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India's migrant workers face hostility in Mumbai

In India's crowded and burdened cities such as Mumbai, local politicians have rekindled antimigrant attitudes by trying to restrict labor licenses to those who can speak a local language. Most migrant workers cannot.

By Staff writer / April 9, 2010

Rakeshkumar Das fears that nativist laws will end his longtime job as a Mumbai cabdriver. Like most migrant workers here, he cannot speak the local language, Marathi. His family lives 36 hours away by train.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Rakeshkumar Das first came to the big city 22 years ago to get a piece of India's economic growth. But his life still resembles that of an illegal immigrant in his own country.

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Rents are so high that he cannot afford to live in Mumbai (Bombay), so he sleeps in the taxi he drives and takes the 36-hour train ride home to his wife twice a year. Now he fears he will lose his job after the state government tried to restrict cabby licenses to those who can speak a local language. Most drivers, migrants like Mr. Das, do not.

The controversy rekindled the antimigrant attitudes that sometimes flare up in India's commercial capital. Nativist politicians cast migrants as economic competition and a strain on resources, unleashing passions that in the past have led to violence.

This time, two top figures – politician Rahul Gandhi and cricket champ Sachin Tendulkar – defended migrants with the slogan "Mumbai is for all Indians" and cooled tempers, for now.

But the larger question remains whether to better accommodate migrants with improved urban infrastructure and government services, or to discourage them through locals-first job preferences and decentralized development. Das is one of hundreds of millions of migrants whose ranks are only expected to grow, and so force the debate.

"In terms of migration within India, the question isn't 'Why is it so much?' it is 'Why is it so little?' And if India does not get its act together, they will find [tensions] much harder to solve when [migration] really gets more substantial," says Davesh Kapur, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.

Antimigrant sentiments intensify

The cabby controversy emboldened antimigrant activists in the city. One of the most prominent, Raj Thack­eray, told his party workers in March to attack migrant slum dwellers who illegally hook up their own plumbing connections. "Just beat them up, don't waste your time," he said, according to local media.

As the country's commercial capital and therefore a magnet for job seekers, Mumbai for years has been the chief flash point for migrant-worker issues. But now a nativist party is gaining ground in the high-tech hub of Hyderabad. New Delhi's chief minister has also talked of curbing "in-migration."

The persistence of these efforts irks some analysts who fear they could stifle labor flows and economic growth.

"Without question, some of [India's] competitiveness could be placed at risk if [cities] can't get either this large pool of cheap labor for construction or a more talented group of people who can't find opportunities" at home, says Sumit Ganguly, a visiting professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.