittent and insecure jobs make them vulnerable to abuse, extortion or bribery. Many such migrants, both internal and international, lack documentation and proof of identity, whether for basic services such as health care and schooling or electoral voting. Their marginal position entails poorer access to health care provisions and other determinants of health than general (non-migrant) populations, thereby enhancing their vulnerability to ill-health, abuse and ill treatment whilst simultaneously compromising their ability to access protection, legal support or redress, and forms of accountability. Language, appearance and cultural differences exposes many low-income migrants from interior parts of the country or across the border to harassment and political exclusion. Moreover, despite their ubiquitous presence, their precarious livelihoods, informality and invisibility keep them unnoticed in urban planning, in the work of civil society organisations and in social science research.
In this context, this collaborative project has been designed to generate evidence to advance the rights and protection mechanisms that must be planned and provided for low-income urban migrants. We shall examine what India's urban transformation means for low-income migrants, their inclusion and social justice by exploring:
1. Low-income migrants' views on transformations in Indian cities, and the opportunities and challenges that confront them;
2. Low-income migrants perceptions of their entitlements, claim-making processes and attempts to protect their own health in a context of poor living and working conditions;
3. The prevalence of violence and extent of exclusion experienced by low-income migrants and how they protect themselves from various forms of violence;
4. The legal, developmental, humanitarian and human rights responses to low-income migrants in Indian cities.
Fieldwork based in Guwahati (Assam) and Jalandhar (Punjab), two of India's fastest growing cities, aims to enrich our understanding of access to health care, the social determinants of health, and experiences of violence, inclusion/exclusion and accessing justice, from the vantage point of diverse low-income migrant workers, from within India as well as cross-border. The project will focus on migrants' perceptions and lived experiences and will generate evidence to advance the rights and protection mechanisms that must be planned and provided for low-income urban migrants. Low-income migrants are mobile, dispersed and invisible, so they present methodological challenges, especially for creating a sampling frame or mapping in a particular locality. A distinctive strength of the project is its innovative methods for accessing these 'hard-to-reach' groups.
The proposed research will adopt a mixed methods approach. In order to unravel the nuances and complexities of low-income migrants' experiences and situate these within the broader processes of urban transformation in Jalandhar and Guwahati, we shall combine ethnographic fieldwork with in-depth interviews, a brief survey, and participatory methods such as photovoice.

Planned Impact

The impacts that we are seeking to make with this research are of several kinds, and are emergent from the extensive networks that the research team already have in the UK, India and South Asia, and will further develop during the course of the research. The first will be academic researchers in the UK, India and elsewhere interested in low-income migrants' entitlement to basic services, equity and justice. More specifically, we will engage with the debate on citizenship and generate evidence to expand the conceptual debate on the possibilities for ensuring migrants' citizenship to access services and protection in face of structural and direct violence in urban areas. We will also develop a methodology to reach out to low-income migrants that are often difficult to geographically map. The second will be policy makers and urban planners at a domestic and international level who are interested in the welfare and protection of low-income migrants, and in sustainable development of cities. The include officials from State health & social development Ministries (and other Central planning structures such as Niti Aayog) as well as representatives of multilateral international agencies such as the UNHCR, UN Women, ILO, International Organisation for Migration (Chopra and Sharma have previously worked in collaboration with these organisations). The third, and main beneficiary, will be human rights groups, health and social equity movements (e.g. Jan Swasthya Abhiyan), NGOs and migrant organisations/ associations who are seeking to advance the rights, welfare and protection mechanisms for low-income migrants. This constituency includes initiatives of international prominence such as the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (Kapilashrami has previously worked with the Director, Dr Sanjoy Hazarika) as well as national and local organisations working on crosscutting issues of gender, health & homelessness. Through a programme of dissemination, including exhibitions in collaboration with local organizations, information and knowledge will be used to improve public awareness on the pattern and experiences of low-income migrants.

Impact is built into the design of the project. We will engage with each of these constituencies in the project inception workshop that will be help in Delhi at the start of the project. We will invite 20-25 key stakeholders from these three constituencies in the inception meeting. In the inception workshop, we will discuss the scope of the study with them and learn from their insights and to assess their perspectives on our research questions and views on the knowledge gap, and provide important information and access to help us firm up our field research plans. The project will also consist of an advisory board drawn from academia, international organisations and NGOs. As a part of our study, we will carry out a mapping of the legal, developmental, health care, humanitarian and human rights responses in Jalandhar and Guwahati, which will help us understand the current welfare architecture and identify good practices and gaps.


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