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‘City of Shadows: Slums and Informal Work in Bangalore’ review: Living on the margins of wealth

COVID-19 has made us acutely aware of the inequities on which 21st century cities function. Brick by brick, Indian cities have been built upon the physical labour of migrant men and women, in difficult conditions and with little social protection. The upkeep of cities depends on the work of waste-pickers. Security guards in gated communities may have little job security; housekeeping staff may not have proper housing of their own. As for the unskilled or semi-skilled, urban livelihoods for them are limited to traditional activities like head-loading, flower-selling, pushcart or pavement vending, and waste-picking.

Precarious environment

City of Shadows by Supriya RoyChowdhury turns a lens on inequality in high-growth cities of the Global South. Based on empirical research in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), she asks: what changes in the lives of the poor in a city that is quickly getting rich? The “shadows” in the title provide a clue to the answer. They represent the ways in which urban poor settlements exist within high-growth cities alongside the margins of exclusive gated communities and high-technology work enclaves to which they provide services.

RoyChowdhury notes, “Cities of the Global South have witnessed the emergence of a newly affluent, highly mobile upper class, dramatic changes in consumption patterns, rapidly changing information and communication channels, and the exclusion of some from these processes... Many cities of the developing world are caught within these sharply emerging contradictions of wealth and deprivation.”

With ever-increasing numbers of startups, the stratospheric rise of one per-centers, a thriving upper middle class, and ripples of opportunity spreading beyond, it is easy to view phenomenal growth as an unqualified success. Yet sections of the urban poor remain at the margins of the growth narrative.

RoyChowdhury describes research in different settlements: “old” or “notified” slums in inner-city neighbourhoods that have been around for 50 to 70 years; “new” slums, typically non-notified, labour camps, or migrant “blue tent” settlements on the periphery of the city; slum redevelopment projects and their complicated and often unresolved issues; and the women garment workers’ settlements.

Condition of informality

“The reality on the ground in Third World cities is that a large supply of unskilled (often migrant) labour is available, and there is in fact an increasing significance of wage work in informalised, contractual or casual work.” Concerned with the condition of informality that prevails in the working lives of the urban poor, RoyChowdhury explores these spatial categories as concentric circles of deprivation. Even within slums that have been home to several generations of families over decades, the opportunities for social mobility have been limited, and not available in a systematic way. “There was no one to take the children to school and bring them back, as, for the parents working at construction sites, the day starts at 8 a.m., and ends at 6 p.m.” On the fringes of the city are migrant settlements, where workers commute mainly to construction sites and back. She notes the general feeling of resignation: “As one participant in a focus group discussion said, ‘Sochnewala koi nahi hai’ (There is nobody to think about us)’.”

While there are opportunities in garment factories producing readymade clothes for export, unskilled or semi-skilled work here can involve difficult working conditions, with limited potential to organise. Women migrant workers from other States feel a particularly acute kind of loneliness. “The women’s sense of alienation in a strange city was compounded in the workplace, where language was an important element in their feelings of fear and threat from the supervisor... What was remarkable was that the city had not in any way struck the imagination of these young women. Their migration and urbanisation were confined to a single road, where they lived and worked; the lights of the city did not feature in, or even reach, their aspirations.” What could be the policy responses to continuing inequality in high-growth cities? To start with, the concept of what constitutes the “urban” needs to be expanded beyond roads, potholes, and storm water drains, to encompass health, nutrition, education, and vulnerabilities across disability, age, gender and more: the many dimensions of lives and livelihoods.

The road ahead

Urban social infrastructure needs strengthening in partnership with civil society organisations: creches, urban anganwadis, public schools which can function as community centres in the evenings, for children whose parents may work long hours. Local governance deserves appropriate institutional design, with structured mechanisms for people’s participation.

Migrant workers should be supported with documentation, transit housing, portability of entitlements, children’s education, and one-stop migrant welfare centres with staff who speak multiple languages.

In rural India, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is an essential safety net during drought and rural distress; more so during the pandemic. With the COVID-19 pandemic having caused hardship in urban livelihoods as well, some States have introduced an urban public works programme to offer support to the most vulnerable among the urban poor.

City of Shadows: Slums and Informal Work in Bangalore; Supriya RoyChowdhury, Cambridge University Press, ₹895.

The reviewer is in the IAS. The views are personal.


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