It is late evening in Nahur, Mumbai. In a large room, filled with rows of bunk beds, smells of burning incense sticks and disinfectant from freshly mopped floors mingle in the air. Sitting on the beds, a dozen women chat. They are all in their early twenties and dressed in salwar-kameezes in bright, bold colours. All of them are thin; all are young enough to be still dealing with acne; most wear their heavily oiled hair woven into tight braids.
Some are calling their parents from their cellphones, telling them about the day at work. They converse in Marathi, sporadically bursting into giggles.
In the bathroom, door ajar, a bucket full of clothes soaking reminds three of the women about their evening chores. The others continue to chat, so loudly that one who is still on the phone with her parents moves to the window to continue talking, pensively staring out at a tree.
Apart from their cellphones, the window seems to be the only link with the world outside; there is no television or radio. Books on nursing, in Marathi, are strewn on various beds. Hanging on hooks are plastic bags, and pictures of gods. Previously washed clothes dry on bunk bed ladders. Under their beds are bags, neatly packed, as if the owners have just got here and don’t plan to stay long.
The next room is similarly sized, but empty, except for a couple of carpenters noisily assembling new bunk beds. Doors connect both rooms to a kitchen, where a few of the women have adjourned to cook, sharing recipes and correcting each other on the proportion of spices.
Soon, the two-bedroom-apartment-turned-hostel smells like home.
The women are all residents of a working women’s hostel run by the Pratham Education Foundation (PEF), in collaboration with Citi Foundation. All of them are unmarried — except one, who is teased by the others when she phones her husband — and have moved to Mumbai from small towns and villages far from the city. And like an increasing number of migrant women, they are looking at employment outside the traditional entry-level job — as a live-in household help — in sectors like hospitality and healthcare. This batch are all from villages in Dahanu, a seaside taluka in Palghar district, between Mumbai and Maharashtra’s border with Gujarat. The women met each other for the first time at the hostel, and are all working at a nursing home in Thane; some are still in training, others are working full-time.
Sitting in a corner, Anju Vigne, 21, laughs about how naïve she and the others were when they first came to city a month ago. The entire group got dysentery after drinking water straight from the tap, she says, because they assumed city water would be clean. Now they are all very cautious about what they eat outside the hostel and they drink only boiled water; the task has made its way into their list of daily shared chores.
When she came to find a job in the city, Ms. Vigne says, she never thought that water would be her biggest challenge. She passed her high school exams in 2015 in Dahanu, but couldn’t get a job for two years. In January, she took the difficult decision to leave home and her single mother and three younger sisters and take a job in a nursing home in Thane. She had heard about the hostel and the job through an uncle. Despite the fear of moving to a big city, she went ahead with it to help her family financially. Six days a week, she takes the local train to work. She earns ₹5,000 a month, around the same as the other women in the room, out of which she pays ₹2,500 as her hostel fee. Most of the remaining money she sends home, keeping just enough to pay for food and travelling within the city.
The women take turns cooking, using groceries they have brought from their villages. “We don’t like the food in this city,” says Deepika Dhapsi, 21, as she heads to the kitchen. When Ms. Dhapsi arrived in Mumbai from Tawa, another village in Dahanu, around the same time as Ms. Vigne, a place to stay was just one of her troubles. The culture shock was huge, and the dealing with crowds, travelling in packed local trains made her as anxious. She, like the others, can barely speak Hindi and had never seen such an overwhelming number of people use the language.
Chatkuli Adga, 19, among the youngest in the group, and also from Tawa, wanted to make a living in the healthcare industry. At the nursing home, she is being trained to check blood pressure. The biggest issue she has is with the air pollution in the city. “There’s less oxygen!” she yelps as she scrambles off to run her evening errands; she is so comfortable in the area you wouldn’t guess she came to Mumbai for the first time four weeks ago.
Ms. Vigne, Ms. Dhapsi, and Ms. Adga are a comparatively rare breed of economic migrant, single young women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds moving to big cities for work, without any friends or family to help them settle in and find their feet.
Opportunity and fear
Unskilled labour moving to an urban area isn’t new or unusual; the concentration of economic opportunities in big cities has always been a magnet. For migrants from backward areas, the adjustment can be acutely difficult. They face a unique set of challenges that they are unequipped to deal with and lack the kind of social network that could help them.
Women are an overwhelming proportion of total migrants in both rural and urban areas, as per data from the last National Sample Survey in 2007–08: women constituted more than 80 per cent of all migrants (migrants being defined as persons ‘whose last place of usual residence, anytime in the past was different from the place of enumeration’) but most of that movement appears to be for marriage. Women moving for employment, however, form a minuscule — and falling — proportion of migrants: from 3.3% in 1993, the number dropped to a meagre 0.3% in 2007-08.
A PEF study of the problems faced by first-generation female migrants — those who have moved without a pre-existing network in the city — in Greater Mumbai found that 13% of the respondents have no support from friends, family, or even agents, and have a higher degree of difficulty in all spheres, including finding jobs and accommodation.
Finding a place to stay in a high-rental city like Mumbai is the biggest challenge for women migrating alone for employment, with 85% of respondents saying they faced difficulties finding accommodation. “Convincing landlords is the most challenging,” says Medha Uniyal, head of programme development at the Pratham Institute. “Nobody wants to house low-income single women.”
Other issues from rural areas face include gaining access to formal financial and banking services, and the lack of identity documents.
PEF’s hostels — this one and another at Santacruz for women, another for men in Vikhroli and one for both men and women in Vashi (besides four in Delhi and pilot projects in Pune and Chandigarh) — aim to be an incubator of sorts, a transition home, for economic migrants.
People joining one of the hostels can stay for a maximum of three months, paying ₹2,500 a month.
In that duration, they are introduced to the workings of a city, with basic support on essentials like setting up bank accounts, getting identity cards, and providing them with emergency helpline numbers. Noting that a sudden shift in dietary patterns, and the resulting problems, is one of the reasons that female migrants give up and return to their villages, the hostel encourages them to cook their own meals in the attached kitchen. They are also acquainted with the grocery stores around the area.
To familiarise them with public transport, the women are provided with the M-Indicator app, which provides train and bus timetables, and are taught the difference between the city’s various commuter train lines. Once comfortable with the city, the women move out in groups to rent their own apartments.
The amenities and tutoring that the hostel provides are valuable to the women. But just as important is the companionship they find with the other residents, and the sense of their strength in unity.
For instance, Ms. Vigne and Ms. Dhapsi say they have not been paid yet at the nursing home where they both work. But they are confident that if the group approaches the owner together, they will get their money.
This is a far cry from the scared girl-women they were just a few weeks ago.
‘Graduating’ from the hostel
A year-and-a-half ago, Vyjayanthimala Panda, 26, from Rourkela in Sundargarh district, Odisha, left her parents and younger brother behind to work in Mumbai after being trained in hotel management by the Pratham Institute for Literacy, Education and Vocational Training.
She was terrified through most of her cross-country journey to the metropolis. In the city, she says, she faced problems communicating with people. Ms. Panda stayed in Pratham’s Santacruz hostel for six months before moving out and renting an apartment of her own in the same area. Today, she lives independently and works as a cook in a BKC-based food delivery service, 8 Food. She earns ₹9,000, and after paying ₹4,000 as rent, she sends most of the rest back home. “Most of my meals are taken care of at the kitchen,” she says, “so I don’t have to spend much otherwise.”
Comfortably settled in the city today, she has no plans to move back to Rourkela.
*According to think-tank Migration Policy Institute, often urban development projects seek to keep migrants out, local authorities treat migration as a problem, and migrants are harassed by the police. For single women in the lower economic strata, access to proper housing is difficult without the cooperation of the police and local authorities.
*NGOs are trying to fill the housing gap. The government is slowly waking up to the need.
*The first-ever migration task force, headed by Partha Mukhopadhyay from the Centre for Policy Research, was set up in 2015 by India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. The panel will release a set of recommendations soon, which are expected to address the issue of affordable housing for migrants.