Mapping migrants

We usually notice them at construction sites of private or commercial buildings or public infrastructure projects. They often speak different dialects of Telugu, Oriya, Hindi or a mix of these or other languages. And their kids (sometimes only partly clad) play in the sand or water lying around.

A few of them live in tin shacks, thatched huts or tarpaulin tents nearby. Or in similar accomodation by the roadside elsewhere, commuting in open trucks or by walk to their place of work. These people are among those categorized as the unorganized sector. And are typically daily or weekly wage labourers from distant (and sometimes neighbouring) towns and villages.

But there must be more to their lives…

What are their feelings, hopes and desires?

Are they landless or unemployed or ??

Does the city give them enough space?

Ekta Mittal (community theatre person and co-founder, Maraa), Yashaswini Raghunandan (a photographer and documentary film researcher) and Paromita (a documentary and short fiction film maker) decided to find out. Over a period of eight months, these three women explored the lives of people working on the Namma Metro construction sites in Bangalore. From this emerged Behind the Tin Sheets, a film that captured various stories about the love, native villages, political preferences, superstitions et al of the migrant labourers giving their might to the Bengaluru metro. Hailing from West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, north Karnataka, Punjab, Orissa, Nepal and Andhra Pradesh, these men and women are rarely remembered except perhaps when contractors or authorities are unable to “cover up” an accident!

Considered alien and frequently experiencing isolation and loneliness, the workers are not permitted to bring their families and have few demands and rights. And the growing intolerance to “North Indians” by misguided Kannada zealots makes them further unwelcome despite the labourers’ crucial yet unrecognised (and grossly underpaid) contribution to the unplanned ‘modernization’ of Bangalore at high personal risks to themselves. Meeting the workers (sometimes clandestinely due to lack of permission) at their labour camp in the eastern part of the city, Ekta (a friend and social activist), Yashaswini (Yashu for short) and Paromita captured the interesting and insightful tales of people like Mehboob Ahmad from Jharkhand, Ranjita Devi from Uttar Pradesh and Sriramulu from Andhra Pradesh.

To learn more about the migrants’ lives and journeys, the film makers requested them to trace the routes that they followed to reach Bengaluru, using blank maps of India. “Their interpretations of directions, geo-political boundaries and locations that this exercise unravelled, surprised us. They were quite different from the way these things are popularly known”, said Yashu. Most workers first marked their village – usually at the centre of the India map. And then they sketched the direction they travelled relative to their home irrespective of the commonly accepted location of any place. For example, Murtaz Ali from Bihar drew his version of the Indian map and proudly placed Bihar at the centre of it. As he went westwards from his house to work on the highways of Assam and Nagaland, he placed the two states on the west of the Indian map. If Bangalore seemed far, it was shown outside the country as borders seemed immaterial. Also, they measured distances based on the time spent on journeys, including train delays and stopovers at transit points. Some struggled to recall all the places they had covered and track their paths, showing how much they had moved around.

Along the way, Paromita, Yashu and Ekta created ‘Footloose’, an art installation, in the basement of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in Domlur which was a reconstruction of a tin shed depicting the labourers’ dwellings. And in the evening of 28th and 29th April, 2010 they offered a peek into the the migrants’ way of living through an interactive exhibition of the maps and the film, with Footloose forming the backdrop. Incidentally, this was a part of the Maps for Making Change public launch event, an outcome of prior workshops and exciting projects initiated by CIS in collaboration with Tactical Tech. The programme also included an informative panel discussion on the potential and limitations of digital mapping for activism in India.

These pictures attempt to portray a part of the ‘Footloose’ display.

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