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Mother courage and her children

February 10, 2004 10:13 IST

My organisation, the NCAER, has had a long-standing and productive relationship with the Self-Employed Women's Association, based in Ahmedabad.

SEWA in turn is an active member of a global alliance called WIEGO (Women In Employment, Globalising and Organising), headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. SEWA and WIEGO are advocacy organisations; SEWA is a registered trade union.

Despite this mission of advocacy, both organisations are unusual in their commitment to objective research, and to the importance of building bridges to the analytic community.

I was invited by SEWA and WIEGO to participate in what was called an 'Exposure and Dialogue Programme' in Ahmedabad in early January. An additional partner in this event was Cornell University, which has a distinguished faculty working on poverty and labour issues, several of whom (Ravi Kanbur, Kaushik Basu, Gary Fields and Nancy Chau) also participated.

The purpose of the event was to help build bridges and establish a common language between activists and mainstream economists on issues of globalisation, employment and labour market interventions. The heart of the event was a two-night stay in the home of a SEWA member/organiser.

A senior South African academic and I were assigned to the home of a vegetable vendor in the heart of Ahmedabad, in the company of two senior SEWA facilitators, who also acted as interpreters.

Our hosts lived in a two-room chawl (chali) in the heart of Ahmedabad. The chawl was on land that had once belonged to an adjoining mill. The mill had been acquired by the National Textile Corporation and had recently been closed.

The house had electricity, a black-and white television, and a municipal pipe that dispensed water for a couple of hours each morning. The family made use of a communal toilet a short distance from their house, although a neighbour graciously made their private bathroom available to us.

Our lady host (who I will not name for reasons of privacy) was in her thirties, and lived with her husband, two unmarried teen-age sons and an unmarried teen-age daughter.

The family was Hindu, and belonged to a traditional urban trader caste, the Patnis. Husband, wife and eldest son were engaged in the traditional activity of selling vegetables from a handcart (ladi) at a fixed location within the walled city. The younger son had opted out of the family trade, and had recently joined a printing press.

This was my first experience of an urban slum in India. Two things surprised me: the fact of an established urban 'working class' culture; and the apparent extent of social capital in that environment. While India is a country of ancient cities (and the largest urban population in the world), somehow it is rural tradition that gets the attention.

This is in sharp contrast, say, to England, which has long glorified its Cockneys and coal-miners, the US celebration of the Lower East Side immigrant culture in Manhattan, or the strong medieval traditions of cities like Florence and Siena in Italy.

Accordingly, I was surprised to see the city through the eyes of my hosts, and to learn of their urban traditions of courtship and marriage.

On social capital, my expectations were largely framed by my knowledge of the Americas, where life in the urban slum is nasty, brutish, violent, and often therefore short. I was quite amazed (as was my South African colleague) by the relative absence of a sense of physical insecurity in the slum, and the overall sense of gregariousness.

Our arrival in the neighbourhood was obviously a big event, and people dropped in all evening. There were the usual squabbles and quarrels, but nothing remotely resembling the armed violence of Rio de Janeiro or Johannesburg.

The chawl bordered on a Muslim area and was close to the scene of serious rioting last year, but our hosts dismissed this as politically motivated and not a source of serious long-term worry. I was also struck by the social confidence of our hosts in receiving and entertaining us.

I cannot say whether this is the dividend of democracy, a characteristic of Gujarat or attributable to SEWA, but there was an ease in the relationship which I would not have expected.

Against these positive surprises, it was difficult not to feel discouraged by the working existence of the family. The whole day built up to a relatively brief selling period in the afternoon, starting at five and more or less over by seven in the evening.

The three working members of the family stocked two push-carts with vegetables, one with higher-valued vegetables, such as carrots and brinjals, the other with cheaper leafy vegetables.

For this ninety minutes of trade they were active much of the day, going to the wholesale market at Jamalpur, transporting their wares to their sale site by auto-rickshaw, setting up their carts, and waiting.

According to SEWA research, an experienced vegetable vendor clears between Rs 60 and Rs 100 per working day, or Rs 3000 per month. It was our (somewhat hazy) impression that this was the amount that our host family earned from two carts, and that the family budget could only be met through resort to borrowing.

They observed that business had been declining. Economic activity in the old city had been affected by the earthquake and the rioting, so purchasing power was reduced. The affluent were moving to the modern suburbs, outside the walled city.

In due course supermarkets and organised retailing will take a larger share of the trade. Economic dislocation had added to the number of vendors who were sharing a fixed clientele.

To a development economist, it seemed obvious that the wise thing for the family to do was to invest in their children's education, both to diversify family income, and to provide an escape from a declining trade.

Yet, while literate (like their mother, who had studied till the fourth standard), neither boy, nor the girl, had finished secondary school, and the neighbourhood was overrun by school-going children who did not seem to be at school.

On questioning, the parents expressed great scepticism on the value of education. The quality of schooling was bad; there were few jobs to be had in the formal sector; all that would be achieved was for the boys to be disaffected and unemployed.

In contrast to the Panglossian view of most economists that education is the universal salve, at the micro level it did not seem to appear to be at all appealing either to the parents or to the children themselves.

I left with mixed emotions. I applaud the efforts of SEWA to establish the rights of vendors to ply their trade free from police harassment, and to elevate the dignity of women's work.

But I also left with a sense that the larger system was failing these poor people, despite their energy, civility, and enthusiasm. For the opportunity to put a face on urban poverty, and to see Indian cities in a truly different light, I will forever be in SEWA's debt-and that of my hosts.

The author is Director-General of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal

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