What does a city look like? Who lives in the city?
If you are thinking of the New York skyline, skyscrapers, wide roads, clean streets and cars, you are perhaps not alone. These westernized imaginings are quick to invade our mind whenever there is talk of urbanscape. However, now think consciously of the space that we inhabit, a typical Indian megacity, and our own daily experiences may present themselves as stark contradictions.
Having lived in Mumbai, when I think of a city I am taken back to my daily commutes to college, in the local trains. Standing at the doorstep, in the blink of an eye, one is transported from what seems to be a posh city block to one big, continuous garbage dump interspersed with tiny homes, silhouetted souls living in sub-human conditions.
The intermittent ‘beautification drives’ and projected visions of ‘smart cities’ may attempt to isolate and hide this other, vulgar face of the city behind an opaque wall. But such crude reality is indispensable for running what we call ‘the city.’
So, what indeed does a city look like? Let us take a closer look at Mumbai, a city that is the truest representation, almost a microcosm of megacities scattered across the country
The real ‘citizens’
The dilapidated homes that every Mumbaikar is bound to cross on any working day belong to the city’s informal workforce. These are the millions that keep this edifice of concrete and pride from collapsing in on itself. They clean the filth outside and inside every Mumbai home, they work the factories, they pick up the waste, they are the millions on the frontlines laying down their lives for sustaining this ‘city of dreams’. Why do we then not think of their lives and their homes when we think of the city?
The Census (2011) puts the number of migrants in India migrating due to economic reasons at 51 million. However, many other studies such as The State of Working India Report (2018) argue that this number is an underestimation and is rising. A large portion of these migrants are essentially the country’s farmers, who are desperately attempting to flee the mounting agrarian crisis back home in the village. They aren’t simply migrating for better opportunities but often for survival. This reality is underlined by the words of Kishanlal, a marginal Dalit farmer and seasonal migrant I met while working in Bundelkhand:
“Only death and suffering await us here. If I could leave this place I would, but I cannot afford to live in the city for too long either. I think I will eventually land up doing what many in my village have done. I have already asked him (points to his 14yr old nephew) to find a good tree for me. All that is left is to find a good rope.”
Kishanlal’s story is a bleak one, however, not all migrants are compelled to take such drastic measures. Some are able to find a niche where survival and sustainability become possible. One of the central objectives of my recent study was to understand how migrant workers, navigate, negotiate and survive in the intricate tapestry of urban spaces while seeking work and shelter.
Survival and social mobility in a Mumbai slum
My study was based in a large slum colony situated in Goregaon, Mumbai called Bhagat Singh Nagar. Slums like Bhagat Singh Nagar are informal human settlements that absorb a significant portion of this migrating workforce.
Most migrants survive by forming complex relationships with each other. Living in such close proximity, their lives are entangled much like their homes. However, there is a system in place; each one lends and borrows, concurs and quarrels, counsels and judges while continuing their own personal battle for survival. There is cooperation and contradiction at every stage, however, the outcome is an overwhelming vitality and spirit, without which survival in the harsh underbelly of the city would be impossible.
The study revealed that survival for migrants depends not only on their individual capacity but also on the particular composition of identities they inhabit. Every worker inhabits multiple identities such as gender, caste, religion, regional and linguistic identity. For some workers, survival and sustainability are mediated by their identity such as for tribal communities like Waghris that survive by recycling old clothes. Entry into this sector is easy for most Waghris as it is their identity itself which qualifies them to operate in this occupational domain.
However, for other marginalized groups such as Dalits and poor Muslims, who do not have access to specialized domains of work, survival depends on their ability to negotiate and enter into alternate domains of work. In certain cases, further marginalized caste groups have access to specialized occupational domains but they come at a cost. For many Dalits groups such as Valmikis and Matangs entry into sanitation work and rag-picking is easy but it costs them immensely in terms of their health, life expectancy and dignity.
Lives built on identity
This deep connection between identity and the urban space is exemplified in the narratives of Sabina and Maruti, two of the 14 respondents who participated in my study. Sabina is a single Muslim woman who has been living in Bhagat Singh Nagar for over 40 years. In all of more than 50 years of her life, she has toiled tirelessly as a construction worker and domestic worker, while simultaneously working as a home-based worker as well as a caregiver for her family. Her mother and father migrated to Mumbai from Hyderabad and Gulbarga respectively. They originally settled in Dharavi before moving to Bhagat Singh Nagar during the 60s.
This was the time when the Shiv Sena’s flagship campaign ‘Bajao Pungi, Hatao Lungi’ was in force. This was a campaign that tried to create animosity between the ‘Marathi Manoos’ and the ominous ‘outsider’ in the city. This resulted in thousands of South Indian families like Sabina’s living a life of fear and uncertainty.
Sabina describes this time thus: “We could not stay in Dharavi anymore. Every night we used to take turns and stay up; terrified that someone would come through the door and harm us. My mother was so fearful that she sold our home in Dharavi and paid for a tiny place to stay (a hovel) in Bhagat Singh Nagar. I have been living here for over 30 years now.”
Sabina’s particular identity composition represents a mix of vulnerable identities. First, her identity as a South Indian which was the specific target of the movement. Second, her identity as a Muslim, a vulnerable minority that has been subjected to tremendous violence over the years, especially in Mumbai. Third, her identity as a woman which inevitably brings lowered status, limited agency and exploitation. And lastly, her identity as a migrant informal worker, with limited financial and human capital (in terms of fixed and disposable income, formal skills and formal education). It was therefore inevitable that her family like many others were forced to move out of Dharavi.
Maruti was one of the first respondents to participate in my study. He belongs to the Dalit community and has completed education till 12th standard. Maruti assembles Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) for a living. He has a small room attached to his home where he works 12 hours a day soldering various components to PCBs. These finished PCBs are later picked up by a Jain contractor, who then sells them off to his clients that include MNCs such as Godrej, Phillips, Wipro and other electronic giants.
Maruti’s parents migrated from a small village in Maharashtra and have toiled for many decades in sanitation work and waste picking. Not only because these occupations were not enough to sustain the family, but also due to their harsh experiences working in these undignified and hazardous caste-based jobs, they pushed Maruti to get formally educated. They were supportive of him learning new skills and also helped him financially as well as emotionally when Maruti was starting out.
Additionally, the man who taught Maruti PCB making was a Maharashtrian and therefore easily accepted Maruti as an apprentice who also belonged to a Maharashtrian family. Once again, it was this complex interplay of factors that enabled Maruti to escape and enter an alternative specialized occupational domain where he was able to achieve some form of social mobility.
A city of whose dreams?
Narratives of many migrant workers, similar to Sabina’s and Maruti’s, reveal that Mumbai may not be the hub of equal opportunities it is thought to be. The dominant discourse argues that ascriptive characteristics such as caste, gender, religion etc. tend to fade away in the city and success depends primarily on merit. However, for countless workers such as Sabina and Maruti who live in slums, their identity is, in fact, amplified.
For the urban informal workforce, identity markers such as caste, gender, religion, regional and linguistic identity become further pronounced. While these identities might mean solidarity and sustenance for some communities, for others they become the root cause of continued suffering and exploitation. Additionally, these vulnerabilities are over-laid with their ‘second class citizen’ status as migrants and slum dwellers.
If the city is ever to become a ‘sustainable human settlement’ and a ‘land of equal opportunities’, our imaginations need to be reworked. Without accounting for the countless workers such as Sabina, Maruti and Kishanlal, their labour, struggles and continued suffering, which is the lifeblood of the city, our imaginations will remain replete with violence and injustice. In order to reimagine the city, we must return to the narratives of these invisible workers that keep the concrete jungles afloat and glamourous. It is ultimately their life-stories and their dreams that hold the key to the city’s future.