Falling Through the Cracks: How overlapping responsibilities among many agencies contributes to the poor living conditions of garment workers in Gurgaon, India.


By Anshuman Tiwari

India’s new government in Delhi has promised to create more jobs and tackle urban chaos. Yet a stone’s throw away from where decisions are made is an example of how the government creates chaos. Here, multiple agencies’ overlapping jurisdictions create a situation in which even those with secure jobs cannot find decent housing or access basic urban services.

If you travel in an auto rickshaw along the Old Gurgaon-Delhi road, past the glitzy edifices of the IT and financial sector corporations—the largest sources of tax revenue for the state of Haryana—for which Gurgaon is famous, you will see an imaginary border. On one side, less than two kilometers away from these towers, is Udyog Vihar, site of numerous garment factories that sell to multinational brands, such as GAP and JCPenny. On the other is Kapashera, a slum settlement in the state of Delhi. Yet the ubiquitous six-seat auto rickshaws that do brisk business on this road are not permitted to go beyond the Gurgaon-Delhi border. If you want to visit Kapashera, you must leave the auto rickshaw and walk a half kilometer across the border. This seemingly innocuous fact symbolizes many of the jurisdiction conflicts that affect the lives of people in this slum, many of whom are garment workers with permanent jobs.

The slum is divided into several compounds with rows of tiny ten-by-ten-foot one-room units. Each compound contains thirty to one hundred rooms. Most of the workers who live there are married men who cannot afford to bring their families with them, unless their wives also find work. In these compounds, there is only a handful of shared toilets, which means that each toilet must be shared by approximately twenty people. Water is available through illegal connections that draw from an already parched earth. Polythene bags and other waste choke the canal that cuts across the area, so essentially water trickles into a filthy, stagnant garbage dump.

The Kapashera slum is divided into several compounds with rows of tiny ten-by-ten-foot one-room units. Each compound contains thirty to one hundred rooms. Photo: https://gurgaonworkersnews.files.wordpress.com/.

Sanjay is a garment worker who migrated 14 years ago from a village in Gorakhpur district in the state of Uttar Pradesh to work in Mumbai. Now in Gurgaon, he has lived in the Kapashera slum for the past three years. In Hindi, he tells me “If we had an identity proof, we could try to get a gas connection. But without one, we cannot do anything. Politicians come once or twice and make some noise but it doesn’t help.” Sanjay cannot get a proof of residence from the landowner because the colony is illegal.

Sanjay is barely able to survive here. Yet, like the other workers who come from the villages in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal, he stays here because the agriculture crisis makes village life untenable. The only way these workers can imagine any sort of future is by migrating to the boomtowns of India.

Driven to the margins

But why is the colony located in Delhi rather than in Gurgaon, where these workers are employed? The answer lies in the development trajectory that Gurgaon has followed.

In a recent report, The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, alleged that developers received inside information about land use regulation changes in Gurgaon’s Master Plan, which may have helped builders make purchases that led to massive profits. Gurgaon’s development plans created explosive growth in the IT industry and established incentives for builders to develop housing for the professional class. Together these policies put private housing out of reach for the garment factory workers. There is almost no vacant land available for migrant workers to build temporary settlements. A Haryana government scheme mandates that fifteen percent of each community’s housing stock must be turned over to the Haryana Housing Board, and these units are supposed to be developed and made available to “Economically Weaker Sections.” However, there are reports that such flats are rarely occupied by those for whom they are meant; even if they were, the units would be insufficient to meet the massive need for affordable housing for migrant workers. Such housing colonies are also some distance from the factories, adding transportation costs that workers cannot cover with their meager salaries. While towns like Rohtak, Faridabad, and Manesar have developed Industrial Model Townships, there is no such plan for Gurgaon. The lack of affordable housing in Gurgaon, coupled with the high cost of living, leaves these workers with no other option but to live in the Kapashera slum settlement. In a recent survey conducted by the Society for Labor and Development, migrant workers in Kapashera reported having an average monthly salary of Rs. 6720 per month. However, even for a tiny flat, the cheapest rental housing available in Gurgaon costs around Rs. 6000 for a month. The same survey reported that these workers spend, on average, Rs. 7350 per month. In other words, many migrants end up spending all they earn and have nothing left to send home to their families in the villages. Some even fall into debt.

Because the garment factories and the workers’ dwellings, where they are not legal residents, are located in separate jurisdictions, neither authorities in Gurgaon nor in Delhi will take responsibility for their predicament. The State ignores Sanjay’s basic needs even though he is a productive member of a working class and creates value for society.

Multiple agencies, no agent

Such a situation highlights the poor governance structures in India, especially those that govern urban hubs, such as the National Capital Region (NCR). The Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), responsible for planned urban development in Haryana, and the Town and Country Planning department of the Haryana state government are the two agencies with the greatest authority over land use and development in Gurgaon. There are numerous allegations that their decisions principally benefit politically connected builders rather than enable construction of affordable housing. Meanwhile, the local body that is theoretically most responsive to the needs of the local population has little say in this matter.

Urban slums like Kapashera are manifestations of many knotty issues, all so intertwined that it is difficult to make a single policy recommendation to ‘solve’ the problem. However, it is quite clear that in the case of Kapashera, and many other such slums in India, the agencies responsible for urban services do not have clearly defined responsibilities. The Seventy Fourth amendment to the Indian Constitution empowers the local urban government—the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG) in this case—to make most major decisions that affect local issues, such as land use changes. Yet, this policy has not been implemented in Gurgaon even though the charter of the MCG mentions land use changes as one of its functions. Currently, the State Chief Minister, through the Town and Country Planning Department, is making land use decisions. If the MCG had more authority, voters in the area would hold them accountable and perhaps the housing and public services would be better. The garment workers might have housing in Gurgaon rather than having to cross state boundaries into Delhi.

My recommendation is the same recommendation that could be made for many issues all over rural and urban India: provide more power to the local government. Yet this has not happened because devolving power to local bodies reduces the state and central governments’ power to dispense patronage. That is a much larger problem, the solution to which is not as easily found.

The plight of garment workers, such as Sanjay, highlights how anachronistic governance structures cannot handle issues that migration into urban centers brings into sharp relief. The case of Kapashera is particularly complex because it is situated in the second largest urban agglomeration in the world and spans four states. Fixing governance is perhaps the most important of the many solutions needed to ensure that economic growth in massive Indian megapolises is truly inclusive.

Anshuman Tiwari is a Master of Public Policy candidate at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy

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