In 'Moderne' India, Social Apartheid Is Sparking Millions of Small Mutinies

There is a new element, a twist, in the age-old tale of discrimination and exploitation in India – and that element is rage.

It’s one of those hot and enervating mid-July afternoons. Anjum is sitting in her class at a government school in East Delhi’s Patparganj. The class of 30 students is struggling to concentrate on the lesson at hand. Concentration doesn’t come easily when you are sitting in a makeshift tin building without electricity (though a fan and light were finally installed earlier this week). “A new school building is coming up in the complex. Till construction is complete, students will continue to huddle in the cramped classroom,” Anjum’s father, Tarun Das*, tells me. Till recently, Das was working as a driver in Delhi. Now he ferries passengers – school students, office-goers, anyone in need of a ride – in his new e-rickshaw. “I can’t drive around in this city any longer. The traffic is too chaotic,” he tells me.

Like tens of thousands of others, Das, originally from West Bengal, came to Delhi in search of a job. That was well over a decade ago. “Low-income people have found it harder to survive throughout this period,” he says. With wry humour, Das talks about how indifferently and callously the national capital treats its poor – especially workers, both migrants and non-migrants. He talks about how the benefits of subsidies never reach those they are intended for. Take, for instance, the case of the electricity tariff, which, due to the AAP-led Delhi government’s initiative, has substantively come down. But tenants like Das still have to cough up more money than they ought to – exceeding the actual bill amount – simply because landlords never show tenants the actual bill.

Despite the government’s tall talk of improved governance (not just the present government but every government of the day for years), ordinary people have not been able to get the system to respond to them. “The government could have made life so much easier for people had it done its job in the education and health sectors,” he claims. He narrates a story about his nasty encounter in an East Delhi government hospital: “A couple of nights ago, I suddenly felt extremely ill. It felt like a heart attack. We rushed to Guru Teg Bahadur hospital in Shahdara. The Emergency compounder gave me an injection. After that I lay on a stretcher the whole night. Not a single doctor attended to me. I left the hospital in the morning.”

Our conversation turns to the sordid face-off between domestic workers and residents in Noida’s Mahagun Moderne, the housing society that recently grabbed media headlines. Zohra Bibi, who worked as a domestic worker in Mahagun Moderne – a posh apartment complex in Noida – went missing on July 12. There were conflicting media reports about how and where Zohra was later found, even as a group of her friends and neighbours stormed the apartment complex. In photographs splashed across newspapers the next day, Zohra Bibi appeared near unconscious. According to a report in Scroll.in, “Though both sides traded charges and police cases were filed against the workers as well as the residents, only the group of workers who stormed the society were detained. Of these, 13 were charged with attempted murder even though none of the FIRs filed over the incident mentioned a physical attack on residents. About 81 workers were ‘blacklisted’ and barred from entering the society for protesting on July 12.” What’s more, the Noida Authority razed more than three dozen shanties in the area where the protesters lived.

After the demolition of shanties. Credit: Prashant Kanojia

After the demolition of shanties. Credit: Prashant Kanojia

These narratives focus on three different arenas of social life – education, health and domestic work; each distinct from the other on some level. Yet, these narratives also share the common elements of disaffection and rage stemming from the reality of social and economic inequality. If Das’s daughter sweats it out in a tin building, her father lies unattended to in a government hospital the whole night. In a different part of the National Capital Region, friends and neighbours of a domestic worker, furious over the treatment meted out to her, express their rage by throwing stones at an apartment complex, rattling its secured gates. Then, some of their own homes are demolished by a vindictive administration. Das, too, is bitter about how heavily tilted the system is in favour of the rich or the better-off. But he has more at stake than Zohra Bibi and therefore exercises restraint.

One could say that these stories are as old as the republic of India itself. Why then go on chronicling the same narratives of despair? One reason perhaps has to do with systemic flaws that, far from being dealt with and removed, continue to work – perhaps with even more efficiency than before – against the underclasses. Ironically, the inequality graph has moved upward even as India has become more integrated with the global economy, even as new opportunities have opened up. Since the onset of economic liberalisation in 1991, class stratification has deepened, as has the indifference towards the underprivileged along axes of class, caste and other such determinants. In many ways, Delhi is the prime site where you encounter some of the glaring manifestations of such systemic social apartheid. The rich and the poor exist side by side – often separated just by a street. But territorial proximity is offset by economic and social distance.

The underpaid and the badly exploited Zohra Bibis, without whose services most middle-class households would grind to a halt, sit on the ground, eat food from plates separately kept for them and are not allowed to use toilets in the houses they sweep and clean. The signs of class apartheid are simply too many to compile a holistic list. One particularly embarrassing sight many of us are likely to have been confronted with on more than one occasion is that of young working class girls in restaurants standing by or sitting awkwardly in silence as a chattering middle class family tucks into a meal and she minds their brattish child. Class apartheid is undoubtedly not peculiar to India. Yet there does seem to be a certain uniqueness to the audacity with which the privileged leverage their status to both degrade the poor and mark out a space for themselves.

All this has led to a singular attrition of the dignity of labour in Indian society – although there was never much dignity to begin with. In his book Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, Rana Dasgupta writes about an array of Delhi’s underclasses – domestic workers, cooks, gardeners – all of whom are essential to their well-heeled employers leading comfortable lives. Reviewing his book in New Republic, historian Ramachandra Guha writes: “Reading Dasgupta on Delhi’s urban underclass recalled for me what Eduardo Galeano once wrote of their Latin American counterparts, who likewise ‘sell newspapers they cannot read, sew clothes they cannot wear, polish cars they will never own and construct buildings where they will never live.'”

But there is a new element, a twist, in this age-old tale of discrimination and exploitation. And that element is rage. The stone-throwing and gate-rattling at Mahagun Moderne is just one of the many public and spontaneous expressions of anger which we have been witness to in the recent past. Revolutions of the kind that once shook the world may not be in the making. But millions of small mutinies are unfolding across a range of spaces.

*Name changed.