Gurgaon, the city that has been my home for over 15 years, is infamous for the stark contrast between its gleaming office buildings and crumbling infrastructure. It is a city that exploded its seams in a little more than a decade (coinciding with the time I have lived here) through the land accumulation and development by private sector real estate companies working in close cahoots with politicians to ensure conducive regulation and laissez-faire governance. A city that attracted well-educated globe trotters and young BPO workers from mid-town India, but also poorly educated rural migrants from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal to work informal sector jobs in manufacturing, construction, transport, security and domestic work. While the city’s ‘planned’ development trajectory has sprouted numerous gated communities that house the former, the latter occupy the crevices of the city as renters in urban villages and unauthorised colonies. With State assembly elections looming ahead, some of us are asking uncomfortable questions, aiming to provoke thought about the real problems Gurgaon’s residents face. And by doing so, articulating a Citizen’s Charter of demands for candidates for the MLA seats from Gurgaon and Badshahpur.
Today’s blog post draws on conversations at a joint meeting of two collectives representing street vendors and e-rickshaw operators in Gurgaon, held on 29th September; it asks: What are the daily struggles and aspirations of Gurgaon’s urban poor? How can a Citizen Charter best articulate these?
Now, street vendors and e-riksha drivers are not natural collaborators; in fact, they are engaged in an everyday tussle over space in the city, as they jostle for spots at the edges of roads. A lack of space to earn their livelihoods is the key issue they brought forward. Not just space, they talked about a lack of services that are vital for them, like clearance of waste bins and dhalaos and the availability of drinking water and public toilets at their places of work. Far from a litany of complaints, these men and women proposed solutions: the creation of e-riksha stands, the implementation of the Street Vendors Act, and road designs with lanes for high speed and low speed vehicles, for cyclists, pedestrians, e-rikshas and for vendors too! In another conversation, e-riksha drivers proposed a redesign of the public transport system by enhancing and recognizing their role in providing sustainable and affordable last mile connectivity for buses and the Metro. Not educated? Many of their suggestions sounded more intelligent than the expert opinions we hear in conferences and seminars!
Everyday experiences of violence and harassment were common to both groups, as well as the experience of systemic corruption in which the agents of local politicians, police personnel and the local government bureaucracy constantly demanded bribes from them in return for temporary reprieves from harassment. The harassment was not only for ‘illegal’ activity or illegal occupation of space however; many vendors complained that they were being accused of dirtying the streets when in fact the municipal workers and contractors deliberately did not clear refuse from their vending areas.
Fiery youth leaders, men and women, spoke at the meet about the need to organize and resist this constant oppression but giving up a day’s work to protest was also clearly a struggle for many. I was struck by the broader narrative of business being very slow. Some in the group were, till recently, factory workers and supervisors and had recently been laid off! It was apparent to me that the numbers of those in the informal sector was rising everyday, but there were no plans to accommodate their livelihoods or create new opportunities for the poor, many of whom were migrants who had been in Gurgaon for varying lengths of time. Even as minor wins were reported from protests within the city, there were volunteers being lined up for a larger agitation at Delhi the next morning!
The meeting helped us add specific demands about the needs of informal sector workers in Gurgaon. We demand spaces for them to pursue their livelihood, and an enabling ecosystem that, instead of oppressing them, integrates them into supply chains for goods and services. However, the detailed stories about corruption drive home to me a key point: Gurgaon’s economy is in trouble, and rent seeking is the one sure means to earn money. The city, like others across the country, is a stage on which a macabre and elaborate dance is being staged; a dance in which those with relative power relentlessly prey on the powerless to capture rents, not just at the cost of lower incomes but also of the health and well being of residents. Rupturing this cycle should be the citizen’s overarching and clear demand!