By Nivedita Jayaram, Sangeeth S*
Tribal belts of Southern Rajasthan, Western MP and Eastern Gujarat provide a reserve army of cheap labour feeding into the construction sector of Ahmedabad. Ahmedabad also has migrants coming in from faraway places like Bihar, UP and Odisha. These seasonal migrant workers lack adequate housing in the city and they live in sub-optimal conditions. They live in a variety of living arrangements in Ahmedabad, ranging from squatting on pavements, settling in temporary shelters, to living on the shop floor inside factories etc. In all these living arrangements, basic parameters of security and well-being are unmet. But this issue of paramount importance is not getting attention either from urban planners or from civil society.
The group living on pavement outside the Vasna Garden, on pavement, which is 100 metres long outside the garden, is a very congested space with around 40 to 50 families living there. There are around 200 people stuffed in that small place. Basic necessities of this group are widely met in the local eco-system. There are local vendors selling tea and there is tobacco and they take drinking water from the garden and nearby apartments. There are ration stores nearby and buses are stationed there, which take the workers directly back to their villages.
These migrants are all from Dahod district, a tribal district in Gujarat. They have been migrating to the same space, the pavements for the last 20 to 25 years. They are all construction labour, largely Naka workers. These are people from the same village, same extended family. So you can see men sitting there, smoking beedi, talking to each other and women cooking food and sharing jokes. It is completely a social space. This space has enabled them to recreate their community life in the village to some extent.
There are separate carved out spaces for performing different functions of the family. There is space for women to cook, children to play and there is separate space to keep stuff, sit and relax. There are also some norms at play around separation and sharing which are very important to avoid or restrict potential conflicts within the group. This pavement is sort of divided among families and there is different cooking space for each family and every family has their own cooking vessels. These norms are very important for them to maintain harmonious relationship among the members within the community.
They have a very basic minimalistic living in the city with basic assets like basic kitchen set, linen (used both as blanket and towel), plastic sheet, 3 to 4 plastic cans for water storage and 3 to 4 sets of clothes. This kind of frugal living has a great impact on women’s labour. As they lack avenues of safe-keeping; women have to buy ration in small quantities. This has immense labour pressure on women to kind of manage the family, cook food and feed everyone within this frugal existence.
One of the main reasons behind this frugal existence is constant evictions and harassments by Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). AMC authorities come once in a while, they evict them and takes their stuff away. These people, because of their fear and lack of economic resources, forsake their stuff. This kind of insecurity creates in them a sense of impermanence in the city. Even after migrating for 20 to 25 years, they still feel like they are temporary visitors to the city.
At the same time you can also see in them a sense of rootedness to the village. In this community, all households across different income groups, sends back more than 60 percentage of their monthly income back to their source villages. During our source visit, we could also see that a lot of people are actually investing for better housing options at the source. So there is a demand for better housing at the source, but it is not there at the destination.
This is especially so because of the kind of systematic exclusion they face in the city. Other than political exclusion, there is social and cultural exclusion operating at different levels. They don’t go out for recreation in the city. Even when they go back to their villages, they don’t buy anything from the city. Because they feel the shop owners will overprice things and cheat them. They don’t celebrate any of their festivals in the city and they don’t have a cultural life in the city. And their mobility in the city for other than work is restricted to less than 1 square kilometer. That is there life in the entire city.
Living on the pavement is sub-optimal for sure. But this community displays ingenuous ways of living, and an embeddedness in the local ecosystem which they have developed over a period of time. Reducing the state violence of evictions and harassments would play a major role in reducing the precarity of their existing living arrangement. At the same time it is also important to create alternative dignified housing option for these groups.
Ramlal ka Khaddah (Shahpur, Raipur) is a neighbourhood where most of the workers come from Ghatol block in Banswara district of Rajasthan. Ramlal ka Khaddah looks like a very small neighbourhood and it has two “Chalis” in which there are around 50 rooms. But while this is a small neighbourhood, what you realize is that if twenty migrants can live in one room during peak season, this place can hold up to 1000 migrants during peak migration season. And there is an informal local economy developed around this area catering solely to these migrants and relying on from providing to these migrants. There are also locals living along with these migrants and they have a good relationship with these migrants.
At Ramlal ka Khaddah, the most premium rooms are 12×8 feet in size, and the slightly smaller ones are 10×6 feet in size. The smallest rooms which are around 15 to 20 in number are 8×6 feet in size. During peak season of migration when around 15 to 20 migrants stay inside these crammed rooms, workers sleep in two parallel rows with their legs on top of each other’s, because of lack of space. And if more people come into this room, as there is no cap on the number of people who can stay in a room, they actually end up sleeping in the hollows in the walls, which are meant to store stuff, or on the roof of the room.
For instance, cooking is actually performed in a corner and because this room is already crammed and there is no ventilation with absolutely no windows and cooking is performed in firewood, what happens is that there is extreme suffocation in the room. There is no space for bathing. There is no space for going to the toilets, which is actually done in an open ground behind this neighbourhood. There is no electricity in one chali and in the other chali which does have electricity it is cut for 12 hours. When these migrants have to perform some activity once they are back from work, they have to use flash lights in their phones.
Ramlal ka Khaddah was developed in 1986 by a person called Valji Bhai who is from the cattle-rearing Rabari community. He used to use these migrants to help rear cattle in their spare time and he set up one room near his house and let these migrants live there. Over a period of time, seeing the economic opportunity this provided, he started creating more rooms on what appears to be public land, basically a municipal dumpyard. And this property kind of grew over time and when his son took over, he stopped the cattle rearing business completely and went into solely renting out rooms to these migrants and started a ration shop for these migrants. Soon other chalis developed and other landlords came into being seeing how big an economic opportunity this kind of an informal market provides.
Coming to the landlords in Ramlal ka Khaddah, the main landlord who owns more than 25 rooms is Ranchod Bhai who is thought of very much as the “Benevolent Landlord”, because he has very close relationship with all these migrants and helps them out in crisis and keeps their money safe, he gives them money on credit and he personally manages all the rooms, as this is his sole source of income. In fact the entire personal interest he takes with these migrants is because his business is completely dependent on them. He himself says they are like gods to him.
With respect to the other landlords who are around 5 or 6, rent is not their sole source of income. So basically it looks like an important supplementary income. Adding to it, all the ration shops in the area are also owned by these landlords. It looks like if the migrant has to have a good relationship with the landlord, he has to buy from these shops.
Other landlords for whom income from rental business is supplementary; they usually have an arrangement with a middlemen who is also a tenant. So instead of taking Rs 300 to Rs 500 from each migrant for staying in room, these landlords actually rent out the room to one tenant for around Rs 3,500. So as many migrants come into the room, this middleman is allowed to keep the margins and he also has to make up for the losses when there is a lean season.
Groups of workers live in Garments factories of Narol, there are more than 2000 units, of which only 35 are big factories. Large number of them is small to medium factories with 10 to 50 workers, and all of them are unregistered, informal units. Each unit is confined to some specific, small, marginal and low end activity like raw material refining, stitching, washing, dyeing etc. And they are also part of the large national supply chain. They supply eventually to the national market, and they all do contract work.
In a cotton garments factory, 20 labour migrants live; they come from Barmer in Rajasthan. The factory doesn’t have spaces for connecting the different activities – sleeping, cooking, bathing. All these activities are performed between machines here. And as you live within your workspace, your normal work hour is 12 hours a day for a wage of Rs 300, and overtime is usually underpaid or not paid at all. And in the high demand season, these migrants even work for more than 18 hours. Because of this, they end up having a lot of health concerns like sleeplessness, exhaustion, and chemicals start entering their food and water. There is even an open drain inside the factory right next to where they live. They are always subjected to workplace hazards, because there is a family living near to the boiler and their children face the risk of falling into the boiler anytime.
The second factory had more of a heterogeneous mix of workers from UP, Rajasthan, Odisha and West Bengal. There was a high degree of cultural friction. Not only that the Odiya and Bengali workers were discriminated against in getting the worst kind of work, they ended up staying in the worst kind of spaces within the factory. And they also reported that landlords wouldn’t even rent out rooms to them outside, forcing them to live on the factory shop floor.
Looking at the design of factories in Narol, its spaces are not meant for living, and living spaces are actually carved out of work spaces. All kinds of inconveniences that comes from lack of facilities at the workspace get reproduced in the living spaces. The larger issue is that, your work starts co-opting your entire life. The fine line you have between your work life and personal life becomes very blurry. When you work for more than 18 hours, and when the owner makes you work at the middle of night, the worker no more sees it as an invasion of his basic rights and it becomes extremely normalized.
This kind of living also exacerbates your occupational health hazards and workplace hazards, as you are not just exposed to it during work hours, but for 24×7. And this group also didn’t have the kind of community life or security other groups enjoy. In fact, they lived a reduced form of atomized life with complete invisibility from the state and public space.
*Excerpts from the Aajeevika Bureau study, “Settlements of the Un-Sedentary: A study on the living conditions of seasonal labour migrants in Ahmedabad. Click HERE to download full report