Book Review: Working Lives in the Shadows of the Global City

Supriya RoyChowdhury's 'City of Shadows' is a compelling study of the lives of the poor in a rapidly globalising Bengaluru.

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The long caravans of workers leaving the cities for their villages during the national lockdown in 2020 made visible the large proportion of urban workers whose homes are in the villages. Combined with the farmers’ protests, they brought attention to the crisis in agriculture and the failure of agrarian livelihoods that impelled their migrations to the city.

But they also raised questions about the cities themselves. Why are cities, especially those like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru that have seen massive capital inflows, unable to provide for migrant workers in a time of crisis? What explains the poverty of cities? Are conditions any better for long-standing urban workers?

Supriya RoyChowdhury
City of Shadows: Slums and Informal Work in Bangalore
Cambridge University Press (October 2021)

These are the questions that Supriya RoyChowdhury takes up in a City of Shadows, a compelling study of the lives of the poor in a rapidly globalising Bengaluru. Drawing on extensive data and years of careful research, RoyChowdhury provides a sobering account of the processes through which urban poverty is produced and remains seemingly intractable. The work is impressive in the historical depth of its attention to the political-economic transformation (impoverishment) of the city’s working classes, and simultaneously, in its intimate knowledge of the diverse geographies of its poor and the spatial variations in the infrastructure and services they are provided. Most importantly, it returns us to the fundamental but long sidelined questions of state, class, and political agency, and to the urgent need for redistributive politics. 

Within urban studies, as RoyChowdhury notes, the stubbornness of urban poverty and social marginalisation across the Global South is generally explained in three ways. The first is through the lens of peripheral urbanisation, developed by the Brazilian sociologist Teresa Caldeira and others, which sees urban marginality as created by spatial exclusion from government support structures, services, and infrastructures, and in general, by irregular relations to law and property. The second approach focuses on the political economy of urban real estate as an increasingly speculative investment and the processes of appropriation whereby slums get “cleared” and slum-dwellers evicted to make way for malls, gated communities, and so on. The third, and this is RoyChowdhury’s own preference, is through the lens of informality. But it is in how this informality is defined that her work marks a departure. 

Also Read: The Long Road Home: A Day in the Life of a Stranded Migrant Worker in Bengaluru

The book “locates urban marginality primarily in terms of work and incomes of the urban poor.” By placing labour at the heart of the city, it brings together urban studies, which examines urban poverty and social marginality primarily in terms of urban governance, institutions, and infrastructure, and labour studies, with its focus on the structures and relationships of work and remuneration. Further, through a focus on the production and intergenerational reproduction of poverty, it opens up a critical discussion around the structural basis of informality, the role of the state in relation to capital, and political agency and class. I take up this discussion following an outline of the book’s empirical core.

Migrant workers walk to their native places amid the nationwide lockdown, on NH24 near the Delhi-UP border, March 27, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

Growth and precarity in the modern economy

RoyChowdhury begins the story of Bengaluru’s recent growth by locating it within the uneven regional economy of Karnataka: the state’s governments have concentrated urban and infrastructural development in a few urban corridors in the already flourishing south, primary among them Bengaluru, while the northern districts, dependent on an increasingly stagnating agriculture, remain a major source of migrant workers to the city.

Following independence, Bengaluru became a centre for science and technology institutes and large public sector manufacturing industries, ancillary to which also flourished a significant small-scale industries (SSI) sector. As the shift from public to private capital began in the late 1980s, facilitated by the land and other infrastructure support provided by successive state governments, this dense network of research institutes and state agencies provided the institutional backbone for the rise of a new generation of science and technology-trained, research-oriented entrepreneurs in information technology and sectors like aerospace, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, and textiles and garments. These attracted the national and global flows of capital and high-skilled professionals that now mark the city as “global.”

Simultaneously, public sector manufacturing enterprises were systematically dismantled, through closures, privatisation, and the contracting out of work in maintenance, hospitality and security within these enterprises. The shrinking of manufacturing and of the small-scale ancillary industries supplying it resulted in a shift in employment; by 2012, services – trade, hotels and restaurants, finance, insurance, real estate, social and personal services – made up 73.5% of all employment. Across the board, even in waged service sector work, jobs became contractual, insecure, low-waged, unregulated, and lacking in any kind of social insurance.

Outside services, two sectors that saw a boom in the last two decades in the context of globalisation – construction and readymade garment (RMG) exports – are now the largest providers of waged, but low-paid, unregulated and non-unionised employment for unskilled labour, including rural migrants.

The next chapters survey four “new slums” located in the city’s peripheries and six inner-city “old slums.” Very poorly serviced, the new slums housed recent, often cyclical, migrants – mostly construction workers. Conditions were only slightly better in the older slums, most of which had existed for 40-70 years and were inhabited by the second and even third generation of original residents. Despite their proximity to commercial hubs, only a relatively small number of residents had gained work in these places – in retail, transportation, delivery, security, or in small offices. The large majority were still engaged in traditional occupations such as coolie labour for head-load carrying, petty trade and services, construction, and domestic work. In the slum of waste collectors and street sweepers, 70% remained in these occupations over the 70-80 years of the slum’s existence.

A survey of youth across the six slums found many school dropouts or those who remained unemployed even with computer diplomas, reflecting the complete absence of systemic policy-based efforts around education and skills training. More than these institutional failures, however, it was the absence of jobs, and especially relatively well-paid, secure jobs that offered some possibility of upward mobility, which accounted for the intergenerational reproduction of poverty in these slums. 

A chapter on centrally funded housing policies, such as the JNNURM, RAY and PMAY, revealed the increasing role of public-private partnerships (PPPs); the invitation to private builders to carry out slum redevelopment along with commercial development in what is often prime land led to frequent conflict. Even in these new housing projects, there were no facilities like schools, anganwadis and clinics.

The projects provided only renewable leases, whereas the slum dwellers wished for property rights to the land they occupied. Most households resisted small high-rise apartments, aspiring for land-to-sky rights so that they could build multiple stories and use the ground floor for livelihood activities; residents with larger plots resisted new layouts which would equalise the land share of households. Contrary to the argument made by some urban scholars that the demand for land might emerge as a shared platform for urban underclass activism, RoyChowdhury shows how “the land issue deeply divides slum dwellers….The land question in fact brings to light the slum itself as a highly unequal structure rather than the homogenous space assumed in state policies.” 

The last empirical chapter focuses on the women workers in Bengaluru’s RMG sector. Emerging at almost the same time as the IT sector, and similarly tied to global value chains, the RMG sector nevertheless has a low profile and is not associated with Bengaluru’s global status. The sector is a major employer of low-skilled, mostly migrant women workers.

The harsh working conditions and below minimum wage incomes (despite the establishment of a wage board) create a footloose workforce, marked by the continuous arrival of new migrants. Young women from economically backward states like Odisha and Jharkhand are recruited by agencies, minimally trained by state government skill training programmes, brought to Bengaluru where they live in tightly policed dorms, and required to work for six months in a garment factory before they receive their skills certificates. Thus, even in a “modern industry” incorporated into a global supply chain, work is unregulated and insecure.

Workers stitch garments at a factory of an apparel shop in Jaipur, October 20, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

Theorising informality

Taken together, the chapters show that the vast majority of Bengaluru’s working classes live and work in conditions that, to a greater or lesser degree, are characterised by informality, “defined minimally as absence of regulation.” The difference between the self-employed who are completely outside any form of regulation; workers in the RMG sector who are in formal wage employment but often receive less than the board-mandated minimum wage and whose working conditions are largely unregulated; construction workers in short-term and often seasonal employment; and sub-contracted cleaners and security staff working for the Bengaluru Municipal Corporation or a large public sector undertaking, is only one degree of job (in)security and (non)regulation of working conditions; social insurance in the form of sick leaves, pensions, and other benefits is almost universally absent.  

It is in attempting to understand how informality is produced and what it means for the working classes that RoyChowdhury makes her central theoretical contributions. First, she argues, informality is structural, produced not so much by the failure of governance as by the “broader political economy that determines the character of industrial development, employment and incomes of the urban underclass.”

The transitions from agriculture to industry, and rural to urban, predicted by both modernisation and Marxist theories, remain incomplete. The manufacturing sector has sought profitability through the technological substitution and flexibilisation of labour; the service sector has grown but has a relatively smaller requirement for high-end labour. With the GDP from agriculture declining, rural workers are forced to move seasonally between agriculture and urban work or to become part of the large, permanent underclass in the cities with no formal employment to absorb them.

In a much-debated theorisation of this permanent underclass of global capitalism in postcolonial societies like India, the late Kalyan Sanyal argued that they constituted the “outside” of capitalism, forming an economy of need untethered to the demands of accumulation and therefore unable to extract any concessions from capitalists. In contrast,  RoyChowdhury (along with others) shows how this underclass is produced by the nature of capitalist restructuring and serves to provide a pool of low-cost labour, absorbing the costs of capital’s “flexibilisation” strategies by moving in and out of wage employment. 

Tied to this is the question of the state. With the success of the East Asian countries in achieving industrial growth along with a degree of social welfare, the idea of a “developmental state” has captured development theory. Such a state is assumed as capable of disciplining capital and enforcing a more “responsible” form of capitalism, regulating working conditions, and enacting welfare legislation to provide a safety net.

Coming at it differently, Sanyal (and Partha Chatterjee) have argued that the legitimacy of the modern state, and especially of a democratic state like India’s, rests on its ability to provide at least basic living conditions for its people – it cannot allow them to simply starve to death. For Chatterjee, this helps explain the UPA government’s rights-based legislation such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to Information Act, the right to food and the Forest Rights Act.

RoyChowdhury argues that this does not hold up empirically, showing how “the state, which is the regulator, [is] a major factor in the structuration of informality,” facilitating the entry of capital on cheap and flexible terms created by the decimation of wages, labour standards, and job security. At best, it has secured the conditions of informality, mitigating bare life with a few meagre sops.  

Informal growth not only defines the nature of urban livelihoods, it “provides the boundaries which limit a possible politics of the poor.” Most migrant workers in the peripheral new slums could vote only in their villages and so were of little interest to politicians. In the older slums, party political divisions between different levels of government − municipal, state, and national − often meant that no single party felt responsible for the area. Clientelistic relationships with the local politicians almost never translated into schemes or projects for the settlement as a whole. Civil society was likewise largely absent. In general, lack of funding prevented steady and sustained NGO interventions. 

Representative image of Colaba slum, Mumbai, home to domestic workers. Photo: BBC World Service/Flickr CC-BY-NC 2.0

A return to the politics of class 

What then can be a possible politics of the informal? In a radical departure from the growing consensus around welfare demands, RoyChowdhury calls for a renewed class politics centred around the wage. It is in struggles for wages, contracts, paid leave, working hours, pensions, and medical and other social insurance that bridges can be built between, say, a retail worker in a city mall, a worker in an apparel export factor, a construction worker, and a contract cleaner who works for the city corporation. 

Precisely because the call for a return to the politics of class centred around the wage is so novel and radical in these times, one wishes that the author had developed it a little more. Given that she herself documents the difficulties of union organising in the RMG sector, how class politics around the wage might be mobilised and organised across a diversity of sectors is hard to imagine. Further, as in the ideal of community development that she rightly critiques, identities of caste, religion, and language, further vitiated by recent politics, may prove hard to transcend.

It may also be necessary to think more fulsomely in terms of a social wage that considers the largely unremunerated social reproductive tasks of housework and care work as an essential kind of labour to be compensated through such means as a basic income.

Also Read: False Promises and Mobility Restrictions Plague Migrant Workers in Bengaluru’s Garment Industry

Although RoyChowdhury makes a distinction between the politics of the wage and what she calls “welfare measures,” elements of welfare – education, health, housing, social security measures not tied to employment – are in fact essential to a decent life and to stable social reproduction. They are an integral element of the social wage, as the industrial working class in the West recognised when it fought not only for such gains as a just wage, an eight hour working day, and weekly rest days but also for universal healthcare, education, and recreation facilities. 

At a time when the new labour codes that further deregulate labour are being touted as the means to address unemployment by attracting new investment in manufacturing, the book provides indispensable evidence that they will not resolve the precarity of livelihoods for the vast majority of India’s poor, just as the farmers were clear that the now-repealed farm laws would not resolve the agrarian crisis in their favour. They will only serve to increase low-paid and unregulated work disguised as a formal employment relationship.

As India’s wealthiest capitalists begin to rank high on global wealth indices, the book’s focus on the poor exposes the relationship between wealth and poverty and puts the question of redistribution firmly back on the agenda. There is a quiet and understated quality to the writing, but the book’s research is rich and its arguments timely and important. It must be read widely.

Aparna Sundar is a political scientist.