In India, even Indians can be 'foreigners'

Mumbai and other Indian cities enact labor restrictions to stem an influx of poor migrant workers.

Taylor Barnes
Akhilesh Rao, a migrant from the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, came to Mumbai in search of a better life. But he, like many rural migrants, faced routine discrimination because he was considered an 'outsider.'

Akhilesh Rao has found the closest thing he can to a stable job and a home – deep inside the monsoon-soaked mud lanes of one of India's largest slums. But it has been a long and arduous journey. It's taken him almost 18 years.

Like the 500 migrants who arrive in India's "city of dreams" each day, Mr. Rao, from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, came here in search of a better life. But he faced routine discrimination because of his "outsider" status.

On his last job – loading rolls of textiles onto trucks – he recalls how police would stop him as he left work at night and ask him to show his ID. They threatened to throw him in jail for being a migrant. He had no papers to prove he had lived here for nearly two decades and paid as much as 2000 rupees (US$40) in bribes each time.

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Since then, Rao has been able to get a driver's license – at more than double the usual price – and establish a meager life. "Now we are able to solve our problems on our own because we know the laws," says Rao, an ebullient man who is as thin as a bamboo shoot.

Rao's tale is a reminder that anti-outsider sentiment today isn't confined to just those journeying across borders to find new homelands. It is also often aimed at those moving within countries.

And the potential for such tension is huge. When they hear the word "migration," most people think of masses of humanity moving from poor nations to rich ones. But the fact is, the overwhelming majority of people who move in the world do so within their own borders.

The United Nations Population Division estimates that 740 million people are internal migrants – almost four times as many as those who have moved internationally.

In some places, such as India, the reception isn't always cordial. Though the Indian Constitution promises freedom of movement to its people, many internal migrants live like illegal immigrants – in slum dwellings that authorities often demolish – and are denied access to jobs.

In Mumbai (Bombay), nativist politicians accuse newcomers like Rao, especially ones from the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, of taking jobs that should go to locals and of contributing to slum growth. An April report by the McKinsey Global Institute on India's urbanization estimates that 70 percent of India's migrants won't be able to afford formal housing at market prices in its cities.

"Whenever I went [to places that were hiring], they had these banners up that said, 'Only people living here 15 years,' " Rao says through a translator.

Nor is the antimigrant sentiment confined to Mumbai. It has flared up across the country, from New Delhi to the northeastern state of Assam, where deadly riots erupted in 2003 after migrants were prevented from taking a railway exam.

Critics believe the antimigrant policies will only stifle progress. Amita Bhide, a urban expert at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, argues the local "domicile rule" – which requires that migrants prove they've lived in Mumbai for 15 years before they are eligible for many jobs and public services – will undermine a recent national initiative to make India slum-free in five years. She believes that limiting access to urban economies and housing hinders social mobility.

"There is no possibility that you can do this if you have a domicile rule for 15 years," she says. "We are seeing the city become even more and more exclusive."

Language has become a particular flash point in Mumbai. Though the city is famous for being the home of Bollywood, India's filmmaking hub where Hindi, one of India's national languages, is the featured tongue, local politicians often pass or threaten to make laws requiring workers to speak Marathi, the language of the state where Mumbai is located. Government workers must speak Marathi, and local politicians nearly passed a law earlier this year requiring taxi drivers, often a gateway job for migrants, to do so as well.

For Simpreet Singh, an activist who works in the local slums, this so-called "Marathi agenda" is an attempt to divert attention from the deeper economic problems the city faces.

"It's easy to fight," he says of the focus on migration. "It's an enemy that's not there."

Rao has now become a "caretaker" of his neighborhood in northern Mumbai. He oversees a low-cost clinic and a phone center. He doesn't believe any of the ordinary Marathis who live near him harbor any resentment. It's just the nativist leaders. "The thing is that it's all political," he says.

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