Beyond the entrepôt - New Destinations of Labour Migration

04.2018 / Nitin Bathla, PhD Student, DARCH, ETH Zurich


The entrepôt to the city whether it be the railway station, the bus terminus, the port, or the airport has long featured centrally in our imagination of urban migration: an entry point, through which the migrant becomes a part of a city’s space and flows. The act of disembarking at the entrepôt has become gradually coalesced with the notion of migration to the metropolitan and mega cities, thus bringing them at the crosshairs of the analytical inquiry on migration. A fact that is repeatedly attested by publications such as the annual World Migration Report by IOM and the countless books with claims on the globally ranked destination cities by arrivals that add astounding numbers of migrants to their populations every minute (such as Dhaka – 50, Delhi – 30, London – 5). The journey to the entrepôt however is not the end in the migration puzzle and often just a starting point for complex and circular journeys.
As a part of the exploratory fieldwork of my Doctoral Research, I decided to follow labour migrants arriving at the New Delhi railway station, to understand what the city means to them, how it is different to where they come from, and where and how they find work and navigate space. I followed many migrants and talked with them on their onward journeys to their new places of work. This field story is the description of one such journey of a labour migrant, Surendra who landed at the New Delhi railway station in early January this year.

800 miles from Madhubani

Surendra arrived by train on an unreserved ticket to Delhi from Raghopur a village in the Madhubani District of Bihar in Eastern India. The journey took him a little over 36 hours. He was a part of group of 20 from his village who arrived in Delhi to find work in the off-farm season. I explained my research to him and he allowed me to follow him from the station. It became quickly evident to me that he was very used to the layout of the station and understood its connectivity well. He was a bit a hurried, and I paced to not lose him. His group got into Delhi’s underground metro system and bought tickets for HUDA City Centre, a station at the end of the Yellow Line in a neighbouring satellite town of Delhi. After getting into the metro, I had ample of time to talk with him on the overcrowded train. I asked him whether it was his first time to Delhi to which he replied that he had been coming here twice a year for almost 5 years now. He first came to Delhi as an 18 year old, driven by his desire for urban experiences that he encountered in movies and media – the experience of eating on busy sidewalks, of chance encounters with strangers, of heterogeneities of religions and genders, and shops and sounds.
He decided to ask his childhood friend who had found work in the city through his uncle. It was through this friend that he found his first job working in a metal foundry in Manesar about 70 kms outside Delhi. He said that he worked in similar jobs in other places around Delhi such as Neemrana, and Dharueda 150 and 80 kms from the centre of Delhi respectively, but is now back to working with a different company in Manesar. I asked him whether this was what he was expecting when he thought of moving to Delhi, to which he replied that Delhi does not have work for people like him anymore, you can at best find work as domestic labour but that is not dignified, and also that housing is very expensive in Delhi. He said that Manesar feels just like Delhi and he can reach it in under 2 hours from the railway station. By now, we arrived at the last stop of the metro train. His group decided to take a shared taxi from here. Eight of us cramped into a single taxi that was meant for four. We followed the highway to Manesar for a distance of 20 kms from the station. His friend who had been silently listening to us until now took on from here. He said that the terms of work have changed; they do not get any contracts anymore as in the case of his uncle. You work for 6 months after which the company manager asks you to leave. He said that most of the workers in his factory were casual labourers like him. He said he comes to the city for 4 months at a time, tries to save as much as he can before returning to Raghopur. We broke into a conversation that the larger group was having about national politics and finally arrived in Naharpur, a large village outside Manesar.

New Destinations

Naharpur is a place of extraordinary density that one would not expect from a village so far from the centre of Delhi. The village is laid out in a perfect grid with unpaved roads, open drains, exposed water pipes and electric wires. The village is one of many similar villages that I saw on the way which were within walking distance of Manesar that exponentially grew after 2005 when Japanese carmakers decided to locate here. I followed the group through the village as they walked to their tenement rooms. We passed building after building that were on an average 6 floors high, with long doubly loaded corridors of rooms that were 4X3m in size. The buildings seemed similar in plan with shared toilets and taps at the far end of each corridor. Every room had its own electric and water meter. Surendra told me that four of them share one such room. These tenements were mixed with families, single men and women from all over India and Nepal living side by side. What was shocking however was that all services and amenities were being privately supplied and managed, at prices that were almost three times higher than standard. The place seemed like a privately constructed and managed city rather than a village that the census data seemed to suggest.
Perhaps it is worth following the journeys beyond the entrepôt and to engage with new destinations in the emerging regional geographies of city systems – the Megaregion. Perhaps the Megaregion is not just about the service economies of the global cities but also spaces of production and destinations of migration calling for renewed attention.