The Caste Architecture of India’s Temple-building Industry

By: Jibitesh Sahoo and Priyanka Jain

Temple Design.jpg

In Photo: Temple-designs supplied by Sompuras for stone-carving factories in Pindwara (Sirohi, Rajasthan) to implement. Photo Credit: Shubhadeep Ghosh

India’s temple-building industry is now proven as a major Silicosis hot-spot. The latest figures reported by the Sirohi Health department (in Jan 2019) reveal that over 1400 of its workers have been certified with Silicosis, a fatal, incurable disease (another 400 certified since we quoted 1000 certifications here). All of this in one block of Pindwara in Sirohi, Rajasthan, which is the biggest hub of stone carving work for temples. What is the value chain of this industry? What are the contractual relationships in it and does it have any interaction with caste and tribe segmentations?

The value chain of the industry kicks into action when a religious trust decides to build a temple. This trust could be huge and powerful or be a non-descript, town-level temple body. From the globally powerful Swaminarayan Trust, to the important Delwara Jain Trust to the smaller, town level religious bodies, they all flock to Pindwara’s stone-carving factories to fulfil their temple-building aspirations. The stone-carving factories in Pindwara, on the other hand, report receiving such assignment from temples being built from New Jersey to London to Jharkhand. 

another large scale unit.jpg

In Photo: Articles being made for temples at a stone-carving factory in Pindwara. Photo credit: Shubhadeep Ghosh

Once a trust decides to build a temple, the most common next step is for them to contact a Sompura. Largely based in Gujarat and Rajasthan, Sompura Brahmins are famous as temple-architects. Historically, Sompuras used to carve the stones themselves with hammer and chisel for temples. Then, it was considered to be a highly artisanal and skilled form of work.

Last 2-3 decades have witnessed two important shifts – a boom in temple-building in the country and the introduction of machines (cutters, grinders, drillers) in this sector. Factory owners report that there is growing demand to build more, bigger and grander temples with quicker turn-around times. Meanwhile, the introduction of machines has made the work dirty and hazardous, with heavy release of deadly silica particles from the mechanical carving of silica-rich, white, red and pink stones (that Jain and Hindu temples are commonly built from). With high risk to deadly Silicosis, the carving work has now transformed into cheap, dangerous and unskilled work, unfit for Brahmins. 

Stone Curver Looking.jpg

In Photo: Carving in progress with machines that release silica-rich, extra fine dust. The worker using the hand-held machine inhales large volumes of this dust, for 7-8 hours a day, given the lack of dust-control mechanisms in stone-caving factories.  (Photo credit: Yuvraj Dhir)

With these shifts, the Sompuras restructured their position in the industry into becoming powerful intermediaries. Now, they have become advisors of the temple-building process. They do not perform the carving work anymore but have maintained the role of designers of temples. For religious trusts, these designs are not just beautiful floral patterns or images of heavenly beings. For it to be temple-worthy, it must be pure and holy, and developed by Brahmincal gatekeepers of divine designs.

For lending their purity to this building process, Sompuras charge the Trusts a hefty 5-10% of the total temple-project budget. Ultimately, this fees is drawn from religious followers and donors of such temple trusts, including lay families and individuals who have no idea about the Silicosis epidemic caused by the industry’s carving process. 

While shifting out of the carving work, Sompuras trained local labour in Pindwara to perform this work. Over a period of time, Pindwara emerged as the biggest hub for such stone-carving, especially with the setting up of Swaminarayan’s own stone carving factories here (that directly employ around 5000 workers today and many more through sub-contracting).

Sompuras have become the window through which temple-trusts access and manage stone carving factories. The common practice is for Sompuras to visit the factory once or twice a month to supervise the process. Some factory owners shared that they have full understanding and knowledge of how to design and carve the stones themselves and do not need the mediation of Sompuras, who charge them 5-10%  (in addition to the fees Sompuras get from the Trusts)! However, work independently managed by factory owners and carved by Adivasi and Dalit workers will not be considered holy enough for temples, without the touch and approval of Sompuras, who maintain their Brahminical hold on the whole process with utmost strictness. In case a stone carving factory manages to obtain a direct contract from a temple-trust, they would nevertheless need the approval of a Sompura before the trust would accept their consignment. For this, they must pay the Sompuras hefty fees.

The boom in temple-building industry has created employment for about 15,000 Adivasi and Dalit workers in Pindwara, but strictly keeping them in the lowest rung of hazardous and precarious work. Despite the multi-crore projects, there are no signs of effective dust control measures in the stone-carving factories where work is commissioned by them.

The relationships in this industry have a clear caste heirarchy – 3 out of every 10 of the Adivasi, Dalit stone-carving workers in Pindwara are dying due to Silicosis, while the Sompuras Brahmins have intensified their power and assumed a doubly profitable position, leveraging their age-old authority as Brahmins.

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In Photo: The carvings become holy and be-fitting a temple only after a Sompura has given it the ‘final touches’ over the carvings produced by Adivasi and Dalit workers. Photo credit: Yuvraj Dhir


The temple-building industry’s caste lines are deeply etched and it does not entertain much flux. The Workers’ Right Centre and Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Union that has been dedicatedly working on this issue for last 3 years in Pindwara, report that despite Adivasis working in this industry for over 3 years, they are yet to find even one Adivasi that has been able to move up the value chain beyond a petty contractor. Even owning a small stone carving factory has remained firmly outside the ambit of this community. 

The Union asserts that the temple-trusts and Sompuras have full knowledge of the deadly Silicosis epidemic caused by the work they commission. The Union leaders argue that they know of what is going on in their value chains, but continue to ignore it or blame the workers for the disease. Despite meetings with them at the District Collector’s office a few times, there has been no serious effort to invest and deploy technology that can be used in the small to medium sized factories where work is ultimately sub-contracted out to.

In the closed-room discussions of temple-trust and Sompuras, even stone-carving factory owners of Pindwara have very limited power. Work contracted to them is increasingly on adverse terms – moving to piece rate, smaller margins and higher competition. Ultimately, the cost of all of these is passed on to workers, some of them taking up the work on piece rate in the backyards of their homes. 

The industry structure is telling of its power dynamics. Factory owners, contractors and workers share that the math of the industry works as follows – for a temple of 1 crore, the religious trust would spend about 30% paying fees to various actors involved in producing the carved articles, pillars and statues of the temples. Of this 30%, 10-20% is usually the Sompura’s cut. The rest of the 20-10% is divided across a long chain of employers, sub-employers, petty contractors and the workers at the bottom. This is why the daily earnings of a stone-carving worker can vary at lot in Pindwara, from Rs. 200 to Rs. 500, depending on how many layers of sub-contracting they lay buried under. Despite the smallest cut, the heaviest toll is borne by the workers, due to extremely high exposure to deadly dust, with no social or job security either in return[i]

A dive into the temple-building’s industry value chain reveals that it is structured to reproduce the age-old Brahmanical authority of supposed custodians to God. It is underpinned by labour relations that are just as ancient in their degree of exploitation. Except this time, the extraction is concealed by fragmented value chains.  



[i] A factory mapping exercise conducted by Aajeevika Bureau and Kotda Adivasi Sansthan in 11 panchayats of Pindwara (by Aajeevika Bureau and Kotda Adivasi Sansthan) revealed that only around 8% of the stone-carving workers are covered by ESI and PF.  This is hardly surprising as only 8% of the workers are on-roll, with 50% working for daily wage and about 42% on piece-rate.

The insights shared in this blog are based on a value chain mapping exercise conducted by Jibitesh Sahoo, with the assistance of Pathar Gadhai Mazdoor Suraksha Sangh.

Watch this video and share to spread awareness on the issue on Silicosis in temple-building industry.

To support the Centre and Union’s initiative to prevent Silicosis in this industry, see here.

Follow our campaign #GodlyButDeadly #SilicosisFreeTemples on our Twitter and Facebook pages.

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ये जंगल क्या वापस नहीं आ सकते? और वो लोग?

By: Amrita Sharma, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions, Aajeevika Bureau


In Photo: Southern Rajasthan used to be an area of lush tropical forests with many water sources and natural bounty. Deforestation, mining, depletion of water table and severe climate change has converted the area into a semi-arid geography, slowly converting it into a desert (read more here). Forest-dependent Adivasis have therefore been forced to take up hazardous forms of manual labour as the mainstay of their economic survival (photo credit: Priyanka Jain).


ये जंगल क्या वापस नहीं आ सकते?

नहीं !

और वो लोग

वो भी तो वापस नहीं आ सकते


बाबा के दोनों बच्चे उदयपुर में एडमिट हैं

उन्हें सांस की बिमारी हुई है

पत्थर गढ़ाई का काम करते-करते

आठ-आठ घंटे पत्थर का पाउडर गया है फेफड़ों में

आजकल मशीन से गढ़ाई में  पाउडर भी तो उड़ता है

जो बिमारी 20 साल में होती वो 1 से 1.5 साल में हो रही है

कैसे बचते

सभी साथियों की तरह वह भी बीमार हैं

कोई अस्पताल तक पहुंचा, कोई घर पर खाट पर है पिछले पांच सालों से

ऑपेरशन के बाद डाकटर ने सीने में पाइप लगा दी ताकि वो सांस ले सकें

सैकड़ों दवाइयों की जो बोतलें हैं बच्चों के खेलने का सामान बनी या उनको शो-पीस की तरह एककोने में लटका दिया

आदिवासी घरों में में शो-पीस….सैकड़ों ड्रिप की बोतलें


दो औरतें घिस रही हैं पत्थर आठ घंटे रोज़…खरर… खरर… खरर

“दो दिन लगते हैं एक पत्थर को चमकाने में” कहती हैं

और वो पत्थर लगेंगे मंदिरों में, चमकते पत्थर

खरर… खरर… खरर … खरर

“कमाने के लिए काम करना हीं पड़ता है…और फिर यहां और कोई  रोज़गार कहाँ, पत्थर गढ़ाई केसिवा” वह कहती हैं .


दामी खड़ी है काले कपड़ों में पंचायत आफिस के बाहर

कुछ कागज़ हाथों में दबोचे

“पति के इलाज का कोई परचा है, अस्पताल में दाखिल किया हो तब का, जिसमें लिखा हो कि उनकोक्या बिमारी थी…नहीं तो Xray भी चलेगा”

उसने पकड़ा दिए सब कागज उन साहब को

“इसका पति और बेटा दोनों हाल में हीं चल बसे” साहब ने बाहर वालों को बताया

“दोनों को सिलिकोसिस था”

“कोशिश कर रहें हैं की विधवा पेंशन मिल जाए, और पालनहार स्कीम से जुड़ जाये, कुल 3000महीना घर पर आ जायेगा

कागज और मिल जायें तो सरकार से २ लाख का मुआवजा भी दिलवा सकते हैं”


ये जंगल क्या वापस नहीं आ सकते?

नहीं !

और वो लोग

वो भी तो वापस नहीं आ सकते 



Read more here. Watch this video and share to spread awareness.

To support the initiative to prevent #Silicosis among temple-carvers, see here.

Follow our campaign #GodlyButDeadly #SilicosisFreeTemples on our Twitter and Facebook pages.

Posted in Migration Musings | Leave a comment

Charter of Demands by the Bandhkaam Mazoor Vikas Sangathan and Aajeevika Bureau for improving the work and living conditions of migrant women in Ahmedabad’s construction sector

The Bandhkaam Mazdoor Vikas Sangathan, a registered trade union of migrant construction workers in Ahmedabad, and Aajeevika Bureau, issued the following Charter of Demands to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), Labour and Employment Department- Government of Gujarat and Gujarat Building and other Construction Worker’s Welfare Board (BoCW) in May 2018. These demands are based on an in-depth field study undertaken in Ahmedabad in 2017-18, and urges the state to improve the work and living conditions of migrant women construction workers in the city.

The demands are as follows: 

Identity and Recognition

  1. Presently, women construction workers don’t enjoy the identity of an independent worker and thus lack access to their wages. This is because of the recruitment and payment system called “jodi-based wage labour” wherein the male worker negotiates the work arrangements and receives wages on behalf of the female worker. As stipulated in the BoCW Act of 1996, the Board shall ensure that employers maintain registers and records documenting the names, work performed and wages paid to all workers including women workers employed at the site, so that this invisible workforce is formally recognized as workers in the construction industry.

  1. Women workers perform the most menial, laborious and mechanical tasks at the worksites, while also performing additional care work like cleaning and serving tea. In spite of this, in many cases, they are paid less than male workers, between Rs. 30 to Rs. 50, both at the labour nakas and construction sites. To deal with this injustice, the Labour Department shall enforce the Equal Remuneration Act of 1976, providing for equal remuneration for both men and women construction workers for equal work and for prevention of discrimination on the ground of sex against women in the matter of employment.


Housing and Basic Facilities

  1. Most of the women construction workers live with their families in informal settlements under flyovers, on pavements and open public/private plots in different parts of the city. Through their hard labour, they have been significantly contributing to the growth and infrastructural development of Ahmedabad. Due to lack of basic facilities like safe drinking water and sanitation, women are forced to put in extra labour and time to manage their households. As they are legitimate citizens of the city, AMC shall ensure that these workers can access safe drinking water, sanitation and health facilities in the city, so that the labour burden of women workers can be reduced considerably.

  1. Even after occupying these informal settlements for more than 25 years in different parts of the city, none of these settlements are recognized as notified or documented slums by the AMC. So it is necessary that AMC shall undertake an exercise to enumerate, officially recognize and document all informal settlements where women construction workers have settled in the city.

  1. Workers have a legitimate claim to these informal settlements, which they have established through their significant contribution to the growth of the city. Respecting these claims, AMC shall not indulge in eviction drives and if at all eviction is carried out for developmental work, due procedures shall be followed and workers shall be provided with an adequate rehabilitation package.


  1. At construction sites, workers are forced to live either inside the half constructed buildings or in sub-optimal make shift arrangements, which don’t qualify to be called as Labour Colonies. These conditions are extremely challenging for women workers, as they have to bear the brunt for the absence of sanitation and drinking water facilities. As stipulated in the BoCW Act of 1996, the board shall ensure that employers provide temporary, free of cost accommodation to all workers employed at the site, with separate and adequate cooking, bathing, washing and lavatory facilities.

  1. As women construction workers use firewood as the means for cooking, they are forced to spend greater amount of time on cooking and thus it increases their labour burden. To reduce their work intensity, Gujarat Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Board shall provide cooking gas facility with a cylinder of 5 kgs in the name of women construction workers.


Workplace Safety and Social Security

  1. Majority of the construction sites lack the basic parameters of safety like display of safety instructions, systematic safety inductions and use of safety gear. This creates an unsafe work environment for all workers especially for women who perform the most laborious and risky tasks of lifting and carrying heavy stuff and children who roams around the site unattended by their parents. As stipulated in the BoCW Act of 1996, the board shall ensure that employers appoint a safety inspector with required qualifications, set up a safety committee with equal representation of workers and management, provide suitable and sufficient scaffolding, safety nets and prevent danger from overhead electric wires.

  1. Due to immense economic pressure to earn, women workers are forced to work at construction sites even after 8 months into their pregnancy. There are numerous instances of miscarriage due to work intensity and many times, delivery happens at the construction site leading to death of infants and extreme cases of bleeding. To improve this scenario, the Gujarat Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Board shall provide maternity benefits to women construction workers as granted to formal sector employees since the introduction of the Maternity Benefit Amendment Act of 2017 (26 weeks of maternity leave).



  1. As a result of multiple demands on the woman worker’s time, she has not been fully able to cater to the nutritional and emotional needs of the infants. To reduce their work burden, as stipulated by the BoCW Act of 1996, the board shall ensure that employers establish crèches in construction sites wherein more than 50 workers are employed for providing childcare facilities for children under the age of 6 years.

  1. Women construction workers living in informal settlements and construction sites are completely outside the purview of National Urban Health Mission. It is important that ASHA Workers shall make regular visits and provide the much required reproductive health care support and vaccinations to women workers and nutritional care to children.

Physical Security

  1. Construction sites are unsafe spaces for women workers as there is high incidence of sexual harassments and exploitation. To make them women-friendly spaces, the Labour Department shall ensure that employers setup an Internal Complaints Committee with civil powers of enquiry and conciliation at construction sites, which have more than 10 workers, as stipulated in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013.

  1. Women construction workers living in open spaces constantly face issues regarding their physical security. Even when they are ill, they can’t stay back in their settlements without men being around as these spaces are unsafe. This forces them to go for work despite suffering from major health issues. To make these spaces women-friendly, AMC shall set up Women Resource Centres (WRC) in these informal settlements wherein women workers can come, sit, relax and seek medical counselling.
Posted in Migration Musings | Leave a comment

The Smiling Man is Gone


In Photo: Late Durgaram, stone carver and Silicosis patient, with his children (taken in May 2016)

by Priyanka Jain, Aajeevika Bureau

I met 30-year old Durgaram and his children in May 2016. It was obvious that he was in acute pain and had become immobile given the advanced stage of Silicosis that his affected lungs had reached. Nevertheless, he smiled courteously through our meeting, with his children running about and giggling as I spoke to their father. Ironically, these smiles made me deeply sad, because it was all too obvious that Durgaram only had a few more months to live.

Durgaram belongs to the Garasia Adivasi community of southern Rajasthan. He contracted Silicosis while working in the temple-building industry’s stone carving factories in Pindwara (Sirohi, Rajasthan). He worked in over 200 such factories, in a span of 7 years, visiting places like Bangalore and Jharkhand for fitting the carved stones in the temples being built there. Durgaram said he would have preferred to be a farmer like his father who grew enough wheat to support the family for the whole year. But with the setting up of JK and Binani cement factories as well as Wolkem stone crushing units in Pindwara, the ground water depleted severely and now most families can only grow a little bit of corn, once a year.

This created a need for him to shift out of farming and he entered the stone carving industry. His uncle also worked in this trade for 15 years. However, during his uncle’s time, the industry was still using manual tools of hammer and chisel. About 10 years back, machines were introduced to expedite the carving process. The stone typically comes from Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and are the famous stones of Rajasthan, that temples builders love to use (see here for news report that Ayodha’s Ram Mandir will be made with Rajasthan’s stones). These stones have very high silica content and carving them releases deadly dust, that is directly inhaled by workers like Durgaram. The dust goes directly into their lungs, given the absence of any effective dust-control measures, which the temple-building industry has failed to invest in, despite its multi-crore projects across the world.

By late 2015, Durgaram started coughing intensely, accompanied by chronic exhaustion and difficulty in breathing. He had to stop work because it became difficult for him to even walk more than a few hundred meters. He shared that he had seen many deaths around him of young men like him. Yet, when he started working in this industry, he did not think that he could meet with similar fate: ‘log marte rahte hai yahan, lekin maine jab kaam shuru kiya, toh uss samay aisa nahin laga ki meri sehet bhi kharab ho sakti hai. Iske baare mein koi baat nahin karta, koi kuch batata nahin hai. Jab khaasi shuru hui aur saas phoolne lagi, toh bhi samajh mein nahin aaya ki yeh pathar ke karan hai. Yeh ab samajh mein aa raha hai’. (People around here die often. But when I started working in stone carving, I did not think that I would fall sick too. No one talks about the perils of this work, no information is given about it. When I started coughing and became breathless, even then I did not realize that its because of the stone. I understand this only now). When Durgaram told his employer about his sickness, he asked him ‘to go home and rest’, a local euphemism used by employers to wash their hands off workers who show signs of Silicosis.

Durgaram died in December 2016, and since then his widowed wife, Sopi Devi has been raising their small children, surviving on wages from MGNREGA. In Pindwara, instead of the guaranteed 100 days of work, most families report being able to obtain only around 25-30 days per year. Sopi Devi has to depend on erratic and very poorly paid forms of local labour to make ends meet. She has made several visits to the District Officer to get her children covered in the Palanhaar scheme, but has been unable to put together the mandatory documentation required for it.

Unfortunately, Durgaram and Sopi Devi’s story is not unique. Aajeevika Bureau and Kotda Adivasi Sansthan’s study on the issue highlights that just in 11 panchayats, 700 children have lost their fathers at the young age of 34 years (median). All of them used to work in stone carving factories. Justice remains elusive for these families and the young, widowed mothers continue to depend on the benevolence of extended family or the business of local moneylenders to be able to put some food on the plate for their children.

3 out 10 stone carvers are battling the fatal occupational disease of silicosis in Rajasthan’s Pindwara block. A quiet epidemic of over 1000 dying workers, some as young as 19 years, marks the life of labour in this region.

Dispossessed of their rights over forests, the Garasia adivasis of Pindwara have been alienated from the very material basis of their existence. This process of primitive accumulation has converted them into a reserve army of workers for the local temple-making industry, donned by religious funders such as the Swaminarayan Trust of the Akshardham temple fame.

As they grind and cut silica-rich stones, the labourers absorb the toxicity of degraded work, inhaling large volumes of deadly dust, while carving beautiful temple pillars to satiate the religious fervour of the country.

In Pindwara, religion cleverly masks capitalist accumulation – these young men do not enjoy the status of a ‘worker’, the production is not considered an ‘industry’. ‘Yeh toh bhagwaan ka kaam hai’ – ‘This is God’s work, it doesn’t need any protection?’, chirp the employers.

Couched by obscure value chains that lend total impunity, factories shed labourers as soon as they show the first sign of illness. The very category of ‘worker’ in Pindwara has come to embody a state of exception, where life itself is suspended without repercussions. 

Read more here. Watch this video and share to spread awareness.

To support the initiative to prevent #Silicosis among temple-carvers, see here.

Follow our campaign #GodlyButDeadly #SilicosisFreeTemples on our Twitter and Facebook pages.

Posted in Migration Musings | Leave a comment

Mazdoori aur Makaan: How access to housing finance is helping optimize migration choices

By Anjani Gupta and Rupal Kulkarni, Shram Sarathi

The lack of access to finance to complete construction of a house often prompts migrant families to make sub-optimal work choices (Read here: Unfinished Houses, Unfulfilled Lives). But what does happen when migrant families are able to complete a pakka house?

Prakash Gameti, a tractor driver from Gogunda commutes from his village to nearby towns driving tractors to deliver construction material. He took 3 years to construct his house till about six feet. Prakash is one of nearly 150 migrants benefitting from a pilot program called Poorti (or home completion). Poorti offers migrant families housing loans of up to 60,000 rupees with advisory services by a skilled mason on structural safety and cost estimations. The program aims to reduce the time and cost taken by migrant workers to complete the construction of a pakka house, making it liveable.

As a result of the program, Prakash was able to complete his house within 20 days, which would otherwise have taken him two years in his assessment. When asked what impact did this have, Prakash mentions that earlier, he would return home before dark, always worrying about his family living in an unfinished structure. With a complete house, he is now able to work an additional two hours per day, increasing his annual incomes by 10,000 rupees. But what is more important, as Prakash points out, is that by working overtime, he now becomes eligible for cash advances from his contractor – a pre-approved line of credit whenever he needs it. For Prakash, the complete house helped increase incomes, but more importantly became a crucial productive asset. For him access begot access.


For Prakash, a tractor driver, a permanent house improved his ability to choose the number of hours of work and increase incomes by 10,000 rupees a year

An impact assessment of workers like Prakash who were part of the Poorti pilot demonstrates strong income effects through pakka housing and multiple pathways to achieve this.

In fact, 36% of families that had completed construction noted an increase in time spent at work that is directly attributable to stable housing, while 45% said it is at least ‘likely to increase’ in the future. This is significant because even an extra hour a week, a few nightly or overtime shifts, or a few extra days at destination (e.g. Ahmedabad or Surat) can increase income substantially. Indeed, around 72% of families with permanent houses actually reported that income either increased or was likely to increase as a consequence of home security. Furthermore, having a pakka house improved the migrant’s perceived credit worthiness in the community, further improving financial access for these households.   A pakka house therefore is a crucial social resource for such families.

Fateh lal, another client of the Poorti program, used to work at a chocolate factory in Ahmedabad earlier. He gave it up and returned to his village, reluctantly accepting a wage cut of 100 rupees per day in local work, just in order to complete the construction of his house.  With a complete house now, he has plans to return and estimates that he could earn additional incomes of up to 30,000 rupees per year depending on the number of days he is able to work. From daily commuting, he has started being away from home for five days at a stretch, hoping to gradually reduce the frequency with which he comes back home.

For long duration migrants like Fateh lal, the ability to stay away from home longer, significantly reduces costs and improves the potential to earn. Firstly, taking fewer trips back home out of compulsion yields savings on transportation costs. Secondly, and this is fairly counter-intuitive, migrating can be more cost effective, and housing that enables more migration can therefore be very beneficial. Specifically, some contractors or employers in professions like kitchen work or cooking, tent-pitching and painting, provide workers with accommodation and food at comparable wages. With these expenses eliminated at home (from not being there), going away for longer can also mean lower costs as workers are able to rely on contractor or employer provided shelter and food, thereby increasing savings.


Fateh lal hopes to migrate back to Ahmedabad for longer periods now that his house is complete. With the money he saved on housing, he plans to install a tube well for improving farm produce

“34 x 18 ft” says Fateh lal in a precise tone, when asked if the Poorti program helped him in any other way. The program helped him decongest his family’s living space by over 612 square feet. For him, the mason’s cost estimate provided as part of the advisory services, was key. It helped visualize his finances for the next three years and determine how much of it could go into housing and how much was left for other needs.

For most migrant families, having a pakka house is the top most social & financial goal. Families are often unable to even articulate other big needs, in the absence of a permanent roof over their heads. In contrast, respondents in the Poorti impact study expressed a number of priorities going forward, including investments in agriculture, setting up local businesses and ensuring their children remained in school for longer. When the same families were asked if these would still be their priorities in the absence of a pakka home, the response was overwhelmingly ‘no’.

Multiple pathways through which housing improved incomes emerged across the 45 migrant families that were surveyed – diversified incomes through dedicated spaces for livestock, improved health indicators, decongested spaces for better educational outcomes and so on. The most significant pathway however was the direct impact that secure housing at source has on the ability to choose work and wages & make optimal migration choices.

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Maheebunissa and Amrita

By Amrita Sharma, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions

Who is this other?
One who just walks in unannounced from the derelict, forgotten past of my country?Reminds me of its poverty and hunger that I thought no longer existed
Knocks at my door asking for my humanity.
How I fail to recognize you
So much is the distance between you and me.

I am the city-dweller, educated, child of middle-class, hard-working people,
One who believes that all my privileges are well earned;
You come here, talking of your landless father and how you can’t be in the village anymore
Your income from the manual work in the city is the only income and that also can’t sustain the family
You tell me how the city treats you because you are uneducated, emaciated, hailing from a lower caste.
You live in indignity, facing brutalities every day
Trying hard to keep a foothold in the city for you are not wanted here.
You are told that the city is Swachh without you and you do not belong.
You work in inhuman conditions; live on the road, inside the construction site or a factory
I see you precariously walk up the uneven slopes on the worksite with heavy loads on your head
From my high-rise, I see your children sleeping in the open, unattended in a sling,
Late in the night, I see you hiding in a corner cooking with few utensils and little firewood.

I wonder what separates me from you and what makes our lives so different.

I sit beside you, holding you
As you grieve your husband’s loss
A construction worker, he fell off a building
Suffered for two months with poor healthcare and apathy of those in-charge
And then one night he passed away, just like that.

You are cajoled to not file a case claiming compensation
Then you are threatened that his body will be dis-interred if you did
You have to run around to file an FIR and obtain his death certificate
Shaken. Broken. Devastated.
You look at me and I can’t bear to look back.

Sitting in your 150 sq.ft. house I think of my husband, my child
I wonder what separates me from you and what makes our lives so different.

You tell me the city is not for you
You would return to village as at least you have a house there, Mumbai is too expensive to live in.
You don’t know what you would do back home
But return is the only option.
You leave your eldest son behind, not more than 16 to continue the toil in the same indignity
To be the other in this ruthless, unforgiving city.

I wonder what separates me from you and what makes our lives so different.


Cities in India receive a large number of workers from its villages as footloose labour – people without an anchor, whom the villages fail to sustain and the cities do not accept. As per an estimate, close to 140 million people migrate every year, and by extension, nearly 560 million people (half of the Indian population) depend on migration for cash income.

Mumbai has been known to receive migrant workers for decades. More than 40% of the city population is made up of migrants. Still, their existence is mired in instability, insecurity and excessive structural violence. Our governments and people fail to acknowledge this floating workforce as they suffer from pervasive indifference and apathy.

This is a story of one such migrant Maheebunissa who came to the city of Mumbai with her husband Haider Ali and five children from Balrampur, UP. Living in a decrepit, degenerated part of the city and toiling inhuman hours, the family of seven stuck along in the hope of a better future, only to be robbed of that subsequently. Within seven months of arriving, Maheebunissa lost her husband to a worksite accident and was forced to go back home with mounting debt and worries of an uncertain future. 

“Maheebunissa and Amrita” tells the tale of a tumultuous, schizophrenic Mumbai where two women inhabit two divergent worlds in the very city that brought them together in the first place.

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Discounted rights for unaccounted populations: Access to finance as a basic human right

By Ayushi Shukla

Ayushi works with Shram Sarathi as an India Fellow and is working on improving banking access among migrant communities in southern Rajasthan.


Human rights blog

It’s a December morning.

Vardi bai started her day earlier than usual. 30 years of marriage has changed many things, but mornings still remind her of her mother’s house. The liberty of remaining in the warmth of a blanket for a little longer is no more hers to take.

She walked to the cattle-house while rubbing her sleepy eyes. Gathered fodder and checked the water tank, nearly empty. She picked the vessels and walked around half a kilometer to fetch water from the well. Today, she took an additional trip, to provision it until she returns. Catching a breath, she milked the cow and lit the chulha.

As the room started to fill with the aroma of tea, Kesulal woke up. With palms still warm by the teacup, he walked out to tie the bulls back to the hook. By dawn, Vardi bai was ready with a 3 boxed tiffin for him, with Makka ki roti, vegetable and khaati chhach in it. After requesting a neighbor to take care of the children, they paced on the trails. The sky started to light up in the middle of their hour long journey.

The hamlet called ‘Sapra’ is scenically mesmerizing. 35-40 houses settled near the bank of a brook, scattered around Aravali hills. The residents migrate for a major part of the year, under distress, to find labor-intensive work in the cities.

The trails ended at an old nearly-absent concrete road. A few moments passed before they sighted a jeep, carrying passengers twice its capacity. Kesu lal made space for Vardi bai by the driver’s side and secured a seat on the roof for himself. The chilly wind pierced through his muffler, while the jeep covered nearly 25 kms. of distance.

The jeep stopped at Gogunda, the nearest block. But the journey hasn’t ended for Kesu lal. He saw Vardi bai off at closed gates of a bank and boarded a crowded bus to Udaipur.

Udaipur is the largest district in south Rajasthan, with 78% of the total population being tribal. At the end of the bus ride, he found himself waiting at Naka with countless other laborers, approaching every vehicle stopping there, in hope of work; and a day’s wage. All faces at the Naka carries wrinkles, some due to age, most due to worries. Kesulal had an additional worry for Vardi bai today.

It was 2 hours before the bank opens. The queue started to grow. Standing in the queue, she thought about all the days that she had worked in National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and estimated how much her account balance should be. The officer at panchayat had said that the wages should be credited by now. She was hoping today would be the day when the wait would be over, the payday!

She looked around in search of friendly faces, a radar to pick whom she could ask for a favor. Most of the people in the queue weren’t literate, just like her. She asked the doorman to fill the withdrawal slip for her. This was an usual affair for the doorman. He filled the slip and demanded 10 rupees. Vardi bai paid with a dismal look in her eyes.

By the time clock struck 10, more than two dozen people queued up. The flood of people shifted to the counters as soon as the door opened. Vardi bai approached the counter with the withdrawal slip. The cashier, sitting at the other side of the counter, checked her account and declared that it had insufficient balance.

She suddenly felt poor(er). She couldn’t believe it. She asked the cashier to check again. The cashier seemed cold and uninterested. He intimidated her into leaving the counter. She left and queued in front of another counter. This counter was for updating bank passbooks. At the other end of another long queue, the officer updated it. She looked for another friendly face to ask for yet another favor. She needed someone to tell her how much money she had. She wasn’t literate. The doorman told her that her balance was, in fact, insufficient.

This wasn’t the first time she was leaving empty-handed. It was her fourth trip this month.

She is not the only one. This is the story of every other family living around Gogunda tehsil in Udaipur district. Hundreds of people, entitled to public welfare schemes, unable to benefit from them, due to lack of access to their own money.

Vardi bai is one of the many ladies who join the workforce under NREGS to get dignified work opportunities and equitable pay. For better monitoring and transparency, the wages for work done under NREGS are deposited directly into the bank account of workers. This is a welcome step, aimed at protecting workers against bureaucracy and corruption. Due to poor banking infrastructure in these geographies, low literacy and awareness, what aimed to be a catalyst for development turned out to be a blatant denial of their right to their own money.

After days of hard work, the wages may take a week to three months to show up. The transfer of payment depends upon documentation and other formalities, the completion of which entirely depends upon Panchayat officers. With so many layers of administration, the population is often denied access to reliable information as well.

The degree of financial dependence on wages is very high for the families. Making such trips to the bank don’t only result in physical and emotional distress, it also results in an outflow of money. The loss is magnified when the transfers are made into men’s accounts for women’s work. A day in the queue for banking means a day with no wages. No wages, at times, means no food.

Other social security and development schemes, such as – old age pension, widow pension, scholarship, LPG subsidy, Awas Yojana suffer the same fate. During my time with the community, I witnessed several incidents of senior citizens queuing up for hours every day. Women with infants, traveling along with them, dangerously, on the roofs of crowded jeeps. The benefits don’t trickle down in an intended manner. It is strange how the lack of access is slowing the pace of development. It is often said, that “Justice delayed is justice denied”, shouldn’t this also be true for access to one’s own finances?

Access to finance is not commonly seen as a human right. But the time delays and costs involved in accessing one’s own finances along with the lack of information contributes to a violation of many other human rights such as access to food, shelter, healthcare, dignified old age, etc. Shouldn’t access to finance then also be a universal human right?

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Unfinished Houses, Unfulfilled Lives

By Rupal Kulkarni and Shriram Padmanabhan, Rajasthan Shram Sarathi Association

Hurji Meena and Chunna Ram Gameti, two migrants from southern Rajasthan separated by over 200 kilometres have never met, but have much in common. Chunnaram, a migrant from Gogunda tehsil, had spent the last 6 years constructing a pakka (concrete) house. He was confident that in another 4-5 years, the house would finally be complete and until then his family was content living in the mud house they had built for themselves. Hurji, another migrant from Salumbar tehsil was also constructing his house for the past 3 years, with his family cramped up together in their mud house. Overnight though, this changed. Both their mud houses collapsed in a bout of heavy rainfall. Their pakka house was only one-third done. It didn’t have doors, windows or even a roof. With all their savings invested in the concrete house, both families had no resources to start rebuilding the mud house. By this time, they had also borrowed significantly from friends, family and their contractors and had no more money to quickly complete the pakka house. For the next four years, both Hurji and Chunnaram’s families lived under a plastic sheet in their partially constructed concrete house.

Hurji Mud House

Hurji’s mud house collapsed during the monsoons, forcing his family to live under a plastic sheet for nearly four years.

In the villages of southern Rajasthan, seasonal migration is a rapidly growing livelihood strategy. Lakhs of men migrate to neighbouring districts, Gujarat and Maharashtra in search of work. Interestingly, for a majority of these families, the single most important aspiration is to construct and own a pakka house in their villages. Any surplus income from migration is invested in constructing a house until it is complete.

In southern Rajasthan, it takes a migrant family an average of four years to build a simple two-room house. The same house can be constructed in three months with access to affordable and adequate finance. The lack of formal land documentation in tribal areas hinders traditional collateralized housing finance. Mainstream financial institutions have either not created suitable products or distribution channels to reach migrant workers in such areas.

In the absence of any formal financial access, typically the house is constructed incrementally, as and when the migrant has some surplus money left or when informal borrowings are possible. In several cases, systems of communal labour help but also delay construction, wherein construction depends on the availability of a friend/neighbour.

Countless interviews reveal that a migrant family manages to construct up to six feet with some informal assistance. The construction and completion of the roof is a phase that requires a large quantum of funds within a short time period. Work on the roof cannot be completed piece-meal but has to be completed at one go. The large amount of funds required also means that this is the phase that requires the longest waiting time among all phases of house construction, often stalling construction for a minimum period of 18 months.

Navla Gameti for instance, started constructing his house in 2004. After exhausting all avenues of financing, he waited a decade to start again. When asked why he waited 10 years, he said ‘We save and build incrementally but there are numerous other unexpected events that occur during this duration, and our funds get diverted elsewhere’. The decision to build a house in a piecemeal manner thus results in diversion of funds, additional debt and a 2 times increase in the cost of building a house over a four-year period. In Navla’s case this would be much higher.

Navla Gameti

Navla Gameti with his family: He waited 10 years before resuming the construction of his house, more than doubling the overall cost of construction.

Vaktaram Meghwal’s preoccupation was with safety. As a migrant with a kaccha house, who is away working in the city, he was always pre-occupied with his family’s living situation and safety back home. The monsoons are quite challenging – if it rains at night, a roof that has not been reinforced starts dripping and the family is up at 1 a.m. huddled into a corner.

Unfinished Houses

Exclusion of migrants from financial services can leave houses unfinished, without a roof, doors or windows, for several years before construction is completed.

His choice was to not migrate altogether for 3 months during the monsoons, when the risk to his family’s safety was highest (risk of the roof/entire house collapsing) and in the process forgo a chance to earn better wages. For Vaktaram, an incomplete house also meant that he couldn’t work for long periods at destination even when he migrated. He would work hard in small bursts of 2-3 months, accumulate money, come back home and then continue the construction process. With a complete house, he could think of working for longer periods of time on more lucrative contracts. Just a few kilometres away from Vaktaram’s house, Fateh Lal, who used to work in Ahmedabad earlier, has now come back to Gogunda, reluctantly accepting a 25% wage cut in exchange for looking out for his family living in a precarious kaccha house.

Vaktaram Meghwal

Vaktaram Meghwal chose not to migrate for three months during the monsoons for fear of his family’s safety living in an unfinished house.

For some other families in the region, the inability to construct a house can even result in desperate financial choices, which often curb freedoms. Nathu Gameti, for instance, borrowed 30,000 rupees from multiple informal moneylenders to construct his house. Despite crowdsourcing this loan, the amount is hardly sufficient to complete the house. To avoid losing his land, Nathu’s two sons began migrating in their teens. Similarly Mangilal Gameti borrowed a measly 4,800 rupees for critical repairs to his crumbling mud house. He couldn’t repay the moneylender on time due to a sudden illness and instead found himself in an undignified arrangement of pledged labour with the moneylender, with restrictions on his ability to migrate elsewhere for work.

Nathu Unfinished House

Nathu’s two teenage sons had to migrate in order to pay back informal loans taken to construct their house. Their house is still not complete, but the loan has compounded to nearly three times.

The experiences of all these migrant families point to three very important conclusions. Firstly, having a pakka house at source is the single most important goal that migrant families have and in case of incomplete houses, any cash surplus keeps pouring into construction, leaving little for the attainment of any other meaningful goals or aspirations. Delays in construction will therefore only result in delaying other important goals for the family.

Secondly, the precarity of housing conditions at source are an important determinant of their work choices and experience at destination. A migrant with a crumbling or semi-finished house in the village is less likely to work on longer contracts, is more likely to have fewer days of employment (and consequently lesser income) and is more likely to make sub-optimal migration choices. And finally, the exclusion of migrant communities from access to finance for housing can result in forced financial choices, debt-bondage like conditions and migration that is driven by distress.

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Dignified Housing: A Broken Dream for India’s Labour Migrants

By Nivedita Jayaram, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions

India’s cities rely on a large and growing number of rural labour migrants to power their expanding industrial and infrastructural development. Without official count or identity in the cities, this large and floating community provides flexible and cheap labour while being stripped of its rights, including to dignified housing.

Earning less than a living wage, migrant workers cannot afford to live in urban slums, resorting instead to deplorable informal settlements—open spaces including under flyovers, near railway tracks and on pavements; in unhygienic, crammed shared rooms or within their worksites. The nature of these living arrangements intensifies the exploitation that migrant workers face in informal labour markets, where they perform risky and strenuous manual labour.

Due to their transient relationship with the city, and the complex mobility and informality that inform their presence there, government housing schemes centred around permanent housing are not feasible for migrant labourers. Their needs and expectations from housing remain focused on spaces where they can achieve peace and rest after backbreaking work in the labour market, without having to spend additional hours seeking out basic needs such as water and sanitation.

As such, migrant workers benefit from housing that is separate from their workplace, so that they can leave the worksite after work hours. In cases where workers live on the worksite, they are susceptible to longer hours of work and constant exploitation by their employers or contractors. They prefer living with their communities so that they may recreate their villages within the hostile and alien city, and use their social networks to survive in an environment that constantly excludes them.

Despite the specific needs of 140 million migrant workers, however, urban policies remain fixated on the idea of home as a permanent and final product to be purchased in the market, or on slum redevelopment efforts, leaving them out of the imagination of India’s cities.

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(In)Visible Work, Invisible Violence

The many facets of violence faced by adivasi women workers who migrate to the city and work as daily wage construction labourers

By Drishti Agarwal, Family Empowerment Programme

Every day an average of 25000 people are moving across state borders for work (Economic Survey 2016-2017). Most of these are from the poorer states who are forced to head to a nearby city looking for any work for which they can exchange their labour because back home, their villages cannot provide for even a day’s work. This renders 60 million people as inter-state migrants annually.

Ironically, the literature on internal, seasonal labour migration in India is predominantly male-centric. With 85% of the short distance, seasonal migrants being recorded as male (Srivastava, 2011) the migration journey undertaken by the women is largely hidden. It either tends to focus only on family-based migration or migration due to marriage.

The lack of female representation in the national migration trend suggests that women’s migration for work has been completely overlooked. This further sideline their experiences of violence, leaving no space for the policies to be improved. This article attempts to analyze the multifaceted violence through a gender lens and urges that the policy needs to be aware of this and take steps to combat it.

There has been a rapid feminization of informal labour over the past 30 years, with an increasing participation of women in domestic work, construction work, and home-based work. According to the world bank, more than 80% of women are engaged not just in informal work but in the most vulnerable forms of informal work.  In fact, Adivasi women are unable to access the better paying or less intermediated (with contractor types) jobs – such as the garments sector but are stuck either with home-based work, domestic work or even construction largely – the last being the third biggest employer of women, particularly Adivasi (CWDS 2012 article). Because of long contracting chains in construction or the lack of employer-employee relations in domestic, or home-based work, the work performed by women workers remains evasive and unaccounted for.

What is more, pertaining to this invisibility is the experience of violence in the city, that unleashes itself in many different forms and in many different ways. For a woman involved in the informal sector, the city poses various challenges, breaking not just her body but even her spirit. We see a stark similarity in the way different forms of violence; physical, verbal, sexual, economic and structural; cuts across these categories of home, state and the labour market. All of the violence, in its various forms, perpetrated either by the state, or the contractor, the labour market or the husband himself have the same effect on the women in terms of women’s safety, dignity and her well-being.

 Despair in the private sphere

We will wash his feet and drink that water. Even then he will call us a fool”, says Premlata behen who hails from Khedi Panchayat in Madhya Pradesh. Premlata is among 40-50 other women who work at a construction site in Makarba, Ahmedabad. She shared her plight during a parent meeting at the crèche where her grandchild stays while the family toils at the construction site. When the crèche worker asked all the women to share their experiences of facing violence, inside or outside her home, Premlata behen, feeling dismayed said, “this (domestic violence) happens in all the families. It is nothing new. Only 25 out of 100 families are happy where the man does not beat his wife. Otherwise, all men are the same”.

Premlata behen speaks for the many women who come to the city with their husbands in search of work. After toiling at the construction site for the whole day and performing all the household duties, the women face continuous violence from their husbands, both verbally and physically. One woman who did not want to be named said, “we have been taught that our husbands are our gods. Whatever they say and do is our fate. What can we possibly do if they hit us?”.

Domestic violence is just one form of oppression that women workers face in the country. The city poses its own threats, as does the construction site with other male workers and contractors. Finally, the labour market itself extracts these women relentlessly.

Women neither have any ownership of resources; the land, the house, farm equipment; nor has any right in its management. In many instances, the women do not even know what her wages are or who the employer is. This is mainly because they are kept away from negotiating the terms at work and their wages, that their economic identity as an earning member gets blurred. This further reduces them to being as secondary actors in the family.



Women recount their stories of domestic abuse during a crèche meeting in Makarba, Ahmedabad.

Women in the megacities

Most everyday commodities, goods and services we use, are made through backbreaking work done by the worst paid and un-unionized workers, a large majority of whom are from historically disadvantaged social groups of Dalits and Adivasis. The women in these groups constitute an even poorer and more vulnerable category of workers, who perform major chunks of the work, while facing debilitating violence at the same time, domestically, from employers and in public spaces in the city.

When in the city, the experience of violence is compounded by the ever-contested war of the migrants’ right to the city. Neither do these families have a living space nor have access to any of the basic entitlements of ration, healthcare and water, in the new city. Even a simple act of relieving oneself becomes a battle in the absence of properly functioning public toilets. Since, neither the employer nor the contractor takes any responsibility for the workers, they are forced to live in the open spaces making them susceptible to sexual violence. Aajeevika’s engagement with the women workers in Banswara suggests that the incidents of abuse and harassment are quite pervasive among the women at the destination. According to their testimonies, drunkards passing by at night, come and sleep with them. There have also been cases of robberies during the night. Such an experience confronts these families and especially women with the omnipresent structural violence performed by the state. They are completely forced to the margins, denied not only a living space but their right to citizenship.


A construction site in the Makarba area in Ahmedabad. Small makeshift arrangements surround the site, where a multi-national office is being constructed

The super exploitative labour market

The labour market experience starts with doubling of woman’s responsibilities, forcing her to balance her family and her work. For a woman employed at a construction site, the day starts at 4 a.m. or sometimes at 3 a.m. After undergoing her morning chores of searching for a toilet, fetching water, preparing food for the family, she along with her husband leaves for work by 8. After an arduous 12-hour work shift, the day is only half finished for the woman. She now has to go back and mend to her family’s demands. It is only after making the next day’s arrangements that the woman can finally go to sleep.

It is not just the physical labour that a woman does at the construction site but the enormous unpaid care work for the whole family that largely remains undervalued and unaccounted for. As Deepta Chopra suggests a wider understanding of economic empowerment needs to be adopted. We need to take into account the participation of women in both the market economy as well as the care economy, ‘which sustains and nurtures the market economy’, to have a long-term economic growth.

The labour market extracts from these women workers not just physically but sexually and emotionally as well while denying them an equal wage or even the identity of a worker. Even after contributing to the best of their abilities, both domestically and professionally, women workers are perceived as less suitable for work on the basis of strength and knowledge. Their work largely remains unskilled and includes head loading, filling and being a help to the mason (skilled worker). When in reality, women end up carrying more weight than the men and also spend more time at the site. This gender-based discrimination at the workplace not only denies the woman a higher salary but the identity of a worker.

The labour market exploitation is compounded by the constant threat of sexual and verbal abuse from the contractors and other male workers at the site. They are under a constant male gaze and never really feel relaxed. The contractor feels justified in abusing women workers if the work is not done properly. As per the testimonies of the women workers in Banswara, since, they live in dera (a place where many people live together) or work alone at the site while their husbands work at a distance, other male members try to take advantage of them. Fearing social disapproval and having no faith in the police, such cases of sexual harassment never comes to the forefront.

The policies related to women’s safety needs to take cognizance of the different forms of violence unpacked in the article through a gender lens. Without due recognition, steps cannot be taken to combat the issues.  The policy needs to be aware of violence in this multifaceted way and look at the most invisible populations who experience it the most. As stated before, the tribal women make up the majority of the workforce in the most vulnerable forms of informal work. And yet, they do not have any social space and dignity in the ‘host state’, even when they play a substantial role in its prosperity and growth. As Kiran Desai claims, the labouring poor have completely vanished from the entire discourse on ‘development’.

As far as the women themselves are concerned they acknowledge the ever-looming violence at home, at the construction site and in the city, yet migrating for work still remains a preferred option for them. “We go to the city to work, rather than stay here and die of hunger”, feels Ramli Bai, who is back home in Kushalgarh (Banswara) for the harvesting season and would soon leave for Ahmedabad with her family.


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