Surat, INDIA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A plan to bring migrant workers off the pavements and into apartments in Bhuj could be a blueprint for other Indian cities in the country struggling to accommodate tens of thousands who arrive daily in search of jobs.
Most travel from their villages to find work for months at a time in the booming construction industry, which is India’s largest employer after agriculture.
They build the gleaming office towers, malls and luxury apartments that are rising in the country’s bustling cities.
The workers themselves live on pavements and under flyovers, or rent squalid rooms, often with their families. Others cram into slums, or erect flimsy shelters from tarpaulin and plywood on work sites.
Officials in Surat, a hub for textiles and diamonds, are building five new shelters with NULM funding. They will have dormitory rooms and single rooms for more than 1,300 homeless people, including migrant workers.
Authorities are also considering making some rooms available for short-term rental, said Rajesh Jariwala at the Surat Municipal Corporation’s housing department.
That would mean migrant workers would not be forced to leave the premises every day.
“Our economy is dependent on migrants, but they may not wish to settle here. So we have to give them the option of affordable rental housing,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Other options - including a nationwide housing subsidy scheme for construction workers to buy a house in a government-built low-income housing project - have not been effective because of strict conditions and long wait times.
A separate federal program funds pre-fabricated units at construction sites for public projects such as metro systems.
But the one-room units are too small for a family for four, said Desai, who has studied housing for migrant construction workers in Gujarat state, where Bhuj is located.
Few builders provide accommodation, and workers seldom complain because they are not aware of their rights, or because they are afraid to speak up, she said.
With more than 76 million workers expected to be in the construction and real estate industry by 2022, “a more humane approach” towards migrant workers is needed, said Anuj Puri, chairman of ANAROCK Property Consultants in Mumbai.
More than $3 billion collected as a federal tax on construction remains unused, and the money could be used for providing rental accommodation and other services to migrant workers in the industry, he said.
For the time being, however, Bhuj is one of the few cities building low-cost rental homes specifically for migrant workers.
It’s a plan that other cities should consider too, said Desai of CEPT University, because it fills a void in a market that ignores short-term rentals.
“Our focus is on ownership at one end and shelters at the other - there is nothing in between. But shelters cannot be the fix for homelessness or for migrant workers,” she said.