Saturday, June 16, 2012

On the people who make the buildings that make India's big cities big

Next to my flat is a construction site for an upcoming shopping mall that you will go to, sometimes to buy yourself objects that will add to your list of acquisitions that will define your place in society, and more often to just chit-chat over a cup of coffee. The labourers who work at this construction site, just as in most others, get Rs 120 for a day of labour, which is less than the price of that coffee you will drink often for no particular reason. They work entire days in scorching sun and blowing mud. They are not spoken to 'professionally' : "Could you please take care of this task? - Regards, your site supervisor". Their work entails not sitting on their butts and complaining about the weather, or passing grand moral judgements like I'm about to, just now. Their work entails hard, physical work, with kilos and kilocalories of energy lost every hour. They do not get paid leaves, they are provided no home rent allowance, there are practically no rights they can avail. The work they do is harder than what you, dear reader, and I do. Is their work clearly less important to society than the work that you, dear reader, and I, do, that they are paid so much lesser than us? Unless you are a doctor who treats these same people for something they can afford, no. Their work is exponentially harder and maybe also more important to the functioning of our cities than our work. Those of you who think, as many of us do, that the work these workers do is only physically harder, while what you and I do is mentally much more challenging and therefore more difficult on the whole, are deluded. Actually, you are not deluded. You are corrupt (and every time you criticise our politicians for being venal, you should write in your diary - "I am phony"). Thinking like this suits you, because this way you can justify to yourself the worth our society accords you vis-a-vis them. If you can evaluate a balance-sheet they can't, or debug a piece of code that they can't, the one and only thing it means is that you were more fortunate to have been born in the right household. If you are a reasonable person, you can probably figure out that by no means does it mean that you are more talented. By the way, sshhh between you and me, not that it matters, but in all likelihood the work you do is actually pretty dumb, hardly requires anything that must especially be called intelligence instead of common-sense, and you know it. Anyway, my problem is not particularly that no one is doing anything about it - I am not doing anything about it either (and am pretty ashamed about it).  My problem is how it is a non-issue not only in our public discourse but also in our coffee-table intellectual manicures. How no one has it on their minds, is what is sad. Bright city youngsters will put all their neural firepower on show in their dismissal of reservations, in their advocacy for the wife-like rights for female live-in partners, in their tenacious arguments against scrapping of one exam in favour of another. They make me sad not because of what they fight for - all fairly valid issues generally, in their own right. What is saddening is how none of those smart and savvy youngsters ever include the plight of the construction workers in even their casual coffee-table conversations. How they choose to act totally oblivious to this glaring injustice. The labourers of India are discriminated against, and the mobile India consists of two types of people - those that exploit them, and those that ignore them altogether. Construction workers are just one of the many kinds of labourers that do not remotely get their due in the Indian society - parallels exist for labourers of all kinds. When I say that they do not get their due - I mean not just monetary but also social. It is not just the paltry 120 Rupees that they will earn for a day of work worth more than yours, it is also that they will be social downcasts after that day is over and they head home (if they have one). For the most part, it is as if their life is isolated from you, confined within their own world of abject living conditions and fellow hardworking labourers. It is as though they do not exist in the larger society, until they must physically arrive at your doorstep.  At which point, they will get your shortlived, suspicious glance when they come to repair the leaking tap in your house, and your maid or handyman will be asked watch over them while they are at work and talk them through with it, because you, yourself, won't do even that. If there's one thing that can be said about the concept of Dignity of Labour in India, it is that it's non-existent.