Blood and Eyes: Organizing Small Retail Workers in Bengaluru

ACORN International Community Organizations International
some of the vendors with Suresh Kadashan

Bengaluru   In the process of visiting several of our organizing sites with Bengaluru organizer, Suresh Kadashan, we spent about two-thirds of the time on the buses of the city and one-third of our time actually meeting with the vendors in various locations where they worked in either a market or the street or as traders in stalls rented from the city.  We were all over the chaotic map of the sprawling city reaching to the misbegotten “ring road” being built on an unfortunate and ill advised Atlanta-model, where predictably even as the ring road is being built above, below, and at ground level, the sprawl of Bengaluru is already leading, Atlanta-like, to a cry for another ring road even farther out towards the airport.  As predictably, the old urban core is paying the price of new wealth and the Silicon Valley pretense with store closings all along Mahatma Gandhi (M.G. Road) in the shadow of the new Metro Station and the short 6 kilometer metro line, which dwarfs the street at perhaps double the height of even a express roadway.  The park that had sat across from M. G. Road is now somewhere between obliterated and the remnant of a construction site.

All of which makes ACORN and Suresh’s jobs that much harder.  There are 3000 registered slums in Bengaluru and more than 40% of the population lives in such housing and Suresh and others estimate that there are another 3000 that are unregistered in the patchwork pattern of pocket slums that dot the city.  One urban planner I know working for a group that contracts with the city told me that their instructions were to plan for the growing middle class and assume essentially that the poor will somehow make do with whatever.  The fight is clearly joined from the bottom up while ignored from the top down.

organizing on the bus

Our first stop was the almost 300 year old marketplace, K. R. Puram Santhe Maidane Market, where we work with the association and the over 1000 vendors there and the 800 farmers who bring goods there to market.  I was excited about meeting the leaders here again having seen the pictures of one of their recent actions where they rallied several thousand wearing gunny sacks (to claim the city had stripped them of their livelihood) and marched the 18 km to the statute of Gandhi in the center of town to give their demands to the chief minister of Karnataka.  Why?  In a bit of self-dealing, a previous minister was working with a developer to build a 16-story mall on the site of the market which would have evicted all vendors and farmers.  They won a halt to the construction from the government 3 days after the sackcloth protest march.  Now the new plans for improvement aren’t suiting them either because the combination 2-story bus turnabout and market place cuts down on the vendors’ spaces.   Talking to the third-generation president of the association working with ACORN, he told me the next action is slated to protest these moves is going to include a rally where at the end they give blood and donate their eyes to charity, since, yes, the city is taking their very lifeblood and future vision away.  They are on a winning streak!

The next stop was a visit to some of the members and leaders of the Hebbal Street Vendors who are working with ACORN to relocate from the street side where they work to under the flyover (overpass) in the highway.  The ACORN vendors have a tough dispute here partially because they are divided by a rail from another group of vendors which has agreed to pay daily bribes to the police, which our vendors are refusing.

The final stop was to a string of 107 stalls where we have organized the Sri Basaweshwar Traders Association with the Yeshlianthpur traders who rent from the city.  Once again there had been a plan to displace them, and they joined with ACORN to sue the city and to successfully fight against the displacement.  Now they are meeting today to discuss improvements.

After another bus trip back to the center of town where I’m staying, Suresh and his 750 rupees (c. $15.00) monthly bus pass (for non-air conditioned buses) ran for a bus back to the continue his meeting with the traders association.  There are many plans to be made in organizing these informal retail workers that are at the heart of the economy in India, but beleaguered at every turn.  Yesterday we discussed the difficulties and details in their winning union recognition from the state, but today it was clear that nothing is stopping them from winning some of these struggles.

the farmers' market