Yogesh is one of the millions of workers who migrate for employment within India each year. He and his family moved 800 kilometers from the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to the industrial hub of Gurgaon, 30 kilometers southwest of India’s capital, New Delhi. Through an acquaintance who worked as a supervisor in a factory, Yogesh found a job as a garment checker, where he earns Rs. 5,600 [USD 83.44] each month — most of the time. “In June, July and August,” Yogesh explains, “I am fired from my job. Factories do not produce much so I have to sit unemployed.”
Yogesh is one of the people you meet in Lockstitch Lives – Migrants in the Megacity. This interactive documentary, produced by Society for Labour and Development and HELM Studio, transports you to the neighborhoods of Gurgaon, where you witness the rugged daily realities of scores of families like Yogesh’s. Using 360-degree multimedia, Virtual Reality, photography and video, Lockstitch Lives provides a window into the living and working conditions of marginalized communities, and the lives of workers that are normally invisible.
Yogesh lives with his wife and three children in an 8 x 8 room in a four-story workers’ housing complex in Dundahera, a town in Gurgaon district. There are 148 rooms for 700 or 800 people in the complex. The residents all share four bathrooms with four toilets each. — one toilet in each bathroom is reserved for women.” Between June and September, Yogesh and his family try to survive on credit.
“Before October, nobody gets work,” Yogesh explains. “For room, rent and ration, we are in debt Rs.8000-10,000. The money we earn in November and December goes to paying our pending bills.”
The cycle of unemployment and debt described by Yogesh is typical of the impact of the garment global production network on workers’ lives. The uncertainties of a seasonally driven industry are forced upon workers through the widespread use of flexible contracts. Today, 60 percent of the garment production workforce in India, an estimated 45 million workers, are employed as casual and contract workers. As a result, garment sector workers have been recognised by India’s National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) as “informal workers in the formal sector.” The annual cycles of unemployment and living on credit leave the garment workers of Gurgaon open to exploitation by landlords and merchants who capitalise on their economic vulnerability.
As depicted in the Lockstitch Lives Project, predatory housing practices exhaust the resources of families like Yogesh’s. Three years ago, Yogesh and his family paid Rs. 1,770 in rent. Within one year, the price had increased by more than 28% to Rs. 2,280. This year, the rent has increased to Rs. 2,780 per month — more than 51% within just three years. For this price, Yogesh and his family have access to water for five hours during the day and enough electricity to run a fan and one bulb. His most significant complaint is sanitation: “One can see the lifestyle here. There is so much waste. The sweeper comes on Sunday, but there is no one to clean on the other days. Dogs wander in and shit in the building. We live in a slum so there is nothing we can do.” Despite these sanitation concerns, Yogesh describes the place where he lives as better than others — “In other buildings, the conditions are much worse.”
The debt owed to landlords gives them significant authority over the lives of their tenants. For instance, as a condition of their housing, Yogesh and his family are required to buy rations from the landlord’s shop — a proposition which costs the family between 20% and 25% more each month. These costs add up, Yogesh explains — “For five people, shopping outside would save Rs. 2000 per month.” Struggling to make ends meet, Yogesh negotiated with the landlord and now pays an extra Rs. 200 per month in rent in exchange for permission to buy food from an outside shop.
Penalties for unauthorized outside purchases can be severe. “If you are in a rented room, you have to listen to the landlord,” Yogesh explains. “Landowners threaten that if you don’t take rations, then you have to empty the room — other landowners get people beaten up.” The practice among landlords of requiring tenants to buy marked up groceries on credit during production off cycles is standard in Gurgaon — and just one manifestation of how neoliberal deregulation within workplaces and civic spaces conspire to coerce migrant workers into cycles of debt, poverty and relationships of domination.
The plight of Yogesh and his family is the direct result of recent changes in public policy in the Delhi region. Land use in the area has been deregulated through a variety of measures, including repeal of land ceiling laws that aimed to limit monopolistic land accumulation, as well as modifications in rent control protections that once protected lower income housing. While migrant settlements once took hold on public or rent controlled lands, migrant workers are now relegated to an ever-receding periphery. They are increasingly concentrated in areas that fall outside the bounds of municipal authorities. Within these deregulated zones, there is little if any accountability among landholders to maintain habitable units and provide formal lease agreements to tenants within slums and tenement housing — a required legal dimension for accessing residency-based civic amenities including school enrollment.
Shikha Silliman Bhattacharjee is a Research Fellow at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility and Global Labor Justice. Shikha Directs Content at HELM Social Design Studio.