Essay V2

Migrants struggle with identities when moving across geographies


LEAD AUTHOR: Savita Bailur

Photo of migrants


It feels like migrants have no rights at all. In Sundarpur [pseudonym], there are 200–300 jhuggis [temporary housing] where people have been residing for 20–30 years. They’ve been trying to get voter ID cards made for a long time. The land they live on is probably government land. And now after living for so many years, they are willing to cancel their village IDs and get local voter IDs so they have proof of the land where they are staying. But it’s been tough. Even after paying money, Rs. 400–500 ($6.00–$8.00) each, they haven’t been able to get any ID card.

Jafar Akbar, migrant Rights Centre, Kesarpur

Jafar Akbar’s words reflected the situation of many we spoke to who straddled different states in terms of credentials. Around 60% of those we interviewed were not living in the same city or village (for rural respondents) they were born in. What do these movements across geographies and sovereignties imply for identification?

The world is more mobile than ever, open to more opportunities but even more challenges, particularly when migration is not voluntary. The Indian Census enumerated 453.6 million inter- state migrants in 2011, a rise of 121.6 million since the previous decadal count of 2001.1 UNHCR estimates 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide in 2017, including 10 million refugees, over half of whom are aged under 18.2 Unstable political environments, fragile food security, and temporary income opportunities are all leading to fractured flows across national as well as domestic (state-state; rural-urban) borders.

In this essay, we explore how many of those we spoke to about identity practices felt torn, not only emotionally as to where they belonged, but also in terms of the strategies they had to employ to access credentials “here” and “there.” Some had more choice than others, but two main challenges stood through: the onus was on the migrant to prove who they were not—i.e., illegal immigrants or committing benefit fraud, and that they often faced the denial of identity credentials as a practiced form of exclusion. Most of the findings in this section are from our peri-urban site of Kesarpur, around an hour from New Delhi. Kesarpur is home to large numbers of migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in search of work in garment factories.

Neither here nor there

For migrants, refugees and otherwise displaced people, identity provision and sovereignty present particular complexities. While there is a difference between each of these groups— indeed all the migrants in our sample were economic, rather than political—there are similar challenges of being caught between source and destination—equally in terms of how individuals perceive themselves, being caught between the bureaucracy of providers of credentials and how relationships are formed with neighbors.

A key aspect of identity formulation is the relationship of an individual to a place—and with that, the family, friends, networks, practices, food, and social memories of a home.3 When displaced, this identity fragmentation and reformulation is challenging.4 In the case of economic migrants, we saw several examples of conflicted identities. An interview with two jewelry sellers in Delhi for example, revealed struggle in defining oneself:

Researcher: Where are you from?

Ankita: I am from Jaipur…near Raipur, Jyotinagar.

Mangalwati: How are you from Jaipur, when we all live here in the plot in Delhi?

Ankita: Yes but are we not originally from Rajasthan?

Researcher: How long have you been in Delhi?

Ankita: Several years. Cannot recall since when (laughs).

Researcher: How long did you say (to Mangalwati)?

Mangalwati: Many years. She (Ankita) was in fact born here. My parents and my in-laws are back there (in Rajasthan). Ever since I got married, I have been here in Delhi. Now I don’t have a plot of land to do any farming. We don’t do any farming and earn a living out of that back home. So I am a Delhi person. All my ID cards are from here. My house and land plot is here in Delhi. I consider myself from Delhi. What is there back in Rajasthan for me? How will I earn and what will I live on, when I go back to Rajasthan? Nothing. I am from here.

Ankita’s self-exclusion and wanting to belong in her home state, even though she was born in Delhi, was tied to her feeling unwanted in Delhi, because she and Mangalwati felt hounded by local council officials for selling their wares. This fear of not belonging was reiterated by many in our interviews. Samit, a barber we interviewed in Guwahati had lived there for 25 years but when we asked him if he was from there he said I am an outsider here, pardesi. He recalled an incident in 2003/2004— they wanted to drive the Biharis from Assam… Assamese people wanted to drive away the Biharis… we ran away. We went home.5 Mangesh, a SIM card provider in Delhi, said people used to show respect to elders whether he was from Madras or U.P. [Uttar Pradesh] or Bihar. But now they have changed. They call people like “hey Madrasi, come here, hey Bihari, Come here. They treat people like animals.

Sign reading 'English computer typing is done here'

Aneesa, a third generation Indian in Assam, said:

all these thoughts come to my mind always… they had already taken many documents for NRC, what if they come again for more documents, if they drive us away from the country.” When asked where Devi felt at home, he said: “for all practical purposes, Bengaluru is home to us. There is no need for us to speak out loud in favor of Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. We will only speak about the place that gives us food.

In addition to being conflicted in terms of identity, there is also the challenge of being torn apart in terms of obtaining identity credentials. Almost all those we interviewed in Kesarpur reported holding on to their home credentials because they were not sure they would get ones from Kesarpur, though these were the ones they needed for benefits. There is some evidence on two particular sets of demographics—young men and newly married women—who fall through the cracks of identification the most.6 The studies find that young men may not obtain credentials because they may leave home before voting age (18) and then find it hard or not a priority to return home—and similarly young women may leave to get married before 18.7

However, in our research, we found respondents had source IDs, and if they didn’t, they made it a priority to go home, because they knew local contacts who could get this done (such as a mukhiya or village headman) and also tried to go home to vote (either out of a sense of duty, or as a response to vote-buying). 8 The ration card was uniformly left at home for other family members to use and as it was too much of a hassle to get a new one, normal retail outlets were used (in Kesarpur, residents complained that shop owners were aware of this and therefore sold at inflated prices). Ankur, a migrant in Kesarpur (like Ankita, he saw himself as such, even though he was born in Delhi and had a birth certificate to prove this), recounted his experience of making a ration card for his family:

We used to go every day to the office. Five times my form was canceled. And they won’t even tell us on the day of the submission what the problems are with it so that we can correct it and submit it the next day. They’ll tell us 4–5 days later. A number is given to the form and we are told to come back on some later date and then stand in queue on that day again waiting for my number to be called.

One of the instances in which local identity credentials become crucial is in children’s admission into schools.9 Jamima narrated how she had to persevere to get her children admitted into the local government school in Kesarpur. School authorities refused to accept the children as she lacked a local address proof. Jamima struggled for days, fighting with the authorities till her children were finally admitted into the school, having lost a couple of years in the process. Finally in 2013 after 10 years of residing in Kesarpur she managed to obtain her first local address proof in the form of a gas connection. This was also procured after much hassle of first accessing the rent agreement and electricity bill (shared later in this section).

Photo of homes

Living arrangements

These complicated processes, reluctance to identify as migrants, and then ineligibility to belong (by voting or being eligible for schemes) result in migrants feeling even more insecure in new environments (although networks with family and friends are formed). Laila, a homemaker in rural Assam, talked of how being forced to move after land erosion in her home village, she is not eligible for bank loans and village subsidies in Feharbari because she is not considered a resident. Dependence on new, unknown people, new structures—power dynamics are even more apparent here, feeling vulnerable. The lack of trusted networks means that there can be a reliance on intermediaries who may let them down. Taki was one of three Nepalese cooks in Bengaluru we talked to who tried to get voter IDs made in Gujarat before arriving in Bengaluru but the broker ran off with the money…around Rs. 300/400 ($4.50/$6.00).

Photo of a row of locked taps

Locked taps

And finally, for many of those we interviewed, identity credentials were more about proving who they were not—in North India in particular, some mentioned “not being a terrorist.” In Assam, it was about not being Bangladeshi—even if residents were not Bangladeshi, there was the fear of being perceived as such. Ayesha said she keeps hold of her voter’s card all the time because: I don’t want to go to Bangladesh.… If I have this voter card, people will believe that we are Indian. She gathered all her documents together for the NRC—those who don’t have were also asked to submit. They asked voter list of 1951, 1966, 1971, and 2011 and even they wanted some earlier documents also.… I brought some documents from my father’s house. Whatever other old documents we had, we submitted all. Similarly, Lotok, an auto-rickshaw driver in Guwahati said we had to submit name and address proof of my previous generation, copy of voter list [to make it sure it had our surname] and I think an electricity bill…and legacy data of 1951…they wanted those and we submitted. It was difficult to find out legacy documents of the previous generations. When we asked if this raised concerns, we heard responses such as “my husband says if they require more documents what would we do” (Aneesa).

Deliberate exclusion

In Kesarpur, where we interviewed the greatest number of migrants, we heard two major challenges. First, interviewees reported they tend to be hired through contractors and subcontractors for brief periods of work ranging from as low as 15 days to a year. They not only have no job security, but contractors are also unwilling to provide any identification to them. For this reason, it was initially hard to obtain interviews, only possible because of one of our research team had previous experience working on labor rights in the factory site. In addition, most did not want their photo taken. Second, landlords let out spaces out illegally and are equally unwilling to provide rent agreements or electricity bills as feeder identity documents (for example for Aadhaar). An interviewee in Kesarpur stated “the attitude towards those who are outsiders is that you deal with your own problems.” (Although we also heard in Delhi as well as Kesarpur that “there is no one really local anyway.”) Jamima, residing in Kesarpur from 2003, found it impossible to validate her residence as a feeder ID, as her landlord refused to provide her the rent agreement and electricity bill (as both were likely illegal). Although she managed to obtain a rent agreement of sorts through the landlord’s son, she bribed an intermediary for the electricity bill and then forged the landlord’s signature on it. Jamima’s is not an isolated case. All migrants in Kesarpur vouched for the near impossibility of obtaining local address proof documents and thereby resorting to parallel means (which Jamima helped others with).

“Othering” and exclusion can be common behavior migrants and refugees face.10 Ankur recounted the harassment he faced in trying to obtain a Kesarpur voter ID: I tried. During elections I hung around with the candidates and went on rallies with them. For days I campaigned for them, and in return they had promised to make my voter card. But after the campaigning was over they refused to recognize me. They never got back to me.

This is apparent even in the census caveat that the migrant numbers may be underreported due to fear of persecution. The 2011 census also states that for the first time, India’s urban population has grown faster than its rural population,11 putting pressure on housing and infrastructure. In Kesarpur, we saw practiced forms of exclusion— not just by locals to outsiders, but between different factions, older and new migrants, different power levels and other networks, by denying identity credentials and therefore access to resources. Access to basic resources such as water and electricity was challenging and fraught with power dynamics (for example, landlords locking water taps except for a few hours a day, or even intercepting mail for ID documents).

Voting rights are crucial to enable migrants to access basic rights and amenities as well as recognition from authorities as residents of the area. The inability to vote one’s elected representative to power in a democratic process excludes a person from voicing a concern related to the policies and governance of the area. As Imama recounts, while applying for her Aadhaar, the local leader tore her form saying, aap Bihar ke ho toh Bihar mein jake banao (if you are from Bihar then get it made in Bihar). Migrants routinely face such issues of alienation and exclusion from services and find it challenging and harassing to approach government officials for help.

Two final points: inclusion/exclusion is not just from state to state or rural-urban but on a micro- level, in territory disputes such as pavement spaces. Although Tarini the flower seller was from Bengaluru, she felt the attempts of fixed shop owners and others around her to burn down her cart and generally harass her (including one episode where her identity documents were destroyed in the fire) were because she was an “outsider of lower caste” and competing for pavement space. Secondly, migrants exercised considerable agency, such as Jamima above, or Biswajit, the sari seller in Bengaluru who had got himself a local PAN card and a bank account, but intentionally avoided getting a trade license, because he did not want to fall under the tax bracket. Some individuals therefore had more choice over deciding when to belong and not belong.


As Gudia, who was waiting for three months of backdated wages because of a credential mistake after moving to Kesarpur, said: we leave our homes and come so far just to earn a better living and raise our kids, but if we can’t even do that properly then what is the point? While Target 16.9 of the Sustainable Development Goals is to “provide a legal identity for all,”12 this has little bearing if your legal identity belongs to a location where you no longer live. Identification is a major concern for migrants as they are more vulnerable, without support networks, and at further risk of being exploited. The burden is on the individual to prove who they are not— terrorists, foreigners and so on—so that even those who legitimately belong there fear being without credentials in case they are excluded for some reason. At the same time, denying local credentials can be an expression of power and a form of exclusion. Designers of identity systems need to make systems much more portable, provide better linkages between different sovereignties and geographies, and build in stronger grievance redressal to take into account this large demographic of people on the move.

  1. “Population Enumeration Data (Final Population)” (Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India, 2011).

  2. UNHCR, “Figures at a Glance” (Geneva: United Nations, 2017).

  3. Maria Holt, “The Wives and Mothers of Heroes: Evolving Identities of Palestinian Refugee Women in Lebanon,” The Journal of Development Studies 43, no. 2 (February 1, 2007): 245–64, doi:10.1080/00220380601125073; Alastair Ager, “Perspectives on the Refugee Experience,” in Refugees: Perspectives on the Experience of Forced Migration (New York: Pinter, 1999), 1–23; Elizabeth Maggie Penn, “Citizenship versus Ethnicity: The Role of Institutions in Shaping Identity Choice,” The Journal of Politics 70, no. 04 (2008): 956–973; Maggie O’Neill and Tony Spybey, “Global Refugees, Exile, Displacement and Belonging,” Sociology 37, no. 1 (February 1, 2003): 7–12, doi:10.1177/0038038503037001385.

  4. Kari Burnett, “Feeling like an Outsider: A Case Study of Refugee Identity in the Czech Republic,” Research Papers (Geneva: UNHCR, January 2013).

  5. Ipsita Chakravarty, “How the Fear of Migrants Became the Driving Force of Politics in Assam,”, February 16, 2016.

  6. Rameez Abbas and Divya Varma, “Internal Labor Migration in India Raises Integration Challenges for Migrants,” Migration Policy Institute, February 28, 2014; A. Sharma et al., “Political Inclusion of Migrant Workers: Perceptions, Realities and Challenges” (Political Inclusion Workshop and their Access to Basic Services, Lucknow, India, 2011).

  7. A. Sharma et al., “Political Inclusion of Migrant Workers: Perceptions, Realities and Challenges.”

  8. This was not always fruitful. Gudia in Kesapur told us their family went home to Uttar Pradesh to vote because they were told their travel would be covered. They spent Rs. 2,000 “but no one has given us anything till now.”

  9. Shreya Roy Chowdhury, “Delhi Government Schools Are Turning Away Children Who Don’t Have Aadhaar,”, April 11, 2017.

  10. Kari Burnett, “Feeling like an Outsider: A Case Study of Refugee Identity in the Czech Republic”; Kerry Moore and Sadie Clifford, “The Gendered Use of the Media by Asylum Seekers in Britain,” Gender & Development 15, no. 3 (November 1, 2007): 451–66, doi:10.1080/13552070701630616.

  11. C. Chandramouli, “Rural Urban Distribution of Population” (Census of India, July 15, 2011), .

  12. United Nations, “Sustainable Development Goal 16,” 2017.