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Feeling unsafe while making cities “safer”: Conversations with migrant workers in Delhi

By Ankur Jaiswal | Issue 23

Workers from Bihar at a school construction site in Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir (courtesy of the author).

On a Friday evening, towards the beginning of October, I was to come to Delhi from my university in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh for a mid semester break. My university is 40 kilometres away from Delhi. Between the two, there is a 10 kilometre stretch to the Noida metro station from where it takes a further hour, crossing the Yamuna river, to reach Delhi. The place I was to reach in Delhi was Lajpat Nagar. Several elderly people living in the area explain that Lajpat became a gated colony following the 1984 riots, and a “posh colony” where white collared employees, including a significant number of lawyers, now reside. On my trip from Dadri to Delhi, one could tell from the fragrance in the air that winter was approaching. I wondered if the fragrance would remain in the coming years.

Soon enough I found myself in a cab with a driver who knew the inside routes, from the narrow pathways of the nearby villages to the grand highways. There are now three ring roads in Delhi: the inner ring road, the outer ring road and another huge ring road that covers regions of Delhi and the “satellite towns” of Haryana (Gurugram, Faridabad and Sonepat) and Uttar Pradesh (Noida, Ghaziabad and now also Meerut). These three ring road circles can be understood as the skeletal plan of this expanding capital region. In discussions pertaining to the expansion of the national capital region of a developing country, we are most likely to only hear about the mega plans characterised by concrete and more and bigger highways.

As I arrived, I saw huge billboards promising the comforts and safety of luxury homes in “gated communities” located in “familiar” neighbourhoods. When I had first moved to Delhi, I felt amused at the announcements made at the metro stations cautioning the passengers from befriending strangers. As a newcomer to the city, for whom everyone was a stranger, who then was I to befriend if not someone until then a stranger? I was reminded of James Baldwin’s lines about cities and their ‘unspeakable loneliness, and the spectacular ugliness and hostility’. Cities, which according to him were, ‘terribly unloved—by the people who live in them… [as] no one seems to feel that the city belongs to him’. This was a warning I had always found difficult to comprehend, never quite fathoming the distance between familiar and strange.

A conversation soon began with the cab driver, a stranger and yet not quite so. He was about twenty years of age and hailed from a town in western Uttar Pradesh. As we drove past the giant assurances of luxury, safety and familiarity, he shared that, given his religious identity, he had been feeling fearful of accepting rides to certain parts in Haryana after the recent communal riots in a place called Nuh. Ironically, the same religious identity, reflected in his name, had also led to an increased number of ride cancellations by passengers whose ride request he had accepted. He added that in the past few days, two cab drivers had been murdered in Greater Noida. Here was a migrant to Delhi struggling to navigate his fear of the “other” and the others’ fear of him.

In my near decade-long interactions with migrant workers, articulations around fear, apprehension and safety are fairly numerous. In 2016, I was engaged in ethnographic research with migrant construction workers who had come to Punjab to build a university hostel. A thirty year old construction worker hailing from Chhattisgarh had shared, ‘though we have a good home in our village and also agricultural land, but while roaming in the towns here, we are rarely able to muster courage to visit shops in the market as people here view us with a strange gaze’. This line has stayed with me, just as the announcement in the metro station. The cab driver, while sharing his fears, had also made a reference to the ‘strange gaze’ he was often met with.

A large number of people come from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh to Delhi and the rest of North India as circular migrant workers. They often work as daily wage workers in construction, manufacturing and service sectors. These workers, who cannot even dream of ever building their own house in Delhi or Noida, come here leaving behind their dying agriculture and crafts. It is their labour that makes it possible for the residents of the city to experience safety in their homes, with home deliveries and travel. Ironically the same workers are left feeling not just unsafe and unwelcome but also as if they are the ones from whom the safety of the residents has to be ensured by making their spaces “gated”.

The narratives made me wonder about the discourse on safety in urban cities: how it is shaped and how in the shaping of this discourse, migrant workers are constructed as subjects who themselves have very little participation or autonomy in shaping this discourse. Drawing from works of Foucault, perhaps one could see the migrant workers positioned on the periphery or the margins. In case of circular migrant workers like construction workers who are constantly on the move, the periphery is also not constant, as they shift from one contractual site to another. In my earlier in-depth conversations with construction workers a recurrent theme was of a life forever in transit. They shared that while being constantly on the move allowed them some possibilities of escape from site specific hardships, in the longer run, this only strengthened their precarity and life on the periphery. The need to be constantly moving poses specific challenges towards collectivising, unionising and constructing communities of similar “selves”.

The remembering and recounting of these narratives is an attempt to shine a light on the discourse of “safe cities” that invisibilises the work that goes into making them safer, excludes those who put in this work and then goes ahead into turning them into convenient “others”.

Ankur Jaiswal

I am a Doctoral Research Scholar in the Sociology department at Shiv Nadar University. Prior to joining the doctoral programme, I was the Delhi-NCR State coordinator with the India Labourline working on issues related to their workers’ wages, working conditions, and other work related grievances. I have also been working on migration, human trafficking and displacement of workers as an independent researcher and a field person for almost a decade now. In these years, I have had the opportunity to interact, work and travel with migrant workers hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal and working in Rajasthan, Gujrat, Punjab, Jammu, Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. During these interactions concerns around spaces where workers could feel a sense of community, belonging and solidarity emerged strongly. These experiences, interactions and my subsequent academic readings around the issue have strengthened my interest in the idea of “spaces” for migrant workers which I am currently attempting to take forward through research.


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