The construction industry thrives on the competence of its workers. From the highly educated contributors like architects and engineers to skilled labourers like masons and un-skilled labourers. The disparity of pay between these different classes of contributors is undisputed and so is their living condition. Most of the skilled/unskilled construction workers are migrants who travel afar in search of livelihood. As per the Census 2011, India had 456 million migrants in 2011 out of which 80 million were rural-urban migrants and 80 million were urban-urban migrants (Iyer, 2020). The construction sector generates the maximum number of jobs in urban areas and is the major source of employment for unskilled workers. As per estimates based on the NSSO 2016-17, there are over 74 million construction workers in the country.
Unfortunately, those who form the backbone of this multibillion-dollar industry are often forced to live in sub-optimal conditions and rendered homeless when adversity strikes. The initial lockdown during COVID 19 imposed with only a few hours' notice, exposed systemic inadequacies and resulted in a mass exodus of migrant workers from major cities to their source villages. This posed a health security challenge and created a logistical nightmare. The scale varied from region to region, but disadvantaged migrant workers, daily wagers and other already vulnerable populations.
The phenomenon of ‘reverse migration’ was assumed to be of permanent nature during the lockdown, with concerns being expressed about the re-migration of workers to cities.
In a recently conducted survey by Anant Centre for Sustainability, more than half of the respondents identified “no opportunities to earn an income” and “closure of construction site” as the top reasons for leaving the city upon lockdown. Nearly a third identified “safety from Covid-19 pandemic” and “lack of basic necessities and a fear for shortage of essentials”.
Post the first lockdown it was observed that many of the migrant workers returned to the city. It was found that nearly half of the migrant workers came back due to “no work in the village” and identified “the need to start earning again” as the primary reason for return
While identifying the day to day challenges faced in their settlements, a third of the respondents of the survey identified poor condition of toilets and wash facilities, and limited timing and quantity of water availability as one of the key challenges. The other challenges identified were increase in rent, water leakage in the room during the rainy season, flooding outside the house during rains, and affordable deposit and rent for a house. A minority of the respondents expressed concerns about security. The demand for housing is in many ways inelastic as they are severely constrained by cost and lack of job security. The willingness to pay ranges primarily between INR 1000 to 2000 for individuals and INR 2000 to 4000 for families with a minority (less than 15%) willing to pay above INR 4000.
Migrants face job insecurity, variability in the number of working days and wages. Post-COVID they continue to face hardships in terms of lesser numbers of work days, inconsistency of work and overall reduced income. The economic uncertainties present an immense challenge to access to affordable housing for migrant workers earning less than INR 50,000 per month. There is an evident dearth of housing options with flexible tenures, better suited for migrants, who have not yet taken the decision to stay in cities permanently. The migrant housing supply chain needs to provide housing solutions to cater to their unique needs, especially in the construction sector.
Some options could be short-term accommodation in night shelters run by the government and NGOs, these could be used as a means to help them access government services while they find their feet in the city. Usually in the construction sector, the most optimal accommodation is on-site but it is mostly of extremely poor quality and safety hazard especially for children. Modular, portable on-site accommodation that adheres to basic safety standards could go a long way to make the transition for migrants easier and increase productivity. The Anant Center of Sustainability has developed a range of options and prototyped them on live sites. The government has tried to do its bit through the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes scheme but the program has found it difficult to gain traction.
Migrants form the bulwark of urban growth and rural – urban migration is the only option for India as a country and society to grow. Unless a robust system is put in place for access to quality housing for the bottom of the quartile, we will continue to loose productivity and leakages will harm not only the workers but the industry as a whole.