Lily and Esther have been in New Delhi for 17 and 22 years respectively. The former came to the city as a fresh graduate to pursue a Masters and the latter, to do an undergraduate degree. They have several things in common, despite differences in their ages and experience. Both belong to the north-eastern states of India, though from a different city and tribe. One identifies herself as a Naga, the other as a Mizo. Their ethnic identities, they point out, are evident from their facial features – a flat nose, small eyes and a heavily accented Hindi they speak.
Despite being in the city for so long – a city that gave them wings and opportunities – both look rather dismissively at their experiences here. Today, they have friends, found jobs they are passionate about and have, eventually, made Delhi their ‘home’. Yet, their experiences over the years have kept the relationship with the city strained. Both are able to reflect rather pragmatically at this association with the city as they go on about their lives. They insist they are here to make a living and live their dreams. Neither calls it a home as they recall instances of discrimination and harassment, often verbal and less physical, which they suffered in silence in the quest to continue living their dreams. Both want to return to their places of origin in a few years.
Migration to metropolitan cities in India has grown phenomenally in the last two decades due to urbanisation, infrastructural development and the coming in of multinational corporations that created new jobs. Cities are also home to some of the best educational institutions, especially of higher education. As the centre of administrative, bureaucratic and professional opportunities and as well as high quality educational institutions, Delhi is particularly attractive and has registered in-bound/inter-state migration of nearly 9.9 million people in the 2011 census. These migrants are split across class, region, occupation and even ethnicity, which make their experiences diverse and unique. Their stories of place-making in the city are also underlined with struggles and many negotiations they make everyday.
While several studies have explored the relationship of migrants with the city, a stark missing intersection has been of gender and ethnicity. A sizeable number of those who come to Delhi for education and occupational opportunities are youth, including young women, from the seven north-eastern states of India where educational institutions are inadequate and of relatively poor quality. Political upheavals and armed and social conflicts in some regions have further kept youth from these states out of schools and colleges. What began in the decade of 1990s as migration only for education, youth from these states now prefer to not return but find employment in metropolitan cities. This has especially been true as neo-liberal reforms opened opportunities in malls, international stores and travel industry which prefer to employ young people from these states because of their distinctive ‘foreign’ looks and better English speaking skills.
Migration has also influenced urban planning and settlements in Delhi. Most young people from north-eastern states end up living in what are classified as ‘urban villages’ within Delhi. These are former villages engulfed by the city where lax building norms have provided opportunities for affordable rent and led to a transformation of these spaces, making them a unique mix of the rural and urban. While this gives them cheap accommodation and access to live within the ‘community’, these areas are also highly ghettoized, exclusionary and often stigmatized, making the everyday challenging. The city is hence experienced differently by those living in these extraordinary spaces.
To ascertain the belongingness to the city, struggles of place-making and their strategies to ‘fit in’, we undertook the study titled Ethnicity, Aspirations and Education: A Study of Young Women from the North-East Region in Delhi as part of our larger India Branch Office (IBO) project ‘Education and the Urban’. It attempts to understand how ethnicity and gender mediate their day-to-day lives in these stigmatized neighbourhoods, the city and its institutions and the strategies of the young women to create a social space of their own. These intersections are important as recent years have seen increasing attempts of sexual harassment against women from these states. Research has only been fragmentary and newspaper reports point to the verbal and physical violence that they face within the city because of stereotypes and prejudices that prevail about the region to which they belong and its culture. Yet we find an increasing number of young people from the different states in the north-east coming to Delhi to access education and occupations that the city offers. Rapid urbanisation has fuelled migration, including of women like Lily and Esther who went on to live longer than planned lives in the city. What is it then that makes the city a space of desire and yet, one where they cannot belong, one that is not ‘home’?
During interviews, women fervently pointed to the gendered nature of their experiences – they insisted that men from their states had not suffered like them and their struggles were different. Experiences in the city made Esther question her place: ‘People do not accept you; I am seen and treated differently and it is because of my ethnicity. Some people think I am a foreigner. After a decade and a half, I don’t feel a part of the city and that is why I don’t want to live here. A few more years here, then I will go back to my town and maybe start farming there’. It only emphasizes the need to foreground ethnicity, gender and other multi-layered identities to study urban migration and place-making in the city. It is essential to give women the agency to articulate their struggles and successes while trying to fit in in the city.
The experience of carrying out interviews during the Covid-19 pandemic deserves a mention. Most interviews are being conducted telephonically or using other digital mediums. It has also made co-ordinating with potential participants difficult, as most now work longer hours and struggle to manage home, children and their jobs (experiences that deserve another research). Most importantly, however, it prevents the researcher from making a connect with the participants as they reflect on the very personal and difficult details of their experiences in the city.