New Town and Labour in Transit

Ishita Dey July 29, 2011


Ishita Dey


Though West Bengal was late in catching up with the creation of satellite centres compared to its counterparts in India, it has made its mark in the country’s ‘New Town’ geographies through the creation of Sector V, Salt Lake and Jyoti-Basu Nagar, Rajarhat (formerly known as New Town). These sites are interesting spatially as they connect the city to the airport and vice versa. These cities operate and function today through the lens of productive forces – the labouring lives involved in circulation of capital. An ethnography of labouring accounts across sectors like construction, IT/ITES and street food vendors shows how the urbanisation of goods and services not only thrives on production of space conducive to capitalism but also how these spaces facilitate a certain circulation of capital. What do the stories of labourers reveal about these new spaces?

Labouring Spaces


While Sector V was designated as the industrial area of the new township of Salt Lake, New Town was conceived as an urban continuum. A 1999 HIDCO project report projects that Calcutta Metropolitan Authority’s population would reach 20 million and adds that ‘it is only obvious that the urban continuum around the cities of Calcutta and Howrah would continue to grow’. The report recommends that the city needs two business centres: a) eastern side of Calcutta and b) the other in Howrah. ‘New Town at Calcutta’, it adds ‘offers a very good location for establishing a New Business District’. This new business district would be 5km from the central area of Salt Lake which also functions as a business centre, 10km from the Central Business District of Calcutta and 1km from airport.


In the section on Land Use, the report states that New Town is being developed as an ‘environment friendly city with large areas of open green land, water bodies, parks, plantations, etc.’ The New Town, it indicates, ‘will primarily be a residential town and therefore, principal use of developed land will be for residential purpose along with ancillary service and community facilities. Another important use will be for clean industries’. So what is the scope for people who are already settled here? They are left with the choice of what HIDCO calls service villages. As the report says, there will be service villages ‘at different parts of the Newtown. The service villages will provide facilities for work and living for the service. The location of the service villages will be near the existing settlements within the project area’.



So what kinds of jobs were envisaged for the functioning or even making of Rajarhat? A study conducted by Uttam Kumar Roy in 2005 shows that people from already existing clusters were forced to work as contract labourers or to form syndicates (like Hatiara Land Loser’s Co-operative, Nababpur Land Loser’s Co-operative) which supply raw material to the real estate companies. As one reaches the Bengal Unitech building, one of the largest IT Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in Rajarhat, there are a series of tea shops and eateries owned by the dispossessed. Most of these street vendors run the risk of losing their livelihood as they have set up shops on HIDCO acquired lands. One of the tea shop owners said most of the lands under the New Town Project were wetlands: ‘Initially they hired local people for land filling. We were paid Rs 3000-3500 per month. We did it because it was a lot of money for us’. Another person who now runs a makeshift eatery echoed the same feelings. He added most of the locals either work in these makeshift eateries or work as coolies. Those who have been lucky and have contacts work as small scale labour contractors. He said hardly any people participated in the construction work as it is a semi-skilled job: ‘We had lands and know how to grow crops; it is difficult for us to train ourselves to work as construction workers’.


In one of my many visits to Baligari village, an existing settlement in New Town Project Area, I met a few women who were chopping vegetables. When I asked them if the vegetables were from their kitchen garden they lamented and said: ‘Yes, they are. In earlier days, we could have given you some vegetables but now we only have few brinjal trees’. There was a young girl in that group. She studied in Class IX of Bhatinda School. When I asked her what future she sees in this New Town, she looked up and said pointing to the high-rises that her mother works as a domestic servant in three households in Akansha Highland and her father died in an accident while unloading land filling material from a truck. To which her grandmother added that her mother is a brave woman. She mentioned that one of her sons died while working as a painter in one of the high-rises. His wife was pregnant when he passed away. To which her granddaughter adds that New Town is good for people who can make money. She proudly adds one of her maternal uncles is a land dealer. He has been able to make money.


Who are the construction workers in Rajarhat? The construction workers are mainly from Murshidabad and Bongaon. Most of them migrate to Kolkata for construction work of short duration (3 months) and go back to their respective towns and villages during the time of harvest. I met Jahirul Sheikh (a subcontractor), 54 years old, while he was taking his lunch break (1-2 pm) in a tea shop near Baligari. He is from Chakpanchari Mouza, P.S. Lalgola. He is a veteran in this line. He started working in his early 20s. He recalls accompanying people from his native town to various places for construction work. He learned to work on job sites. He joined a project site in Rajarhat after completing work in Kolkata. There are 25-26 workers of around 25-30 years of age from his village and nearby areas who work under him. He mentions that in this line of work workers below the age of eighteen are not allowed. ‘The minimum wage a worker in this line of work receives is Rs 150 per day and the maximum is Rs 225 per day’, which includes Rs 50 as food allowance. Mostly companies create provisions for makeshift shelter/labour camps in close proximity to the project area. Work starts around 8am in most project sites in Rajarhat followed by a tea break in shifts from 10.30-11.00am, followed by a lunch break from 1-2pm. The last tea break is from 3.00-3.30 p.m. The workers prefer to cook their dinner meals in labour camps. Each group is headed by a Labour Sardar followed by a Munshi who looks into the accounts. Most of the workers in the construction sector are migrant labourers.


Not only are migrant workers working as construction labourers but also as street vendors. A series of shops have come up in front of DLF Building which houses IBM and IBM Daksh. One of the street vendors said he has paid money to some people to set up an eatery here. Shops lined on this row sell Momos, Dosa, Biryani and even sweets. The sweet shop vendor daily travels from Naihati to Rajarhat to sell sweets. He buys sweets from various sweet shops across Naihati and commutes everyday to sell sweets from his makeshift stall. He opens his stall around 11.30am and he winds up his sales around 6pm.


The stories of labourers on the fringes of Rajarhat show the ways in which an alternative parallel economy has emerged alongside the three predominant malls that service Rajarhat: Axis Mall, Home Town and City Centre II. The parallel economy is further visible in the transport system as pool cars often ferry passengers to the main centres of Kolkata at a rate of Rs 10-30 per passenger depending on distance. The struggles for survival of the parallel economy, which is not legally sanctioned, are multifarious as evident in the struggle of Nabadiganta Pariseba Samity in Sector V.



Peripheral Labour Force


Nabadiganta Pariseba Samity (NPS) is a registered society of street vendors in Sector V. Each shop has an ID card authorised by Nabadiganta Industrial Authority. The identity card carries the following details of each shop: stall number, type of stall (B: Big stall of 3’/8’; S : Small Stall of 3’/6’) and is valid for one year. Surajit Mondal recounts the struggle that NPS members face despite being registered. While they have been able to tackle the problem of extortion of monthly money arrangements with local goons after the issue of ID card, they are constantly evicted and asked to shift around. One of the shopkeepers who opens his shop only during lunch time says that the authorities should realise that they cannot work at computers and this is their only source of livelihood. Despite being organised they face the challenge of being evicted.


Currently they run stalls close to the State Fisheries Development Corporation’s outlet. Surajit Mondal recalls that they have made repeated appeals for the use of vacant land. There were talks of mobile kiosks which would be distributed among the street vendors and they had drawn up a list of shops which were more than three years old and have been operating in Sector V. But nothing happened. He emphasises that when they are asked to move from one place to another they suffer a loss, as the minimum cost for setting up a makeshift shop is around close to Rs 20,000. NPS has made repeated appeals for a permanent solution as they live under the risk of constant eviction for reasons such as the company considering them a menace or the visit of a VIP in Sector V premises. While NPS stalls contribute to the everyday functioning of Sector V, they continue to be looked upon as a peripheral labour force. Their contribution to the circulation of economy is undermined. It is neither under capitalist surveillance like the coffee shops, restaurants and food courts of Sector V nor under state surveillance like the restaurants and kiosks run by the State Fisheries Development Corporation.


New Workforce


In the vicinity of the two New Towns there are two functional SEZs: WIPRO SEZ in Sector V and Unitech IT/ ITES SEZ in Rajarhat. Promoted by private developers and guarded by security guards at the entry and exit points, these are sites of exclusive production of private capital. English speaking middle class youth walk in at a designated time to a world where they work in cubicles, and for their recess have access to food courts managed my multinational food chains. The members of this service class become global citizens through production of goods and services for a global market and consumption of goods and services from this same market.


The vicious cycle of production and consumption is entwined with working hours and times that are adjusted as part of the international labour process. Working hours and holidays are not defined by Indian standard time but governed by the parameters of those for whom the production is conducted. One of my informants migrated from Delhi to Kolkata to work with Capgemini. She is a Senior Consultant and works from 1.30pm-10.30pm. She is under the UK Process and handles the human resources of Capgemini employees in UK which she calls end-to-end sourcing. She is responsible for sourcing, recruiting, payroll services and mobility services. In other words, her team in Kolkata is responsible for the learning and development services of UK Capgemini. A five member team in Kolkata manages the entire HR account of 8,200 Capgemini employees. She indicates the possibility of growth as one of the members of her team was promoted to be the editor of the in-house news service. While she is happy with her institutional profile, she is unhappy with the services offered by the city of Kolkata. She says in Delhi even when she was a call centre employee she was given a pick and drop for all shifts in an air-conditioned car but now she has to come half way to Ruby Hospital where a bus service ferries the workers to Rajarhat. She says at times even if she completes her work she has to depend on transport services offered by the office because of a lack of adequate transport facilities from Unitech IT/ITES SEZ after 6pm.


Rapid urbanisation has not brought about a change in work practices. It has rather created a superficial style quotient without basic amenities. For my informant the worst part is that ‘people are complacent’. She says despite being housed in Eastern India’s largest IT SEZ, there is no clinic, trained nurse or chemist shop. She adds that while Rajarhat has two malls the idea of going to one of these for lunch is a nightmare if you do not have private transport. Interesting to note is that none of these workers are aware of any organisations that are unionising IT/ITES workers. One interviewee who filled in a questionnaire wrote ‘I would hate if that happens’ and only one out the twenty who filled in questionnaire from workers in Unitech IT SEZ mentioned an interest in knowing about unions working. There is also ignorance among the workers relating to the structure and function of SEZs. For instance, nobody was aware of the role of the Development Commissioner of SEZ.


To remember David Harvey’s description of the city, New Town is an ‘agglomeration of productive forces built by labour employed within a temporal process of circulation of capital’. Temporariness marks each category of labour that contributes to the making and functioning of the city. It is a production site where the workforce is engaged for not more than 3 years in IT sectors, not more than 6 months in the construction sector and 2 years or even less for the street vendor. HIDCO and Nabadiganta Industrial Authority have managed to create a organised space of development where workers cutting across sectors contribute towards the idyllic image of a global citizen by being willing to work and produce across different time zones. The mall worker sells durables and goods in an environment completely alien from his local surroundings. The city is an agglomeration of people in transit even as the locals live under the stress of being displaced and dispossessed from their livelihoods.