Bricks and Hopes


Mumbai is built on the labour of migrant workers who have to contend with poor working and living conditions as well as reactionary right-wing politics.

Anurag - illustration

“Whenever I stand in front of this building, I can proudly say that I had built it with my very own hands.”

Manoj Kisku came to Mumbai three months ago and now lives in a small shack, which has just as many pictures of gods as of film stars on its walls along with a tube light which flickers from time to time. Looking around at the house, he tells me that sharing the 28 square metre house with 15 other men is no longer a problem as they all live together like one big family. This then is like Manoj’s second family, with his own family back in Dehri, Bihar.

He proudly speaks of his daughters who are now in Class 5 and 9 and tells me he has no issues with living in Mumbai, away from his family because “it’s for the betterment of their future.” He adds, “I will be known as majdoor all my life but I don’t want the same label to be attached with my daughters as they are studying hard.” He lives in a Govandi slum and from there  goes to the Naka for work every day. The Naka market in Chembur and in areas like Khar, Byculla, Kurla, Bandra are some of the places where one can find many others like Manoj Kisku. They are all migrant workers hired by construction companies via contractors. These workers who come primarily from states like Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka and rural Maharashtra have come to constitute a central part of the city of Mumbai and its booming real estate.

Worker at Dhobhi ghat.  Photo:Sandeep V.

Worker at Dhobhi ghat.

The ‘anti-bhaiya’ campaign of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) against North Indians had shocked the construction industry and the city of Mumbai to its core and its aftermath can be felt till today. In October 2008, after the controversial speech by MNS chief Raj Thackeray against the migrant workers of UP and Bihar which led to incidents of street violence against them, a strong anti-North Indian sentiment could be felt in several parts of Mumbai. Manoj remembers the stories of his migrant friends and relatives and how they were thrashed and asked to leave Mumbai. He says, “Most of my friends do not wish to come to Mumbai. But I do not have a choice. I will do whatever I can to support my family.” He is the sole earner in his family of five. A large part of Manoj’s wages goes into looking after his aged father who is ailing.

The 2008 incident has affected the migration of workers from various parts of the country, especially the north, who now prefer other metros like Delhi over Mumbai. But for some of them, Mumbai continues to be the destination of choice. As Manoj tells me, “One can find more opportunities in Mumbai. When I heard of the anti-migrant atmosphere of violence and harassment that was brewing in Mumbai, I was scared too. But I was determined to live in Mumbai and support my family.” Manoj manages to send Rs 5000 a month to his family, after keeping aside a modest sum for his own needs. He is also saving money for the marriage of his two daughters, he smiles and tells me.

Mumbai has a huge demand for these workers which makes it a sought after destination. The construction companies hire them on daily wages of around Rs.400 or even lower, according to their skills as construction workers, plumbers, masons, carpenters and so on. The workers assemble at the nakas from around 7 to 9:30 am and are hired randomly, with little power to negotiate their wages. But the seasonal workers from Bihar and UP are more vulnerable than the naka workers who are often from Maharashtra itself and are affiliated to the ‘non-political’ group, the Nirman Mazdoor Sanghatana.

Painting the Stupa at Chaitya Bhoomi.  Photo: Sandeep V.

Painting the Stupa at Chaitya Bhoomi.

Maharashtra has a law that looks after the concerns of the migrant workers, under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act (1979) and the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Cess Act (1996) collecting cess of 1% from construction companies for providing facilities to the construction workers who are registered with the Aadhar Kendra. But the seasonal workers are not always beneficiaries of these schemes; often they are asked to return to their villages after the completion of the project and it is a matter of great luck if workers end up finding more work in Mumbai itself.

Most significantly, these rules do not ensure protection from the MNS goons and do not guarantee a secure, safe environment where the workers will not be tagged as ‘outsiders’. Thirty-five year-old Rameez from Uttar Pradesh asks, “What have we done to them to deserve this kind of treatment? Why do they constantly harass us and drill holes into our pockets? We are just poor people who are here to earn bread for our families.” He remembers the time when he was standing in the queue for his daily job as a plumber and was mercilessly beaten up. “Two people came to me and started thrashing me without any warning. When I asked why I’m being beaten, they told me I am a ‘Bihari’ and that I should go back, for there is no place in Mumbai for people like me.”

This is not the first time when the ‘outsider’ card has been played in Mumbai. In the 70s and 80s, the Shiv Sena had started a similar movement to drive out people from the southern part of the country. Ranga from Karnataka works as mason in the mono-rail project near Chembur. He tells me how he is scared to raise his voice against any act of oppression against the workers; how the workers in Mumbai don’t feel a sense of security even though it has been 20 to 30 years since that episode of violence. He adds, “There is just no chance of forming a group or union to represent the interests of the migrant workers as this will make them more vulnerable to the wrath of regional political parties like Shiv Sena and MNS. So it’s best that we mind our own business. After all, we have come here to earn money and leave.”

Bino Paul, from the Department of Globalisation and Labour Relations at the Tata Insitute of Social Sciences, Mumbai says, “The problem is that most of these workers are uneducated and unaware of their rights. Hence, they mostly rely on informal structures of support like friends and relatives rather than unions.”

Photo: Sandeep V

Raju from Aurangabad says, “We come here because we don’t have work in our hometowns.. If we do not come out of fear of these goons, we will eventually die of hunger.”

There may not be organized or formal movements initiated by these migrant workers but it is their sheer determination and resilience that makes them come to Mumbai, year after year, in large numbers despite the difficulties they face and the obstacles created by right-wing political outfits. And it is this determination that marks their resistance.

Photos & Design: Sandeep Viswanath & Fareeda Muhammed


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