Sitting on the roof of a public bus as the flood waters rose around him, Najmul Hassan Jaffery, 30, stared at the tattered remains of his passport and swore never to return to the city of Mumbai.
After working for seven years for an oil company in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, it was a bitter homecoming for the young professional. “I made keys,” he said, “Access keys, car keys, locker keys — any sort. It was a vast office of 5,000 employees who were constantly misplacing things. I came home for a holiday, only to have my passport washed away.” That was during the monsoon of 2005.
Since then, Jaffery has married, shifted to Noida, Uttar Pradesh (UP), had a son and set up a key-making stall in a basement in Noida’s Atta market: a sprawling labyrinth that houses everything from banks to bookstores, cinema halls to sari shops.
One of Noida’s most prominent landmarks, Atta serves as a fulcrum for migrants from across the country looking to lever their way into Delhi: the national capital and a city where 40 per cent of the population was born elsewhere. Jaffery isn’t particularly unsettled by the shift; like 307 million other Indians, he appears at peace with a life of perambulation.
India is on the move; in 2001, about 30 per cent of Indians were reported as migrants by place of birth and more than a hundred million have left home in the last 15 years. Official sources list “marriage” and “employment” as the primary drivers of this relentless travel, but newer work peels back the numbers to reveal a nation chasing adventure, dreams, education and the hope of a better tomorrow.
“Apart from age, education, wealth and gender, the reasons for the movement can be non-economic such as a sense of adventure, a desire to see the world, or escape exploitative, repressive or abusive relationships ,” says Shrayana Bhattacharya, research analyst at Institute of Social Studies Trust.
“It isn’t as if there aren’t any jobs back home,” says B K Tiwari, 35, the watchman outside Axis Bank across the street from Jaffery’s stall. “But employers prefer workers from out of town.” Tiwari, originally from Pratapgarh district in UP, 150 km west of Lucknow, came looking for work after his dreams of joining the Army failed to materialise. “They said I didn’t have enough merit,” he says candidly. “So I became a security guard.”
Tiwari explains that migrant workers tend to work harder and are less likely to protest poor working conditions.
“Locals don’t work as hard, and if you fire them they get 10 friends and create a ruckus.”
Tiwari’s observations are reflected in a number of studies — including the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2009, which reveals not just the positives of migration — such as an improvement in human development indicators like health, literacy and income — but also the vulnerabilities of migrant groups.
“Unlike countries like China, India doesn’t restrict internal movement as an official policy,” says Ajay Chhibber, UNDP’s regional director for Asia and the Pacific, “But migrants often don’t get certain services, or benefit from social schemes.”
A 10-minute drive due north from Atta Market, Khoda Colony straddles the eastern border of Delhi and UP. A steep slope leads down from the highway to a rambling lego-land of brick houses. “There are about 8 lakh people from all over the country in Khoda Colony,” says Praveen Chauhan, editor of Samkalin Chauthi Duniya and a Khoda resident. “But you cannot write to any of them.”
An unauthorised settlement set up in the late 1980s, Khoda has no post office, school, hospital, or police station. Every few weeks, a postman drops off a bundle of letters at a teashop close to the highway and residents sort out their mail themselves. Others use postal addresses of friends or family elsewhere in the city.
Unauthorised colonies like Khoda serve as resting places for weary migrants: a halfway house between Delhi and the village, where rents are as low as Rs. 1,000 for a room shared by three workers. Over months or even years, those living three to a room gradually rent places of their own, bring in their families and find steady jobs.
Like the queue of idling trucks at the Delhi-UP border, families, too, mark time on the outskirts — awaiting clearance to finally cross over from the peripheries of the nation to the city centres.
But movement is her own mistress. As he files delicate triangles onto a duplicate key for an Enfield motorcycle, Jaffery lists the reasons he’s happy to be home. “The food in Saudi was terrible — chicken boiled with salt and pepper. And if I leave now, my son won’t even remember my face.” Yet, as he holds up the key to the light, he has a confession to make. “I heard from the passport office; my passport might be ready soon.”