Inquilab Zindabad / Long Live the Revolution! Injustice and Exploitation in India’s Construction Industry
Right in the introduction to her book on the construction industry in an Indian city, the young architect Namita Vijay Dharia makes her points of departure clear. She challenges in a sturdy statement the usual assumption that construction deals with durability and even with permanence. To the contrary, she states – and she displays it prominently in the title – that construction is “characterized by the ephemeral, in many forms: movement of people, materials, and machines; material states; sounds; and emotions” (p. 4). The following paragraphs and chapters are subsequently saturated with the ephemeral. The ephemeral, argues Dharia, is subsequently a way to avoid looking at the results of architectural and other construction products in favor of the ways and means through which they are produced matter.
The ephemeral of construction
The book is structured in six chapters, each consisting of often passionate narratives, many supporting facts, and analyses of the stages of construction during a project.[i] These atmospheric changes pertain to those of land and infrastructure, and to those of the supporting roles of money and drawings (representing knowledge and practices of power); they pertain to changing sounds that display rationality, efficiency, and speed, and to those of the ephemeral organisation of labour; and they pertain to ephemeral emotions and affective relations. The changes are represented by many spokeswomen and spokesmen interviewed by Dharia formally or informally, from developers, architects, and foremen to skilled and unskilled workers. They become visible in offices and in the field. The changing human presence is, e.g., worded by one of her spokespersons thusly: “‘It is like this,’ he says. ‘You do the drawing, I will do the work or get the work done, someone else will come stay here,[ii] and someone else will break it.’” Dharia continues this narrative: “I nod in response: I have seen the previous building on this site shatter under the claw of the excavator” (p. 8).
Quite some discourses on change and the ephemeral are embedded in these chapters, followed by a conclusion. It matters in chronological terms to situate the fieldwork of her research in the neoliberal era of India’s economic growth, fed by foreign direct investment. Topographically, the discourses are formed by Gurgaon, the illustrious boom-town next to India’s capital city, Delhi.[iii] This city forms an extreme but not unique example of the potentialities of a market economy that dominates the real estate industry. Thus, the author adds: “... it is a fine time for architecture, and a fine time to be a new architect” (p. 14). Dharia chose in Gurgaon two construction sites for detailed fieldwork: a large-scale and well-organised project and a much smaller, more informally organised one.
Warp and woof: coloured ephemeral
Dharia has taken change, non-durability, and even the ephemeral, as the structuring fibres that shape architectural, infrastructural, and design work. Next to this warp – as I would call it –in her study, there is also a woof. The woof colours the warp. She sees the ephemeral in the construction industry not just as incidental, but as an outcome of the penetration of “whirlwind politics of speculative economies.” This penetration into urban India produces a house of cards of promised but often never delivered real estate. Hence, Dharia structures the warp in her composed fabric even more by stating that: “The financialization of land in India has led to its dematerialization: land has transformed into myriad states of capital and grown ephemeral” (p. 42). But there is also a woof: diminishing or disappeared agricultural landholdings and increased bodies of seasonal migrants whose lives are marked by transience. The temporary state of construction sites is also illustrated by the prevalence of migrant workers, living and working temporarily in an atmosphere that sooner or later dissolves into dust. This “highlights the fleetingness of workers displaced from the sites they build” (p. 10). But it creates also, as Dharia adds, “a system of economic and spatial precarity for migrant workers who must live in a state of continuous motion that denies them rights to the spaces they build” (p. 9).
She needs a woof to give a meaning to her warp. This comes clearly to the fore when Dharia refers to her background. Throughout her book, Dharia reflects explicitly on her training as an architect by stating that “[e]ach chapter is a story of the construction industry that students are never told.” Moreover, “[a]s an architecture student you are never taught to ask the people who belong to the communities you build in about what they want” (p. 15). She does ask, and she writes about the power and labour relations that shape architectural, engineering, and design work. She challenges architects (as well as anthropologists) to get involved in the politics of labor, unions, and industries, which they often leave to others. She announces self-consciously: “This is the book I wish I had read in order to situate the architecture I was to practice and in order to better conceptualize my place and relations within it” (p. 15). Indeed, the contents of her chapters on the stages of construction are not only displaying the temporality of the industry, but also the social and power relations of all its actors. The latter seem peripheral in the short run but prevail in the long run in terms of the durability of historic inequality.
Final: Inquilab Zindabad?
In another way, Dharia also makes a distinction in time perspectives. The essence of the woof seems less temporary and ephemeral than the warp in her analysis of the construction industry in Gurgaon. She explicitly makes this distinction by stating that on the one hand, workers are rendered ephemeral through their displacements from one site to the other. But on the other hand, this circulation gives rise to solidarity among different communities: “Languages of oppression and exploitation are learned and carried forward. The durability of historic inequality feeds the present” (p. 170). She hears already the calls of “Inquilab Zindabad,” “long live the revolution.”
She continues to draw conclusions in her closing chapter. In it she recalls the longstanding slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ a slogan that is heard during a range of protest movements in India, already formed by anti-colonial freedom fighters, and adopted by striking millworkers, protesting peasants, and many others. It captures the injustice of the perpetuation of the ephemeral (of labourers, construction sites, material transformations) as well as the possibilities for creating justice and solidarity. Dharia notes: “I have explored what it means to be disciplined, exploited, and controlled by an ephemeral atmosphere in construction” (p. 203). But she adds: “As I have argued throughout these chapters, the same atmospheres also contain the potential for protest and for political action” (p. 204). These concluding lines make the fascinating book of Dharia outstanding. In quite some Indian urban studies by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, social geographers, economists, and many others, there are extreme manifestations of injustice and exploitation mentioned and analysed. However, in this book, the created atmospheres for protest and political action form further steps towards protest against the exploitation generated by “class, and by extension caste, gender and religious relations” (p. 205).
One should wish that the study of Namita Vijay Dharia is indeed compulsory reading for coming architects. One should, however, wish even more that the workers read her book themselves on the construction sites in Gurgaon and wherever in India. Unfortunately, are most of these workers illiterate, at least in English? Perhaps a Hindi-language audiobook might be appropriate for this reason.
[i] Even more facts and theoretical analyses are given in not seldomly page-long endnotes. Her focus is on narratives and she adds light-heartedly: “For those who enjoy debates surrounding anthropological terms, the footnotes are for you” (p. 17).
[ii] Dharia does not hesitate to qualify this successive human presence. She records a conversation with Jai and MD, a supervisor and a sub-contractor respectively. “As buildings grow across the construction sites, material inequalities confront those who build them. Jai swears that he will spend time in the finished architecture before he leaves the site. He wants his moment of luxury in the building he helped build. ‘They are not going to even let us into this place once it is built’, sneers the ever pragmatic MD.” (p. 160).
[iii] Dharia uses the name Gurgaon, though it has now been changed in Gurugram. The boomtown has become famous as well as infamous by the way in which the private sector has been given ample leeway to construct a bit at random a large number of residential colonies (preferably gated), high-rise office and residential towers, shopping malls, etc. without much bothering about urban planning and even the rather useful infrastructure for the now over a million residents, such as water supply and sewerage.