Passage to India

ACORN International Housing India Workers

Marble Falls After eight years, I have finally booked passage to India in a bit over three weeks, landing in Delhi and departing ten days later from Mumbai.  Working with the ACORN India organizers, we are already filling up the schedule with meetings, planning, and a strategy session for two days to map out the coming year. The trip is a costly one, and I’m asking for support to make it possible.  

My colleagues in India warn me that much is the same and much has changed.  Much of the subway construction in central Delhi has now been completed, including around many of the almost twenty migrant night shelters we run there.  Redevelopment plans by the controversial Adani Group in Mumbai’s Dharavi, where much of our work has been concentrated, are pending and unsettling the community and livelihoods.  Our program in Bengaluru toggles between pushing for housing and the other needs of our extensive membership among street sellers and hawkers in the marketplaces and along the footpaths.  

My last visit had been in 2015, mostly to Bengaluru.  Two very different documentaries on ACORN were taking footage for their films there and in Chennai.  We spent a lot of time meeting with our leaders and members in various areas in both cities.  We made great plans but over the last several years, many of our plans were upended by the need to respond to the pandemic crisis as it enflamed our communities and workplaces.  We were able to increase our organizing staff by ten during that period, and now are trying to stretch our resources to maintain the huge growth of that period and continue to move forward.

Past the ground-level of our work, largely with informal workers, the impending meetings of the G-20 in India represent both threats and opportunities.  We suspect the sudden approval of my visa after persistent denials over the last number of years may lie partially in the government’s attempt to reposition itself for the world stage in hosting those September meetings.  Perhaps it will give us the opportunity to show the “real” India away from the polished hotel floors and conference rooms.  On the other hand, the memory of forced relocations from homes and banned livelihoods in Delhi when India hosted the Commonwealth Games means that we need to prepare for the worst from the government’s commitment to reshape the country for the foreign inspection.

Dharavi is a good example of all of these issues coming to an inflection point.  It’s reputation as the so-called “largest slum in Asia” obscures its unique combination as home and workplace for hundreds of thousands while housing hundreds of textile dying, garment manufacturing, recycling, metalworking, and other operations, making it a prime global example of a sustainable, complex urban community.  At the same time, Dharavi is located near the center of Mumbai, and has been targeted by developers with one grand scheme after another for decades.  ACORN, along with other groups and small industries, has fought the various plans for years.  Where will people work and live?  Our recyclers have joined me on previous visits to see where city planners have forced larger operations to the outskirts of this giant city to warehouse and sorting districts almost unreachable by most transport and far distant from any place for workers to live affordably.  The current relocation proposal cuts off even meager assistance to any Dharavi resident who has moved there in the last twenty years.  The issues are endless and the threats are now immediate.  We are faced with a decision about whether to lead the coalition, whether any consensus is possible on common demands, and what strategy and tactics could win against one of the largest conglomerates in India that enjoys hand-in-glove support from the national government.

The issues confronting us in the other cities are no less intense, even if not as immediate.  As India becomes the most populated country in the world in the next few years, these problems of work, living wages, and habitable dwellings are critical everywhere.  Reports claim that informal work is decreasing based on registrations for social security, but they seem not to take into account the victories we have won making various informal workers, like our hawkers, eligible for enrollment in various social security schemes.  New programs, some of which were implemented before the pandemic and others during recent years, allow for registration, health cards, and identifications.  ACORN has signed up thousands, but enrollment doesn’t change the income or informality of the workers even though access is enabled.  For example, the pandemic program for hawkers was a loan of several thousand rupees to allow vendors to restock after having no work, but like all loans, repayment is required.  Building enough labor power to meet these challenges continues to be a priority facing many obstacles.

Finally, the current Indian national government makes the struggle existential in its continued campaign against independent organizations and nonprofits.  Funding has been weaponized in order to restrict any foreign support.  Many organizations have been forced to curtail their activities or leave the country entirely.  Organizers, activists, and others have been denied visas to leave or to visit.  Too often, our 50,000 members are fighting with their arms tied behind their backs and their feet hobbled.

India is a special place and culture at the crossroads of great change and global importance, but for lower income families, their communities, and workplaces all of daily life and the future remains precarious.  I relish the opportunity, once again, to stand with our members and organizers on their ground and in their shops or beside their stalls to fashion the collective responses needed to secure their place in this emerging world.  With everyone’s support, we do our part, but the paths forward are uncertain and perilous. Again, if you’re able to donate to support these efforts, please do.