Mumbai is intimidating, especially if one aspires to work with the urban poor. The size of the slums, their pervasiveness and the seeming permanence of the squalor can be quite discouraging. However, as they say, one has to make a start somewhere, howsoever small it is. My start happened with a study on political exclusion of migrant workers, a study which took me to several interesting corners of Santacruz and Kurla. As I sit down to recount some of the interesting and inspiring of people I met during this period and the most insightful of exchanges I had, I cannot not speak of Rambabu, someone who later also gave an interesting twist to my investigation. This blog is dedicated to his indomitable spirit, his charisma and his Lohiawadism.
Rambabu, a third generation migrant from UP, is a well known figure in the hawker community near Santacruz station. Call him for the first time and that is how he directs you to his shop – after reaching Santacruz station, just ask anyone for Rambabu and you’ll find me. It’s true. I tried it and there we were, standing in front of a septuagenarian whose energy levels would beat that of a teenager.
Before I move further on my tryst with Rambabu, here is a quick brief about the study that took me to him, just to set the context. It is well known that every year, millions of migrants leave their villages in search of livelihood. Not much attention has been paid to the fact that this footloose labor, as a result of its mobility, is not able to exercise a critical citizenship right, the right to vote. This study, in addition to capturing the voting behavior of migrants, also meant to understand their political agency at the destination, in the cities where they didn’t even have voting rights. The case of Rambabu and his Lohia Vichar Manch served as a case study for me where migrants had mobilized themselves on an issue, the right to hawk!
The first meeting with Rambabu told me that I was lucky to have found this man – he was an epitome of political agency a migrant could exhibit in those surroundings. He was a leader of the community, someone who represented their concerns to the government and frequently acted as an arbiter between the state and the hawking community. Rambabu had information on the timings of the arrival of the municipality van which did periodic rounds to check hawking. For the 20 minutes that I spent with him on the first day, almost 5 hawkers had approached his shop and inquired about the arrival of the municipality van, seeking counsel if it was safe to layout the shop display. It is worth mentioning that this street which I frequented during the study had close to 700 hawkers and only a handful had a license to hawk. For the rest, selling goods was an everyday struggle. Recently a skywalk had come up in the area which had increased their peril manifold. The state wanted the space below the skywalks to be cleared and as a result the frequency of the rounds made by the municipality van had increased and cases of seizure of goods too. There was threat of police raids too.
If a hawker got caught then he had to pay Rs. 1200 to the Policewallah. Usually, half of the goods were also seized by the police. If it is a municipality raid, then the fine amount is higher, somewhere in the range of Rs. 5000 to 6000. The only way for the hawkers to deal with the problem was bribe. I was told that on an average a hawker pays Rs. 3 to 4k as bribe, called hafta locally. This bribe went to 4-5 state officials – to the municipality staff, to police, to people from the electricity department. The most dangerous among the lot were the garbage collectors and the drivers of vans who continually threatened to inform the officials and drive the van to this locality, if not compensated well. I remember Rambabu once shared that if put together, the bribe paid by hawkers in Mumbai will surpass the budget of Mumbai Municipal Corporation. One doesn’t know the veracity of the statement, but one does get the point about the scale of the phenomenon. Rambabu had slowly become my conduit to the world of hawkers in Mumbai.
His Lohia Vichar Manch, I came to know, had a membership of 1500 plus hawkers. It frequently organised demonstrations to advocate for hawkers’ rights. A number of my interview respondents said that with the efforts of the Manch they have got relief of 2-3 months when the municipality van has reduced the frequency of rounds. For the next few days that I spent at Santacruz station there were several incidents where I got to see Rambabu in action. One, where he helped a hawker obtain compensation from the PWD, when his goods got burnt because of a spark flying off from a skywalk repair activity. During Diwali he negotiated with the municipality to reduce the frequency as the hawkers needed to do business.
There are many more things worth mentioning about Rambabu – the panache with he speaks of the invasion of mall culture and how they represented American capitalism, the reverence with which is received by some of his close attendants, almost as someone who has given them a second life, and last but not the least, the logo on the membership card issued by his Manch – Zinda Kaumein Waqt ka Intezaar nahin karti…these are Ram Manohar Lohia’s words, a well known socialist from the 1940s. I wonder how many of us are able to relate with these words today …
– Amrita Sharma