Thematic Module 2:  Labour as a Political Category

Naveen Chander  (1.2. – 31.12.2016)

Displaced Destinies: Transformation of Working Class Lives in Contemporary Delhi

This research project seeks to understand the contemporary history of working class lives through mapping the transformations in the world of work and work relations in the city of Delhi. The project will attempt to map these transformations by focusing on the making and unmaking of the working class neighborhoods of Sabzi Mandi—Ghantaghar in North Delhi through an ethnographic and historical study of the locality and the experiences of its denizens.

These dialectical movements will be captured as shifts between a simultaneous ‘making’ and ‘unmaking’ of working lives and spaces. These result from an interaction between two critical interconnected historical processes that have shaped Delhi since the mid-1970s –  namely industrial restructuring and urban renewal. Since the late 1970s these tremendous transformations have contributed to making workers’ lives more precarious. These processes include high rates of population growth, increasing migration alongside periodic drives of slum clearances, large-scale displacements of working populations, factory closures, and growing informalisation.

These changes in the ecology of workers’ lives, and the spatial trans-formation of work in old industrial areas, raise a number of questions. These focus on how workers have experienced their transformed social positions, and collective social life, what forms of employment have replaced the old factory regimes, how their dispositions towards the authority of employers and contractors have changed, and how the politics of these neighborhoods have been transformed by the disappearance of organised labour movements? In addition, there is the question of how experiences of worklessness and casual labour reframe the memory and representation of factory work? Thus, by studying working lives primarily through the lens of these neighbourhoods, I will explore how the city’s vibrant working class activism was produced, challenged and fragmented during this period. In particular, I will conduct archival and ethnographic research around Ghanta ghar/Sabzi Mandi. Overall, this study aims at questioning the assumptions behind the standard narratives of post-industrial transformations of urban spaces.

Naveen Chander has completed his PhD in 2014 from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, based on a thesis on “The Language Politics in North India”. Over the past 15 years, his other core interests have included city and labour, both in the form of research and activism, focused largely around migrant construction workers in Delhi, on the displacement of workers and slum dwellers, and the condition and politics of contract labour. As a researcher, Naveen has been interested in looking at the history of working class in shaping the landscape of urban politics in Delhi, and the way informality is historically produced. During his ICAS fellowship, his research looks at the contemporary history of working class lives.

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