What is the history of caste in a city? Indian modernizers assumed that the various processes of modernity, including industrial capitalism, would attenuate caste and create the possibility of new social relationships, including class solidarity. Instead, capitalism relied on caste to recruit and discipline labor, and the colonial and postcolonial governments deployed it for housing, city planning, and provisions for social welfare.
Juned Shaikh’s Outcaste Bombay: City Making and the Politics of the Poor examines the interplay of caste and class in twentieth-century Bombay focusing on urban outcastes—dalits primarily, and also the urban poor—to trace their interaction with city-making and urban politics, their sense of self and community, and the cultural life they fashioned in Bombay.
The following is an excerpt from the chapter, “Urban Planning and Cultural Politics, 1945–1971”.
Just as visions of urban planning were being laid out, the municipal workers, particularly city sweepers and scavengers, agitated for higher wages and better housing. Most of these workers belonged to various Dalit castes that had migrated to the city from the Gujarati- and Marathi- speaking areas of the Bombay state and also from regions beyond it. On July 1, 1948, nine thousand sweepers from Bombay and its suburbs went on strike, demanding increased wages and better housing.1 That strike was called off on the assurance of speedy settlement of the issue. But on May 13, 1949, fifteen thousand municipal workers, mostly from the Conservancy Department, again went on strike, demanding free housing (not just better housing), a higher minimum wage, and a six-hour workday. In 1948-49, only 4,898 of these workers were housed in single-room tenements provided by the Health Department of Bombay Municipal Corporation; others lived in rented rooms or unauthorized hutments constructed on municipal land. Tenants paid ground rent of one rupee for the use of this municipal land.2 The living conditions in municipal tenements in the Umarkhadi and Walpakhadi neighborhoods, with “privies full of night soil,” “flushes out of order,” bathrooms without water taps, and insufficient electric lights, were well documented.3 The striking workers in 1949 were led by the Bombay Municipal Kamgar Sangh (Bombay Municipal Employ ees’ Union), headed by B. R. Ambedkar, who was president of India’s Constituent Assembly at the time. The vice president and secretary of the union were leaders of the Dalit movement in the city, P. T. Borale and Madke Buva.
The strike was notable for many reasons. The municipal employees were making demands on a municipal corporation that was the first civic body in the country to be elected by universal adult suffrage. The striking municipal employees hoped that a democratically elected body would be more responsive to the demands of the people, including its own employees, but instead they encountered a reticent employer. The strike lasted 140 days, a long time for the mostly poor conservancy workers in the city. In the initial days of the strike, the police jailed one hundred workers, hoping to intimidate the rest into ending the strike. They also restricted the movements of the union leader, P. T. Borale.4 The workers responded by launching a sewage attack: they clogged sewage pipes near the residence of the chief minister and home minister of the Bombay state, thus encircling their official residences with overflowing human waste. Now the homes of the chief minister and home minister were surrounded with fecal matter, and not just the homes of Dalits described by sociologists and reformers. In this moment, then, the sanitation workers overturned the symbolic order of clean versus unclean, sanitary versus unsanitary. The strike was also significant because the demands of the sanitation workers included a minimum wage of forty-five to ninety-five rupees and a cost of living rate of fifty rupees per employee. In addition, the workers wanted a tenement with three rooms or an additional rent allowance of ten rupees if they were not allotted the desired tenement.5 Most of these demands went unrequited at the time, and the strike collapsed after one worker died of malnutrition and the state deployed police, home guards, and nonunionized workers to take their places. But the strike had some long-term consequences favorable to the workers. For instance, the political party that con trolled the municipal corporation, the Congress Party, lost the municipal elections in 1957, when it was defeated by an alliance of Communists, Socialists, and the Scheduled Caste Federation. P. T. Borale was elected mayor. The Municipal Corporation nominated a wage commission, and the Bombay state set up a committee to investigate the living conditions of sweepers and scavengers. The committee recommended a minimum housing accommodation of two rooms, including a living room and a kitchen, with the total floor area not less than two hundred square feet.6 It also recommended a housing allowance of ten rupees per month to the head of the family, one of the demands of the strikers in 1949, and an additional five rupees for each employee of the corporation living in the household. Moreover, the committee encouraged the corporation to help staff “own decent houses” and recommended they make use of the provisions under the Backward Class Co-operative Housing Scheme, also known as Post War Reconstruction Scheme (PWR) No. 219.7
Here the state was addressing the caste question, at least as it pertained to the housing of conservancy staff in Bombay city, through the logic of property. PWR 219, it must be noted, was “for the improvement of the housing conditions” of all backward classes or Dalits and not just scavengers and sweepers.8 Under this scheme, the government offered interest free loans of up to 75 percent, on an amount not exceeding two thousand rupees, for the construction of a dwelling. The loan was repayable over twenty years. More importantly, the government promised to give land, free of cost, to the housing society, and each member of the society could lease the land for ninety-nine years at a nominal rent of four annas per year.9 The government justified the acquisition of property in the name of social welfare and improvement of the living conditions of its conservancy workers. Workers could acquire property by approaching the state as a member of the backward classes or a group that labored in city sanitation, including handling and disposing of garbage and excrement. Their ability to own or rent a room in Bombay city was tied to their continued consent to handle waste.10 Social welfare was the ideology for this transaction and an important arena in which the postcolonial state sought legitimacy. PWR 219 made them owners of property, but in the bargain, the twenty year loan tied them to the property. And since property passed from father to son, the work of scavenging also passed from one generation to the next. Thus, apart from ensuring its own legitimacy by providing welfare for its backward subjects, the state also guaranteed the reproduction of labor in what it saw as an important service-scavenging. At the same time, the acquisition of property, because it was attained through identification with scavenging and untouchability, did not disturb the symbolic order of repugnance felt toward scavengers and Dalits.11
The author Daya Pawar’s autobiography, Village Servant (Baluta), sheds light on the everydayness of revulsion in the city at this time. Pawar remembers his childhood experiences of caste in Bombay during this period. Pawar was born to a family of Mahar Dalits. He once came to visit Bombay from his village along with older boys and men from the Maratha caste, Pawar wanted to visit his uncle in the Kawakhana neighborhood. Pawar accompanied his friend Vithoba, identified as a Warkari (a religious sect known for its deep devotion to the deity Vithoba) from the Maratha caste. Vithoba visited his family and friends in Sangappa Chawl in the mill district of Parel before accompanying Pawar to his destination, Kawakhana. Sangappa Chawl and its vicinity, where Vithoba’s relatives lived, was home to many Marathas from their village. When they reached the chawl, Pawar was asked to sit outside the building and brought a plate of food there.12 Pawar narrates his experience: “I ate with my eyes downcast… I was dying to get away to Kawakhana”13
There are two distinct but interconnected strands at work here that shed light on the everyday experience of caste. At one level, caste (and class) shaped the spatial arrangement of localities, chawls, slums, and schools. Sangappa Chawl had many Marathas who did not want Pawar to partake in libations in the tenement. Pawar experienced the visit with Vithoba’s family as humiliation; the practice was, after all, designed to exclude Pawar and put him in his place outside the building, reminding him that he was socially inferior to the Maratha caste. Caste (and class, because Pawar was not as well off) informed this humiliating experience. Caste and class also shaped the experience of schooling. The economist Naredra Jadhav described his schooling in the Bombay Port Trust School, where “most of our teachers were also Dalits; some of them had converted to Christianity.”14 Similarly, Pawar reminisced about Kawakhana, where children from the Mahar Dalit castes were sent to a school in the ironically named Sundar Gully (Beautiful Lane), a “filthy area… covered with piles of rubbish [and] puddles of dirty water.”15
PWR 219 enabled some Dalits to acquire a home, but the reproduction of the conservancy staff did not diminish the significance or experience of caste and class. The tenement and a sanitation job passed from father to son. To illustrate with an example from the 1970s, Ramesh Haralkar, who painted banners for the Dalit Panther movement after arriving in Bombay in 1971, was one such twin beneficiary of a job and a tenement. His father, Hari Vithu, was a sanitation worker in the city and lived in a tenement for conservancy workers in the suburb of Sion in Dharavi. That tenement had been allotted to him by the Bombay Municipal Corporation. Haralkar dreamed of being an artist and enrolling in the city’s famous J. J. School of Arts. In his rendition of the story, Haralkar discarded the paintbrush and picked up the broom in order to inherit the tenement.16 To retain the tenement, he embraced the symbolic order of repugnance associated with sanitation work. He felt revulsion for his work, and the everydayness of revulsion eventually deadened him to it. For instance, he describes in detail the routine of picking up “mountains” of dead rats with his bare hands from a research laboratory in the city, as well as the day he was covered with menstrual blood from used sanitary pads.17 It is important for Haralkar to communicate this revulsion to his audience as background for his work as political activist in the 1970s and 1980s. Haralkar inverts the order of repugnance and propagates a politics of self-respect (atma-samman). For him the politics of the Ambedkarite movement after the death of B. R. Ambedkar was preoccupied with the symbolic politics of erecting statues at the expense of substantive issues like self-respect, housing, and education. He credits his association with the Dalit Panther movement for his worldview. For Haralkar, the reproduction of labor and property created the conditions for experiencing more revulsion. He was attracted to the transformative politics of self-respect to escape the cycle of revulsion. But to cultivate self-respect and overcome the debilities of repugnance, one needed a worldview that foregrounded the symbolic and substantive demands of Dalits. In the 1970s, he was attracted to the Dalit Panther movement for this reason.
1. All India Trade Union Congress, All India Trade Union Congress Report, 130.
2. GOB, Report of the Scavengers’ Living Conditions Enquiry Committee, 39-40.
3. GOB, Report of the Scavengers’ Living Conditions Enquiry Committee, 40.
4. Ranadive, “Eka Aitihasika Sangharsha,” Loksatta, May 13, 2009.
5. Ranadive, “Eka Aitihasika Sangharsha,” Loksatta, May 13, 2009.
6. GOB. Report of the Scavengers Living Conditions Enquiry Committee, 96.
7. GOB, Report of the Scavengers’ Living Conditions Enquiry Committee, 96-97.
8. GOB, Report of the Scavengers Living Conditions Enquiry Committee, 138.
9. GOB, Report of the Scavengers Living Conditions Enquiry Committee, 138.
10. For a wonderful argument about waste as the other of value, see Gidwani and Reddy, “The Afterlives of Waste.” See also Gidwani, Capital, 22-27.
11. On the point of property and repugnance see Rao, The Caste Question, 87.
12. Pawar, Baluta, 139.
13. Pawar, Baluta, 139.
14. Jadhav, Untouchables, 246.
15. Pawar, Baluta, 145.
16. Personal interview with Ramesh Haralkar, April 1, 2009.
17. Kekodkar, “Life Gets a Move On from the Stinking Rot.”