Mobilities of (un)freedom – precariousness, agency and social protection access among labour migrants in urban India

Authors: Nabeela Ahmed*, King's College London
Topics: Urban Geography, Migration
Keywords: migration; labour; India; social protection; precarity
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Forum Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Labour migrants moving from rural to urban areas in India are subject to homogenising narratives of distress, vulnerability and precarity. This paper contests these norms by taking an intersectional and empirical approach to invoke the variety, spatiality and temporality of unfreedoms experienced by labour migrants in urban India. In response, labour migrants adopt multiple and distinctive strategies to survive or resist such unfreedoms.

I focus on unfreedoms represented by lack of access to state social protection. While Indians are constitutionally permitted to work and settle anywhere within the country, migrants face various barriers to accessing social protection. I use the example of the Public Distribution System (PDS) - a universal food subsidy scheme – to explore how access is spatialised and fractured even within low- and unskilled categories of labour migrants in cities.

Drawing from original fieldwork in two cities in western India – Nashik and Ahmedabad – I illustrate multiple barriers to access faced by labour migrants, though to varying degrees depending on type of migration as well as gender, age, class and religion. I present these nuanced and diverse experiences as a broad and intersecting ‘spectrum’ of unfreedoms. The findings also highlight how policies and local bureaucrats - biased toward sedentary citizens - structure and diversify precariousness among labour migrants.

Finally, I present evidence on agency among labour migrants. Labour migrants, regardless of temporal or spatial factors, strategically maintain ‘multi-locational’ linkages between places of destination and origin, among other strategies at multiple scales to overcome barriers to access.

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