Sitting on a cement floor in a makeshift tin hut, lit by a single bulb, young men from the Northern States of India are cutting onions, chopping vegetables and rolling out dough for the flat breads, called Chapatti, which they will fry in a pan and offer together with Sabji, a delicious spicy vegetable mix, to their guests Juliane and Johny.
The guests are comfortably seated on upside down plastic paint buckets. Juliane holds a sound recorder in one hand, while fighting against the mosquitos swarming around her naked feet. Meanwhile Johny tries to moderate an interview with a Bihari construction worker.
After a while the two only metal plates they have, are filled with a delicious dinner, exclusively for the guests. As Juliane and Johny enjoy their meals, their hosts are watching and politely waiting for them to finish.
Design research and sharing food often go along in India, especially when the research is conducted in poor people’s huts. To be accepted as an equal by eating together is a way to build trust and show acceptance: a necessary measure if one wants to find out more about the culture of the user group.
The caste system is still strong in the countryside of Bihar, one of India’s Northern states where these migrants come from.(1) Each individual caste has its own laws which govern the food habits. Food can be accepted only from the members of one’s own or a higher caste. Caste and the related human rights violations still play a major role as a “push factor” in migration.(2)
Juliane conducts face to face interviews as part of her ethnographic research for her Master thesis and has come several times into the migrant labourer’s camp, prepared with a questionnaire, to find out more about their lives. Johny, a software engineer by profession and always helpful with student’s design projects, translates in four different languages and moderates the interviews.
In the meantime, Charlotte has disappeared into the darkness between the tin huts followed by a swarm of children and men. She is eager to find out more about migrant children and their life, with a focus on “education”. Face to face interviews with the children are not easy to conduct: they have never been to school, none of them speaks English and they are just not used to answering questions. The men, at least ten of them who are curiously following each move of the strangers, are eager to step forward with answers instead of the children.
The huts are crowded, most of them pitch dark, only lit by small cooking fires or the glow of a cell phone. Moving in between the makeshift homes on muddy pathways underneath low hanging electric wires and through corners covered with rubbish and rats is a challenge, not only for foreign visitors.
“The presence of the children at the construction site raises several questions on the grand promises made about bringing disadvantaged children into the mainstream, especially when the Right to Education (RTE) Act guarantees free and compulsory education till the age of 14,” writes THE HINDU, an English-language Indian daily newspaper.
At a recent press conference, Primary and Secondary Education Minister of Karnataka, Kageri, commented, that about 4,000 children, especially from migrant families, have never been enrolled in schools in Karnataka. (Bangalore is the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka.)(3)
The Dream of Writing
Before Juliane and Johny entered the makeshift men’s hut, they had sat in another much smaller hut: home of a beautiful young woman, Anjuma (20), mother of two (a four year old boy, and a five year old daughter). Since her husband is absent this evening, Anjuma is answering the questions and telling her story, while breastfeeding her son:
She has nine siblings and because of the large family, never had the chance to go to school. She was married to her husband so early, that she cannot remember any more when it was . She says her husband has a college degree.
Like everybody here, Anjuma works on the construction site, building the new luxury apartment complex behind the huts. She earns around $2.20 USD a day, while her husband, like all the other men, makes around $4.15 USD daily. She is able to visit her family in the village only once a year. Asked what she would like to achieve in the future, she simply says,” I would like to be able to write my own name.”
Anjuma’s family migrated from the drought-hit Yadgir district in north Karnataka, where the effects of global warming push villagers out of their homes. Every year farmers and farmworkers in the thousands leave the countryside to work on the construction sites of Bangalore, making it into the next “World City”.(4)
Though the migrant labourer is largely “invisible”, his and her work, however, is visible and spatially transforms the city,” says the film director Ekta, who is for many years working on a series of documentaries with and about migrant workers.(5)
Juliane and Charlotte are most of all fascinated by the welcoming warmth and friendliness of people who live and work under such inhuman conditions. Additionally they have begun to understand how talking face to face, observing and analysing the way that this community interacts and adapts to challenges in their everyday lives is vital for the success of a product or social design system. Coming into contact with people from another culture and another socio-economic class raises the awareness, that patterns of behaviour are not universal and that Internet research and interviews with Non Government Organisations (NGO) cannot substitute first hand experiences.
“A reporter will go to an NGO and say, “Tell me about the good work that you’re doing and introduce me to the poor people who represent the kind of help you give. It serves to streamline the storytelling, but it gives you a lopsided cosmos, ” says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Catherine Bo.(6)
Social Design and System D
Both of the students are dealing here with System D, a term related to the informal economy.
System D is a shorthand term which refers back to the French word “débrouillard”, one who is skilled or resourceful at handling any difficulty. System D refers to a manner of adapting to challenges that require to have the ability to think fast, to respond, and to improvise when getting the job done.(7)
The problem, says Robert Neuwirth, an American journalist and author, studying the informal economy worldwide, is that “we are looking at the economy like we look at dill pickles.” We are looking for perfect ones coming down the conveyor belt, and feel the need to take bad ones off the line. “We’re all focused on the economy of luxury.” That economy is large, but there is a giant footnote by that number – it excludes two-thirds of the workers in the world. Those are the part of System D, the informal economy, which employs 1.8 billion people and is worth $10 trillion/year. (8)
In generating economic activity and providing employment, India’s urban informal sector has played a major role since long. This workforce is swelling annually by about 8-9 million people. The construction Industry employs 31 million workers and is, in terms of employment generation, the second biggest employer, next to Agriculture – Agriculture being the largest employer in India.
The student’s design products are aiming at the majority of people, at System D. Migrant labourers are part of the large size informal economy in India. About 92% of the total work force is engaged in it, which includes small and micro enterprises, self-employed persons engaged in production/services activities, contractual labour etc.(9)
What a designer can do
For any designer interested in social design, product-, space and system design, here are some of the very obvious challenges (of course there are a lot more not so obvious ones):
Toilet’s and Bathrooms
Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh has started a campaign to promote toilets — toilet construction and toilet use.(10)
Care and Education for the children(Charlotte’s Dissertation)
Migrant labourers’ kids are left with no option but to stay with their parents on the building site, there is no crèche, there are no schools. There is not even a safe place to play.
How to create a system, which involves migrants and employers as responsible actors?
The water which occasionally comes out of the taps is not safe for use as potable water. Most of the time there is no water supply anyway.
How to create simple waterfilters?
Shelter, non-permanent housing
Millions of houses are missing. How to challenge urban planning, develop infrastructure…(11)
Tin sheet huts are boiling hot in summer and cold in winter. During monsoon and heavy rainfall water is easily sipping in. Rats have also access.
Women are cooking on open wood fires. Wood, collected from the building site, is often treated and emits poisonous gas when burnt. Chronicle lung diseases are widespread among India’s women.
There is no safe place to store eatables, vegetables or food. Milk, meat or fish gets easily spoiled in the heat and rats can get to it easily.
Access to Banking
Men/women don’t have access to a bank account or loan which relates directly to the next point
Health: A micro insurance system (risk factors)
Illness and accident are huge risk factors of poverty.
Men/women do not have access to health care and insurance. In case a family member falls seriously sick, money is borrowed from private sources.
Information and Communication (Juliane’s Dissertation)
How can migrants get help and information?
How could a communication system be designed to help with all kinds of issues: human rights, health, education, shopping, food supplies?
Which forms of organisations, unions could cater to the migrants.
How to work with NGO’s and government creating campaigns for better structures.
1 THE HINDU, June 5, 2012 Bihar’s caste curse http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/article3490670.ece
2 Push and Pull Factors of Inner Indian Migration:
Push Factors: natural disasters (cyclones, earthquakes, floods), exploitation of land and resources through multinational companies, mining, human rights violations.
Pull Factors: employment, safety, dreams and aspirations, lower risks
3 THE HINDU, July 7, 2012 Why were they at construction site and not in school? http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/article3612788.ece
4 Michael Goldman and Wesley Longhofer : Making World Cities
Most metropolitan growth is occurring in cities of the global south, where the populations are expected to double over the next three decades. It’s imagined that these “world cities” will be the sparkplug needed to kickstart national economies and catapult them into the global marketplace. Yet, in Bangalore, India, and many other world cities like it, these idealized conceptions can overshadow the challenges residents have, and the real place of these cities in the new global economy.
5 THE HINDU , July 4, 2012
Ektas second film on migrant workers “Presence” has been short-listed for International Short Documentary Competition at the 55th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film.
6 Emily Brennan interviews Katherine Boo, September 4, 2012, Reporting Poverty
Following three years of research in an Indian slum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discusses what language can’t express, her view that nobody is representative, and the ethical dilemmas of writing about the poor. http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/reporting-poverty/
* débrouillard (2009). Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Retrieved May 24th, 2009, from www.yourdictionary.com/d-ebrouillard
* Bourdain, Anthony (2006). The Nasty Bits. New York: Bloomsbury.
8 Robert Neuwirth is an American journalist and author. He wrote Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, a book describing his experiences living in squatter communities in Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, Constantinople and Mumbai. His blog http://squattercity.blogspot.in/
9 Construction Industry Development Council (http://www.cidc.in/new/press13.html)
10 THE HINDU, October 12, 2012
Farah Naqvi, A loo of one’s own
“Anyone who has spent time working with India’s have-nots (in this case — “those without toilets”) whether in rural or in urban areas, will know that “open defecation” is a bit of a euphemism. For women generally, there is nothing “open” about it, save for the sky above their heads.
In large parts of rural India, women wake up pre-dawn, and carry a vessel of water to a quiet spot, doing their business under the cover of darkness, managing to retain a bit of privacy and dignity. God forbid nature calls in the middle of the day, just hold it in. Never mind the cramps, chronic constipation, piles and poor digestion that will plague them for life.”
Interdisciplinary design practice Urban-Think Tank is dedicated to high-level research and design in contemporary architecture and urbanism. At Design Indaba Conference, founder Alfredo Brillembourg speaks about a curriculum for a new urban planet. He discusses his work in informal settlements from Caracas to São Paulo. He redirects the traditional thinking of architecture towards using skills to improve informal settlements for social benefit, rather than focussing on the affluent.
Socio-economic Class, SEC Classification (India)
Charlotte Secheresse and Juliane Denogent have completed the research for phase 1 of their Master thesis, but they are still going back to connect with their friendly hosts and master-chefs and they are planning a visit in their village in North-India.
Photos and Text: Sabina von Kessel