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This article comes from a study undertaken as part of a Centre for New Economic Studies (CNES) Visual Storyboard Initiative. The three-part photo essay on this storyboard can be accessed through the following links (Part I; Part II; Part III) and all video essays uploaded can be found in a playlist here.
Over the last two months, our team from the Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES) undertook a field project with the objective to visually document and archive the lives and daily work lifestyles of some of the most vulnerable migrant workers living in the Wazirpur-Badli JJ camp area of New Delhi. In the course of the project, our team came across some absorbing insights about the area.
The area of the Wazirpur-Badli JJ camp, despite being placed within the national capital region (NCR) and in an industrial corridor, has been ignored by the state in providing access to basic amenities and social and economic protection for those who work there under precarious circumstances with difficult living conditions. Here, we highlight the lived experiences of those working in the dark, hazardous steel factory workshops in Wazirpur.
Wazirpur is one of 29 industrial areas spread across Delhi-NCR. Twenty years ago, this land was barren with hardly any inhabitants, even from Delhi itself. Now, the same place is overrun with hundreds of small-scale factories which have attracted thousands of low-income migrant workers, usually from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal.
Scattered amongst Wazirpur’s workshops and factories are the jhuggis (slums) which the workers call home. While many of the area’s newer workers prefer to stay in the jhuggis temporarily, for periods of six to eight months when industrial activity is at its peak, others, mostly the older migrant workers, have lived with their families in the slums for over a decade.
New arrivals in Wazirpur go through middlemen to find employment in steel factories. Those with connections can find good contractors who offer a daily wage. Most of the others, however, have to rely on ‘word of mouth’ to find employment offers, even at less-than-ideal daily wage rates, with a massive cut of their salary going directly into the pockets of the middlemen. The workers scarcely make the minimum wage, especially after the effect the pandemic had on industrial activity, not that the pre-pandemic situation was all that bright.
Once employed, workers are made to go through eight to 12 hour shifts in which they work with heavy machinery (such as power press and roller machines), six days a week. In small-scale steel factories, workers press, cut and polish steel. Work conditions are hazardous and many workers are develop chronic respiratory issues.
In return for their efforts, workers receive around Rs 5,000 – 8,000 per month for eight-hour shifts. Most, however, insist on working overtime, pushing the duration of their shifts to 12 hours and adding an extra Rs 2,000 to their salaries. Monthly rent for one small room for a family of four can go up to Rs 3,000, including electricity bills. Thus, these workers have to spend a third of their salaries on rent, leaving hardly any money for additional expenses, let alone hospital bills.
‘They spend lakhs on machines but not Rs 5 to fix a plug’
Hand injuries and accidents in the steel factories are common.
“If your mind wanders even for a second, you’ll get hurt or may risk losing a finger… it has happened to me,” said an elderly factory worker.
A stray piece of steel may hit someone or a machine part may malfunction causing a current to run through its operator. It is not uncommon to find people with a severed hand or foot. First aid may be provided, but paid leave is out of the question. Our team interacted with many workers living in the Wazirpur industrial area who had not only suffered terrible injuries from the accidents in factory workshops but had also, in turn, lost their jobs.
“I have heard of many companies turning a blind eye to what happens inside their factories. That’s why my relatives and family members are reluctant to send girls out to work in factories. Luckily, my workplace is nothing like that.”
Girls as young as 18 years of age feel compelled to start work in these factories to support their families. Women in these vulnerable workspaces are often harassed, discriminated against and are seldom paid as much as their male counterparts. Their wages, even after overtime, add up to only around Rs. 3,000 – 6,000 per month.
Though women working in such difficult conditions is not uncommon here, factory owners do try to pay women workers well in order to avoid getting a bad reputation in the community.
In a somewhat tightly-knit community like Wazirpur, news of jobs, working conditions (a good employer versus a bad employer) travels through gossip and intra-community oral networks.
If an owner (most of whom are men) has a bad reputation for exploiting their workers, it often becomes more difficult for them to hire workers in the area.
Some factors owners and, more importantly, contractors (most of whom stay in and around the slum area) try to project an image of ‘caring’ for their workers into the community.
Many factory owners have also set up CCTV cameras to ensure the safety of women workers specifically.
The presence of a relatively inclusive worker community, without any organisational agency or unionised presence, was interesting for our team to observe. Many workers, as a result of being part of a ‘cared for’ community, prefer to live in the slum of Wazirpur as opposed to other industrial areas like Bawana and Narela, where many feel isolated and alienated.
Still, the precarity of industrial work in steel workshops and the exploitative working conditions, as well as a poorly organised wage structure, makes many wonder what their (and their families’) futures are going to be like.
Workers press, cut and polish steel to create tumblers, bowls and plates. Overlooking safety concerns, they operate polishing, rolling and cutting machines using a ‘naked hand’; sans protective gear.
While referring to the lack of adequate compensation from owners for a worker’s injuries, one worker, Rajesh, said, “Babu (the contractor) does what he can do… most (factory) owners don’t really care.”
When asked what the government does to compensate the workers for injuries sustained while working, Rajesh, a low-income Wazirpur resident who used to work as a steel worker and cut steel by hand, said, “The government, or the state, doesn’t even know that we exist… What will they do to help us?”
Ironically, the factory workshops are spatially clustered around an eight-story structure that houses the Employee Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) office in Wazirpur.
Most workers lack access to provident funds and even health insurance provided by the Employee State Insurance Corporation. Many aren’t even aware of what a provident fund is.
Thousands of jhuggis have been built around the major industrial areas of Wazirpur and Badli. Shacks line the streets of these slum areas, which can only be reached by marching in single file past leaking sewers.
However, most residents go about their daily lives. Children are seen playing in dirt and taking showers in the water from broken pipelines in the alleys. On the streets, stallholders and street vendors (themselves residents of the slums) offer everything from plastic toys to saucepans. People here lack what most consider to be fundamental necessities. The scant resources available in these slums are getting further exhausted, scarce and worn down as the population continues to grow dramatically.
The slum’s material absence of permanent homes, water and sanitation, inflicts social, cultural and symbolic violence upon its residents every day. As the slum life is always exposed to public scrutiny, slums represent a tangible politics of closeness and distance in an unusual way.
The jhuggis, although providing a haven from the city’s exclusion, are nevertheless vulnerable to intrusion and violence from the community and within the family. This is evident in the way we understand how different day-to-day life is for women, men, youth and children from one another, even whilst living in together in these jhuggis.
Thousands of women and girls begin their days at the first stroke of dawn, before the rest of their (male) neighbourhood wakes up. They do so because they have to use the (collective) sanitation facilities that are accessible at a distance from their respective homes.
Most of these women are also workers in steel factories and must report to work early, after finishing their household chores (which include cooking for their families and spouses). Those who don’t work as steel workers work as domestic workers in the kothis nearby. The life-routine, however, remains the same for both groups.
“No one values women in factories. Male workers tend to order women around, with an inherent sense of authority which is indifferently overseen by the factory owners. Here, both men and women are at fault. Women don’t speak up for themselves and men take advantage of that,” says a resident of the Wazirpur industrial area.
The shramik women of Wazirpur spend hours cleaning, cooking and looking after their children early in the morning, whereas the men wake up just in time to get ready for work. As both leave for work together, the younger kids are left in the care of neighbours and the community’s elderly.
Involuntarily overlooked by their parents, the children of these migrant workers are deprived of a formal education, congenial social environment and parental presence. They spend most of their day playing in the alleys, completely unsupervised, being exposing very early on to intoxicants and a patterned ferocity.
These children, then, grow up following the crowd; they drop out of school and work as labourers instead of improving their skills, trapping them in a vicious cycle, identical to that of their parents’ generation.
“A friend of mine had gotten a job in a well-established company. They let him go when they realised he lived in a jhuggi,” says a a resident of Badli’s JJ Colony.
The young workers of Wazirpur and Badli, most of whom are aged between 17 and 20, are less secure or thoughtful about their future. Growing up unaided, a large part of the youth worker community actively indulges in alcohol and drugs while gambling away the little money they have. A small minority of the young workers either settle for a low-paying, laborious jobs or, if they can afford it, appear for competitive exams.
An even smaller minority of the youth, who are determined to make their futures better, face difficulties due to their domestic, intra-household situations. In a chaotic slum colony, they find it difficult to study in their homes. There is hardly the space – or the peace – to study, even if there is the light. Often, they are interrupted by the drunken howls and loud abuses of their peers which force them to travel outside the slum to find a quiet environment.
Despite their vexatious lifestyles, the men, women and youth of Wazirpur and Badli continue to work hard in hope of creating an identity for themselves and provide a better way of life for future generations.
The invisibilisation of migrants in India’s dark growth story
The low-income, vulnerable migrant workers in India know hardship all too well. One in every ten people in India are seasonal or circular labour migrants. In the last 20 years, as more industries have shown up in areas such as Badli and Wazirpur, jhuggis have proliferated.
With the paltry incomes they make from work, any dilapidated shelter becomes home. Most families with four or five persons must make the most of their low-ceiling, single-room accommodation. Between the scarcity of housing structures, the uncertain future of their homes and the less-than-ideal living conditions, migrants must skirt the odd dynamic between ‘old’ and ‘new’ residents.
These jhuggis have, over time, also become increasingly dense with older families growing bigger and newer migrants flowing in. Barely earning a sustainable income, they are unable to afford accommodation, even in slums.
They are left with no choice but to live in shared, rented rooms lacking basic amenities with rents as high as Rs 2,500 per month. These rooms are incredibly small, hardly able to accommodate three family members at the same time. Forcibly cramped together, they are compelled to make use of that single room for all their chores. The same place is used as a bathroom in the morning, a kitchen at noon and a bedroom at the night.
“Few months ago, a 13-year-old girl, in an attempt to acquire water from the only tanker of the day, fell and broke her arm as the residents stepped on it in the midst of madcap attempts at grabbing water,”
– Dr Ashok Kumari.
These settlements also face an acute shortage of water. With only one tanker a day for all their quotidian requirements, conditions can get desperate. Thousands of women living in resettlement colonies on the outskirts of the city begin their days by hiking to the nearest water standpipe or queueing for a filthy community toilet down a small, dirty alleyway.
“With more metros and roads, it has happened before that factory land, where people live in jhuggis, is being converted to build flats for middle-class people.”
– Sunil Kumar Singh.
Residents pay rent that ranges from a third to half of their monthly income, but are not given the benefits of rental agreements or the ability to exercise tenancy rights over their living areas. Furthermore, the landowners use coercion and physical violence to ensure the workers’ compliance and temporary status in these communities. Because of the informal nature of their housing, the government is often more than comfortable to start displacing people from their homes.
Most people here have lost faith in the government.
Promises made are hardly kept and the responsibility to maintain basic public amenities such as toilets, sewage and clean water facilities falls on the slum-dwellers themselves. As industries begin moving out towards the edges of the NCR, many feel that they soon will be forced to leave. Though the population of Badli and Wazirpur is not certain, roughly 30 – 40 lakh workers might get displaced soon and Delhi’s new master plan has little to offer them.
Most names have been changed, or kept anonymous to protect the identity of the respondents.
Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of economics and director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts, OP Jindal Global University.
Jignesh Mistry is a senior research analyst and the visual storyboard team lead with CNES.
Tavleen Kaur is Research Assistant (CNES),
Apremeya Sudarshan is a research intern with CNES.
We also would like to thank Ruhi Nadkarni, Ada Nagar, Mohammed Rameez and Rajan Mishra for their assistance on editing and archiving the photo & video essays from this storyboard.
The authors would like to sincerely acknowledge and thank: Mukta Naik, fellow from Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Dr. Ashok Kumari, an academic researcher, informal workers’ rights activist & an Independent writer on Women’s Issues, and Sunil Kumar Singh, Associate Researcher from CPR, for their invaluable help, support and guidance in making this field study possible.