Voices Behind Statistics – Stories from the faces of the City

I had evidently become curious about every passing human – co-passengers in the metro, rickshaw pullers in the neighbourhood, friends, co workers and the like. No one in my vicinity seemed to belong here. They seemed to have travelled from faraway places in the pursuit of hope – that something would change. Some settled for way too less from what they set out for; a few saw opportunities; but only a very few found a home.

Ten radio spots had to be created that provoke positive narratives on internal migration. The organisation I work for had partnered with UNESCO to work on this relatively short project. A few weeks were spent on secondary research to decide the themes for each radio spot. It already gave me an overdose of numbers and statistics. The curiosity was a result of it.

But the ground reality had to be checked once to be sure. What if it was different? What if there was something beyond the circulated questionnaires? I was interested in the humans who were just samples on paper – the possibilities beyond the the methods undertaken. I wanted stories.

As we (a colleague and I) set out for our field research, we discovered stories that stood apart from each other. While some wanted their voices to be heard, some opened up more as we put our recording equipment aside. Those were the two days in the last three months where I was completely in love with what I was doing. We were thrown out of homes; also welcomed with smiles; ignored like an invisible wall; sometimes trusted with the intricate details of their households. But in everything, we discovered stories that statistics fail to address.

One such narrative was that of Mr. Shahu who is a caretaker at a newly begun road construction site near Janpath. It has been only a few months since he shifted to this locality. Survival in the city wasn’t smooth in the beginning. Private contractors and fake documents did take a toll on his hard earned money a couple of times. Having built a healthy relationship with his contractor, now he mostly works only under government projects.

Originally from Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh, he permanently resides in Delhi for the past ten years. He does not have a permanent address here. His stay in a particular locality depends on the length of the project – normally varying between 2 months to 3 years. So are his housing requirements. Longer projects offered him a room at the site itself. Shorter ones required him to stay in makeshift houses.

“I do not spend much on food as I must send half of my income back home” he said. With no documents that represent his presence in the city, it is difficult for him to receive any kind of subsidies in rations here. The perpetual need to move within the boundaries of the city makes his condition almost similar to that of a seasonal migrant laborer who moves back and forth to his/her hometown and the city.

Mr.Shahu and his wife at their new place of residence

There was no particular reason behind his migration to Delhi. “I just wanted to see the city” he said. There was no sign of regret on his face regarding the decision he made ten years ago. He concluded the interview with the statement “Dilli hai dilwalon ka” (Delhi is for the bighearted people).

Its officially my fourth month in Delhi. By far, Mr. Shahu was the only person who had a positive outlook towards this place. He had a sense of belonging here. He believes that all are treated equally and there is no scope for discrimination in cities. Although he has a proper house built back in his hometown, he does not consider living in a makeshift house a burden. He is rather proud of how strong it is to stand harsh rains and wind.

Makeshift.jpg

This is where he currently lives

This story represents the case of just one among the million migrants in this country. A migrant with a good amount of wealth back in his hometown. If not abundant, good enough for survival. But he chose this for himself. Not to travel the world, but to live in a place that he would like to call home. However small, he is silently living his dream in the corners of this huge city – earning his living in the most dignified way possible.

Something deeply unsettling here is the lack of documentation of internal migrants. The last time the statistics provided by the census of India on migrants was in 2001. A decade and a half has passed, almost nothing else except for the NSSO records of 2007-2008 provides some data on internal migration in general. Seasonal migrants do not fit into both the statistics available. The cases like Mr. Shahu – migrating multiple times within one place– nowhere.

Most research on migration is completely based on this data. Haven’t things changed at all? What if the people who go through a similar pattern of migration have distinct stories to tell? With lives, issues and solutions evolving at a faster pace, necessity calls for specific documentations.

If not to influence policies, at least to influence perceptions. If not in numbers, at least as voices. To begin to look at a migrant as a person with aspirations and dreams and not as a failed human looking for recovery in the city.

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