Omnipresent, yet invisible

Ever wondered about these unsung legions, and the reason behind the booming security services business in our cities?

From its 18th century incarnation as a military town, Bangalore has morphed into a hotbed of the information technology revolution in the 21st first century. And the city has witnessed significant changes in its social and physical landscapes.

security guards at an apartment complex

Most contemporary reflections on the city are framed primarily through the lens of its collapsing infrastructure, and the paradoxical rise of glitzy commercial and residential spaces following the economic boom of the 1990s. The political, social and economic changes unleashed by this IT-led boom have been far reaching. New services, new social and occupational groups and a whole new philosophy of ‘living in Bangalore’ have followed.

But is IT all that there is to Bangalore? If we set out to create a more inclusive picture of the transformation of the services sector in the city over the last two decades, it will not only have the much valorized IT and ITES industry but also the ancillary services triggered by it. We call these services ‘Information Technology Triggered Services’ (ITTS). In recent years, there has been an explosive growth in these services including private transport, real estate, security services, catering et al.

This story is about the private security workers who are omnipresent, yet invisible. Till only a decade ago, affluent families flaunting Nepali Goorkhas were sparse and scattered. The 1990s saw the rise of a new phenomenon of ‘secure spaces.’ Offices and residential complexes began to view private security services as both a social statement and a necessary ‘infrastructure.’

Although no official figures are available, security services associations believe that there has been a massive growth in the number of service providers in the recent years. The demand for the manpower in this sector has been so high that the agencies are recruiting people at a fever pitch, with scant or no attention paid to the training of security guards. Most of the learning happens on the field. Security guards are given clear instructions before they are posted on the site – they are responsible for guarding property and people.

As opposed to popular perception, private security guards are not a fighting force; they are part of a monitoring system. In the possibility of an attack, they are expected only to alert the residents and their supervisors. They “do not have the power”, to quote a manager of a service provider, “to counterattack and fight the intruder(s).” This explains why they do not carry any weapons- except batons. “Batons are part of their uniform; they could be used only to catch snakes or chase dogs, but should never be used on humans” adds the manager.

Security Guards at an apartment complex

A number of social and economic issues have arisen around the occupation of security guards in the city. For example, there is a clear tension between Kannadiga and non-Kannadiga, especially non-South Indian security guards. Non-South Indians are generally not found in supervisory positions. According to many managers, agencies do not trust North Indian guards as much as the local Kannadiga and even Tamil or Telugu guards. Many managers use the terms ‘outsider’, ‘Oriya’ and ‘North Indian’ interchangeably. All of them are conflated into a single category of ‘outsiders,’ and are always seen in opposition to the Kannadiga guards.

Although the security guards are not made to sign a bond, they are required to sign an application form that lists down all the terms and conditions. This paper is technically not a legal document, and therefore this ‘signing away’ of their right to unionize is not technically illegal. The very act of signing on a paper is supposed to scare away the security guards, especially if they are fresh in the industry.

The candidates are made to declare that they are not members of any trade union and will never join one. Although there is an association of the owners of various security agencies in Bangalore, there is no union for the security workers. As a manager of a security firm says, “the terms and conditions clearly say that they (guards) should not be a member of any union. He should clearly write that he will not join any union or go on strike. If he does, in one week, even in the same hour, he will be out. They should not ask any questions about the facilities, duty hours or benefits given.” Although the central government has passed The Private Security Agencies (Regulation) Act, 2005 (PSARA) to specify norms of business for the security agencies, it rarely translates into action when migrant workers are hired for the service.

We only spoke to Oriya security guards because they seem to be one of the largest communities in the Bangalore private security guard population. They seem to form a more or less homogenous group; unmarried and aged between 19 and 27. Guards thus seem to come from homes in Orissa that are at a particular point in the household development cycle.

Whereas the terms of work seem exploitative, the actual conditions of work are relatively better than many other sectors. Most of the workers get paid in cash between Rs 2700-3200 per month. The agency provides them with uniforms, the cost of which is borne by the guards.

The people we interviewed gained their jobs by contacts in their villages. They belong to a wide variety of communities, ranging from SC, ST, OBC, and general castes including Brahmins. There is rarely any formal mode of recruitment for hiring migrant labourers for security related work. The only required qualifications are elementary schooling, and the ability to speak and understand rudimentary English and Hindi. As this is a seller’s market, the norms for entry are not very stringent.

Most agencies employing the guards follow a policy of ‘no work, no pay’. In a year, the guards do not have a single day of paid leave or sick leave. The shifts vary from twelve hours daily to three eight-hour shifts in two-day cycles.

None of the guards see a job in the security sector as very satisfying, and want to move out of the sector as soon as they can save some money. Most of them want to go back home and start petty businesses. Remittances ranging from 700Rs to 2000Rs are sent home, which are either ploughed back into agriculture as inputs or are used for subsistence consumption during the agricultural lean season. Thus these migrants employed as security guards in cities help supplement their agricultural income back home, while paving the way for future generations to do the same.

A guard’s job is essentially seen as a low status job although there is some variation in terms of the way the guards relate to their work. Sameer, one of the guards, feels that “a guard’s job is a dog’s job” whereas some of his friends are much less negative. Accommodation is generally provided by the agencies and the rent is deducted from the salary at source. The rent typically ranges from 200-400 rupees. They usually eat their meals in self-run messes where money and labour are pooled in. These groups are organised on the basis of region rather than caste and ethnicity, pointing to new patterns of social bonding emerging with migration.

How do we understand the spurt in private security services?

Bangalore’s many secure enclaves have private security services as a key selling point. And perception of fear is related to the availability and consumption of private security services. The very fact that the market ‘provides’ such services can trigger security needs.

More importantly, increasing availability and consumption of private security services is a symptom of uneven growth characterized by a fast-growing segment of high-income groups in Bangalore.

Urban issues expert Solomon Benjamin rightly calls Bangalore ‘a divided city.’ According to a study conducted by American Express last year, Bangalore is home to over 10,000 individual dollar millionaires and around 60,000 super-rich people who have an investable surplus of Rs 4.5 crore and Rs 50 lakh respectively. On the other hand, according to 2001 census, over 10% of Bangalore’s population lives in slums.

Thus there is a real fear among the urban rich about the underclass ‘Other’, reinforced by the isolation of these apartment complexes from their neighboring social areas almost forming ‘secure islands.’ There is also a desire to gain ‘symbolic capital’ (things other than money or property). In some ways this explains why there are private security guards in front of even little offices, schools and some religious organizations.

The sudden boom in private security services reflects the uneven growth that has divided the city economically, socio-culturally and symbolically. The flow of migrant labourers for security work or otherwise both results from and contributes to this divide

Comments:

  1. Shajith Chacko says:

    Fascinating article. I especially enjoyed the (fleeting as it is) look at Bangalore’s demographics and class structure. The varying attitudes towards security guards, and their self-image itself reveal a lot about our divided city.

    I think class and identity in Bangalore make for excellent topics, here’s hoping for more like this.

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