01 Oct Predatory Housing in India’s Industrial Megacities
Yogesh migrated for employment from the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to the industrial hub of Gurgaon, a city in the state of Haryana located in the National Capital Region (NCR) and about 30 kilometers southwest of New Delhi. Yogesh found a job as a garment checker through an acquaintance who worked as a supervisor in a factory, 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, 40, lives with his wife and three children in an 8 x 8 room in Dundahera, a dilapidated town in Gurgaon. There are 148 rooms for 700 or 800 people in this 4 story workers’ housing complex. “For all 700 or 800 people, we have four bathrooms with four toilets each—one toilet in each bathroom is reserved for women.” Between June and September, Yogesh and his family live 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 provides a glimpse into the impact of the garment global production network upon workers’ lives. Industrial production uncertainty caused by seasonally driven buyer purchasing practices is displaced upon workers through use of flexible contracts, unemployment during fluctuations in production and downward pressure on wages. Today, 60 percent of the garment production workforce, an estimated 45 million workers, are employed as casual and contract workers. Due to these flexible employment relationships, 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 debt faced by garment sector workers in Gurgaon leave workers vulnerable to coercive practices by landlords who capitalise on their economic vulnerability.
Through multiple levels of policy making, land use in Delhi-NCR has been deregulated through 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 relegated to an ever receding periphery. They are increasingly concentrated in areas of the NCR 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.
Living conditions for workers like Yogesh and the health of our global metropolises have found a place in the New Urban Agenda, an action-oriented document that aims to set global standards of achievement in sustainable urban development. From October 17-20, the UN Habitat III global summit on housing and sustainable urban development will convene in Quito, Ecuador to adopt the New Urban Agenda. Article 31 of the New Urban Agenda addresses the housing needs of workers like Yogesh and his family. It commits to promote national, sub-national, and local housing policies that support the progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing for all as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living. This provision makes an explicit commitment to address all forms of discrimination and violence and focuses on the needs of persons in vulnerable situations.
In the lead up to UN Habitat III, the Society for Labour and Development and HELM Studio are launching Lockstitch Lives – Migrants in the Megacity, a 360-degree interactive documentary which transports a user to the neighbourhoods of Gurgaon, to learn the rugged daily realities of scores of families like Yogesh’s. Using 360-degree multimedia, Virtual Reality, photography and video, Lockstitch Lives provides deep insight into the living and working conditions of these marginalised communities, and aims to deliver their voice and struggle palpably and honestly.
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 unauthorised 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 New Urban Agenda must speak for Yogesh and address the needs of millions of families like his, to bring dignity to the industrial sectors of India. The Lockstitch Lives Project gives you a chance to look, listen, and learn about the isolated realities of families caught between poverty and a lack of agency, and of an industry and metropolis that reduce humans to labourers and homes to prisons.