Cities & Architecture

The Cycling Sisters of Gurgaon, Pedalling Furiously to Stay in the Same Place

For the many migrant domestic workers in Gurgaon, city life has meant a new-found independence but has not really improved their standard of living.

Representative image. Credit: Abhisek Sarda/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Representative image. Credit: Abhisek Sarda/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Gurgaon is one of India’s IT centres – almost all big tech players and many Fortune 500 companies have a presence in the city. A visitor to the IT district will see gleaming steel and glass, with many iconic buildings and shopping areas, but there are parts of the city that are dirty, with bad roads and poor infrastructure. What a visitor will not see unless she wakes up early in the morning is the large number of women – mostly domestic workers – cycling along the roads to work, to cook and clean in the city’s many high-rise buildings. Gurgaon has a large population of young professional couples where both partners work and therefore need household help.

The interesting phenomenon of women cycling alone in a socially-conservative state such as Haryana, where most women from the Jat community use a veil and stay at home, is tied to larger circuits of migration, development and poverty in the country.

According to local accounts, this began over 20 years ago, when land began to be acquired from local farmers and a large number of high-rise buildings came up, leading to the demand for domestic labour. The cycling women are not local but are almost entirely Bengali, hailing from some of the poorest districts of Bengal such as Malda; some are from Bangladesh as well. Another feature is that large numbers of them are Bengali Muslim, who constitute the most disadvantaged group in Bengal. Some are single mothers, with husbands who have deserted them or are drunkards. Many have acquired good cooking skills, making themselves indispensable to the households they work in. Their husbands (when they’re around) also constitute part of the city’s service class, cleaning cars and working in hotels and malls.

These women cycle around as this permits them to work in a large number of houses and earn more money. In any case, there is no reliable public transport to speak of. My household help tells me Bengali women back home learn to cycle in order to go to school and the skill has come in handy in Gurgaon. Those who don’t know learn from their ‘sisters’, there being a fairly high degree of camaraderie among them as they have similar backgrounds and problems. Some, like my help, are innovative – she has bought a scooter in order to save on travel time and work in more houses to augment her income. The women, who mostly all know each other, see themselves as a community of sisters in an alien city which gives them a living but little else, despite which they remain cheerful and always ready to cook a bit more when guests arrive.

Gurgaon is a city that is rapidly building flyovers, underpasses and the Rapid Metro, which will all improve the life of middle-class professionals in the city. Very little has been done to improve the lot of the migrant working class, though, made up of construction labourers and the service class of whom the cycling sisters are a part. Most of them live in the urban villages in the city, which are practically slums with no basic facilities. Shubhra Gururani’s recent research on Gurgaon shows that in 2011, the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon registered 40 urban villages, which she describes as ‘peri-urban’ areas, such as Tigra gaon or Wazirpur gaon. These villages symbolise the changing relationship between the rural and urban, and how planners have not been able to work out this relationship.

Many of these villages are nestled in between high-rises, gated  complexes, corporate towers, malls and highways. Some are situated close to, or on top of, the large drains or nullahs of the city that are meant to drain rain water. This is what causes tremendous flooding during the monsoon as there is no place for the water to drain out. The Gurgaon city administration is in a fix – it has to acquire that land in order to improve the drainage. However, in the meantime, they have done little to maintain the urban villages in terms of supplying clean water and sanitation facilities. The Swach Bharat scheme of Prime Minister Modi has yet to reach these villages, which are similar to or even worse than the jhuggi-jhopdi clusters of Delhi.

The level of inequality in the city is very high – visible in the contrast between the comfortable high-rise gated communities of the elite and the poor conditions of the urban villages.

Most domestic helpers live in huts constructed of tin, which heat up tremendously in summer, are very cold in winter and can’t keep the water out in the monsoon. Arguably, the migrant populations earn better and eat more than in their villages back home, and manage to send their children to government schools (though of poor quality). The aim is to earn over a period of 20-30 years and retire to their villages, where many have tiny plots and a house.

For the women, earning a living and cycling alone even in the late evening provides them with a sense of independence and empowerment, which they could not have experienced in their villages. However, the amount they save after their daily living expenditure is meagre and does not change their circumstances. It does not lift their children out of poverty, as educational attainments remain low, and they continue to provide services as their parents did before them. Very few manage to break out of the vicious circle of poverty and migration. In contrast, the local, or ‘native’, population, which owned agricultural land, has done better as they received compensation and have set up small businesses in villages and the city such as auto-repair stores, grocery shops, tailoring services, etc. Also, IT professionals with high educational levels, who work in MNCs in Gurgaon for long years, retire comfortably to the states they migrated from with good savings.

The comrades who ruled Bengal for almost 30 years have much to answer for, as they ruined the rural areas and could not provide employment to the local population. This population has been forced to migrate long distances to find work and feed their families. But this is a story of many parts of the country, particularly the Hindi heartland states of UP and Bihar, where development has not reached the common people, pushing them out of their local areas in search of a living.

The cycling women of Gurgaon remain part of the marginalised citizens of a shining metropolis that is making rapid strides professionally and is set to become a ‘world-class’ city which attracts foreign capital and companies. The state of the cycling sisters of Gurgaon, however, remains similar to that of much of the migratory labour in large parts of the country. Though there is no room for them in urban planning or economic policy making at the macro level, it is their labour which keeps the city – and others like it – ticking. Though the city moves ahead, and so does the country, it seems that the fate of India’s migrant workers is to remain perpetually in the same place.

Sudha Pai is a National Fellow of the Indian Council of Social Sciences.