‘Transit’ Labour in Mumbai City

Mouleshri Vyas June 14, 2012

Giorgio Grappi

Mouleshri Vyas


Migration into cities is a feature of many third world cities; its impact on the city and its people has a temporal, socio-cultural as well as economic dimension. The waves of migrants that enter a city space over the decades therefore find themselves absorbed or not absorbed in the avenues of work opportunities they seek. Those who join the ranks of the working poor in the city, struggle to find shelter or spaces, and make them habitable over several years. Over the years, the city expands outwards and within the city too, there are the more and less preferred spaces that begin to be occupied depending on the economic and social status of the settlers. The working poor in the informal sector set up shelters within shrinking and unaffordable spaces – in slum settlements, along railway tracks and even inside unused water pipelines; there is, in fact, a hierarchy of spaces that forms over a period of time with the poorer people in the least preferred spaces.

Some sections of labour will therefore always be in transit, living with uncertainty, and lacking social security due to disconnections between governance institutions and mechanisms in places of origin and of new settlement. For similar reasons, some are what Breman refers to as ‘footloose’ labour, those men, women and children who comprise a reserve army of labour, whose presence is often not acknowledged and whose muted voices remain unheard. As circular migrants they face many hardships and are the victims of the transnationalised politics of development. He goes on to say that the informal sector is not a stepping stone towards a better and settled urban life but a temporary abode for labour that can be pushed back to its place of origin when no longer needed.


Three dimensions of transit labour in Mumbai are outlined below. They draw from: transitory jobs, work entailing physical movement across the expanse of the city, and the transitory nature of the very lives of people, and particularly the urban poor in the city.


Transitory Jobs and Sectors in Transition - Difficult and Precarious Work

In the hierarchy of jobs and work that is done to build and maintain cities and urban spaces, there are certain types of work that are undertaken as a last resort. They are at the bottom rung of the informal economy. While the idea is not to undervalue in any way the contributions of large sections of ‘invisible’ workers in the city, it is a fact that most often the jobs of cleaning the city streets, garbage collection and transportation, maintenance of sewage lines, public toilets and so on, are taken on by people in extremely tenuous conditions of employment and poor conditions of work, due to an absence of any alternative source of survival. One of the clear indicators of these being transit jobs is that few of these workers would say that they want their children to get into the same jobs. Those who get into such work often do so with the hope that they will move out as soon as they get something better. In many cases, it is difficult to exit from such a job as the alternative does not present itself to this generation and it is only the next that is able to make the shift. Some aspects of this element of transit are evident with very exploitative conditions of women in prostitution, where the raging and value-laden debate is about whether it is ‘work’ at all, or quite simply exploitation of women. With cleaning jobs, the sheer negativity and filth of the working conditions is so strong that it overpowers even the advantage of standard employment. Hence permanent workers in municipal employment are seen to get casual workers to do the job for them. Lack of protective gear and any social security for the latter category of workers, make this work extremely precarious. In essence, these are jobs that are unpleasant and socially stigmatised, which workers would like to get out of whenever possible.


At another level, there are sectors in transition, which therefore put the labour in a state of flux. Increasing privatisation of services has led to questions about the role of the state in protecting the interests of the labour that is now being engulfed by the contract system. Multiplicity of agencies, of employer-employer relationships and breaking up of tasks are features of this emergent regime. Conservancy workers in cities like Mumbai travel across 30-40 km of the city with the collected solid waste to landfill sites; they are just one category of labour in the city that travels significant distances, at cost of time and money to deal with changed equations with the city space and shrinking scope for negotiation. The altered nature of work, spatial fragmentation of labour, the creation of newer categories of labour through policy and governance regimes result in the distancing of labour from the city.


The nature of work keeps labour on the move literally and in terms of creating a system of flexibility to serve the profit-making interests of the employers; the policies and governance mechanism ensure that they are temporary, hemmed in by conditions of informality, and therefore unable to break out of this circle of poor wages and working conditions, lack of social protection, and access to decent housing and other services for the family.


Work Based on Physical Mobility - Life and Work on Local Trains in the City

Outsiders to the city of Mumbai often find that people in this city are always on the move … and in a rush to get somewhere. There is a question implicit in this statement – to do with where people are going. It is something about the pace of Mumbai and its people’s preoccupation with making a living that defines its core character. In this light, it would not be amiss to examine the concept of transit labour in a more literal sense of those physically on the move in the course of everyday work.


The Mumbai Suburban Railway, built as an offshoot of the first railway built by the British in 1853, today ferries 6.9 million commuters every day. It is the principal mode of mass transport in Mumbai. This pulsating lifeline of the city carries the sweat, the aspirations and the crowd of passengers segregated in the general or ladies’ compartment and by the first class and second class coaches; it is a cultural cauldron of the city. Covering more than 460km, there are more than 2,300 services each day.


The Koli women returning at 5 a.m. from purchasing fish from the wharf, the dabbawalas at work during late morning to evening hours, the hawkers selling their wares through the day, and the office-goers, packed four to a seat during the peak hours, are just some of the citizens who spend significant parts of their lives on the trains. Bound by a journey of a certain number of minutes or hours, trains allow for purposeful social connections bridging the physical distances of the place of work and place of stay for some hours each day. The fact that urban lives are organised with a premium on time, allows for repeated contact among certain individuals and groups on a daily basis and year after year. Sometimes this contact and the relationships that are built span several years and move into spaces beyond the train journey.  


As with the garbage collection and transportation workers, the vendors on the local trains travel large distances each day. Young boys, girls, men and women moving from one compartment of the train to another, selling anything from hairclips, cosmetics, garments, handbags, ready-to-eat food items, and even fresh vegetables and fruits, are a common sight on the trains. With some there is a friendly banter that regular commuters engage in; purchasing goods on credit is also not uncommon. Conversations, cries of the hawkers, and the sound of bhajans are just some of the familiar sounds on a local train.   


All consumers of these goods will affirm that these men and women selling their wares on the trains actually render a service to the commuter who prefers to shop while on the move rather than making a stop at a market on the way home. Conceptually a part of the informal economy of the city, this massive mobile network of service providers that works and to a great extent lives around the railway stations, leads a life of everyday challenges. Underlying these informal interactions is a subtle conflict and element of territoriality that exists around the beats of the hawkers. With those selling similar wares, there are designated stations where one boards or alights to avoid competition; with the younger ones working alongside the elders there is evidence of familial and kinship ties, and of apprenticeship. The railway authorities control the small businesses and activities at the station platforms and also on the trains; when checks are carried out, these hawkers may be apprehended, or receive a cuff behind the ear and have to alight at the next station. This governmentality results in a state of perpetual anxiety that the hawkers work under. Control of these fluid spaces and ambiguity in their governance makes for a situation where nothing really changes in terms of the real economics of it, the bribes that have to be paid, and constant intimidation and spectre of authority that looms large over the hundreds who make a living on the trains.


Lives in Transit and Work in Transit - Transit Camps and Transit Labour

With heavy investment in infrastructure development in the city in the past decade, the internal displacement of people has transformed the social fabric and the geographies of several communities. In the city of Mumbai, there are about 32 resettlement colonies across 11 civic wards with a total of 449 buildings housing about 35,000 displaced project-affected families.


This transition from slum life to more gentrified neighbourhoods and formal housing has meant a re-orientation of relationships within the family and the community, and a re-building of lives and livelihoods. As jobs and work suffered due to the fracture of space and work, into the lives of these families was introduced an uncertain phase of transition from one life to another where they perhaps did not have the space for claim-making and asserting citizenship rights. Studies conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences have shown that as the distances of commutes increased, the access to services became costly and cumbersome and some people simply gave up the struggle, pushing new members of the family into the workforce.


These altered spaces create new equations of governance; a modification from the informal to the formal and an overall dominance of the state and its institutions over the citizens, who are defined and re-defined through policies and projects that are compelled by a neo-liberal development paradigm. Several years down the line, these individuals and their families are still in transition.


The extent of internal and involuntary displacement in cities such as Mumbai is significant. The perspectives of the state, the voluntary agencies and the displaced people are divergent. Even from among the displaced population, there are likely to be multiple subjectivities, rendering this a complex terrain to analyse. However, the involuntary nature of the displacement is a manifestation of the conflict of citizens with the state and the power exercised by it to make the latter submit to its plans and the ‘public purpose’ of infrastructure development. Transit labour as situated within the context of urban poverty, is conceptually multi-dimensional, containing conflict and a certain sense of unease and impermanence. It is likely to remain a part of our cities in the years to come.


Excerpt from (2012) ‘“Transit” Labour in Mumbai City’, Policies and Practices, 43, pp7-17.