Discrimination and exploitation are deeply rooted in India. But rather than silently endure, some in the underclasses are raising their voices in defiance.
EAST DELHI — It's one of those hot and withering 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. But concentration doesn't come easily when you're sitting in a makeshift tin building without electricity (though a fan and light were finally installed earlier this week).
"A new school building is being built in the complex. But until construction is complete, students will continue to huddle in the cramped classroom," Anjum's father, Tarun Das*, tells me.
Das worked until recently as a taxi driver in Delhi. Now he ferries passengers — 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 says.
Like tens of thousands of others, Das migrated to Delhi from West Bengal 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.
The government could have made life so much easier.
With wry humor, Das talks about how indifferently and callously the national capital treats its poor, especially workers, migrants and non-migrants alike. He talks about how subsidies never reach the people they're intended for. The electricity tariff is a case in point. An initiative by the AAP-led government of Delhi brought power prices down significantly. But often it's the landlords who benefit. They don't show tenants like Das the actual bill, and so keep charging them the old price and pocketing the difference.
For years, this and past governments have promised improvements for everyday workers like Das. And yet, little has changed. "The government could have made life so much easier for people had it done its job in the education and health sectors," he claims.
Das recalls a recent experience in an East Delhi government hospital. "A couple of nights ago, I suddenly felt extremely ill," he says. "It felt like a heart attack. We rushed to Guru Teg Bahadur hospital in Shahdara. An emergency technician 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 violent clash that occurred on July 12 between domestic workers and residents in Mahagun Moderne, a luxury apartment complex in Noida (short for the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority), southeast of New Delhi. The class conflict erupted after a maid, Zohra Bibi, failed to return home the previous night. Friends and neighbors responded by storming the apartment. Bibi was eventually located, but media reports vary regarding how and where she turned up.
In photographs splashed across newspapers the next day, the maid appeared near unconscious. Police filed charges against both workers and residents. But as the digital daily Scroll.inreported, "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 First Information Reports 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.
Mahagun Moderne Complex — Photo: Facebook
These narratives focus on three different arenas of social life: education, health and domestic work; each distinct from the other on some level, but with common elements of disaffection and rage stemming from the reality of social and economic inequality. Das's daughter has to sweat out her days in a tin building. Her father spends a whole night lying unattended to in a government hospital. And in a different part of the National Capital Region, friends and neighbors of a domestic worker, furious over her treatment, vent their rage by throwing stones at an apartment complex and 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 favor of the rich and 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 operate against the underclasses — maybe with even more efficiency than before.
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 liberalization in 1991, class stratification has deepened, as has the indifference towards the underprivileged along axes of class, caste and other such determinants. In Delhi, this systemic social apartheid is particularly glaring: The rich and the poor exist side by side, often separated just by a street. And yet, socially and economically speaking, they're worlds apart.
The underpaid and the badly exploited Zohra Bibis, without whose services most middle-class households would grind to a halt, aren't allowed to use the furniture. They sit on the ground. They eat from separate plates that employers set aside just for them. They're not even allowed to use the toilets they spend every day cleaning.
The signs of class apartheid are simply too many to compile a holistic list. But they're there for everyone to see. Indeed, there seems 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.
Socially and economically speaking, they're worlds apart.
All this has led to a singular erosion in Indian society of the dignity of labor, which was never all that dignified 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 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.
*Not his real name