Bilaspur, June 2002: Everyday amid the heat and dust of Bilaspur's wholesale vegetable market, the hamaals of Sanichari perform feats of endurance to rival Karnam Malleswari, India's Olympic star. Or in other words, feats to outdo pack mules.

In the murky underworld of the informal unskilled labour market that is the Sanichari, the difference does not matter. For unloading one vegetable sack equal to her own weight, a hamaal can earn up to Rs. 2. For carrying that sack a longer distance, a kindly retail trader may sometimes give her Rs. 5. At the end of a very good day of hard labour the hamaal may perhaps take home to her family Rs 100, or about $2, often used as the upper end to the World Bank mandated international poverty line.

Pic: Ashima Sood A Chingrajpara hamaal family, with a few neighborhood kids crowding in. Pic: Ashima Sood.

Slung across the river Arpa, on either side of the Rapta Bridge which connects the old city of Bilaspur to the newer parts of Chingrajpara and SECL (South Eastern Coal Limited), the Sanichari, or the Saturday market, is in many ways the nerve centre of the slum economy. Besides being Bilaspur's only wholesale vegetable market it is also the site of a labour market group, where both skilled and unskilled labourers gather at dawn to be hired by contractors for temporary jobs. It also supplies in addition the livelihood of countless vendors and hawkers from Chingrajpara and elsewhere.

If the Sanichari is the nerve centre of the slum economy, the vegetable market is surely its nucleus. For the hamaals it is the centre of their precarious livelihoods. They arrive early each morning waiting anxiously for the trucks to bring in the wares from around Bilaspur district and outside. On some days and in some seasons, earnings are fair, on others they are barely adequate.

Unorganised unskilled labour market arrangements of the kind that prevail in the Sanichari prove useful for employers in more ways than one. Not only do they allow employers to escape applicable labour regulations, they also help to pass on the risk of variation in business volumes to the party least equipped to bear it, viz. the workers. How a state of affairs so convenient to employers is achieved makes for a fascinating study. How it is maintained is another matter.

I. Women of Sanichari

One of the first things to strike the visitor to the Sanichari is the large number of women and teenagers at work, unloading and loading vegetable sacks. The same pattern appears in the few hamaal families I meet in Chingrajpara - in all of them, it is the woman who supplies the greater fraction of labour power.

Lalit Devangan and his wife Kalabai live with their family of five in a rough low-roofed two-room shack they constructed a year or two ago after moving to Rokando, Chingrajpara's illegitimate neighbour (Slum Diaries – III). When I arrive around ten o'clock one morning, Lalit who works as a kabadi is just returning on his bicycle from his early morning trash collection round. Kalabai is away at work in the Sanichari with their eldest son, fifteen year old Babu, will be back only in the afternoon.

Not only do the women work longer hours than their men in all of these families, their productivity is limited by cultural norms.
 •  Pulling the workhorses
 •  Working in the world, women
When I finally catch up with them, Kalabai turns out to be a wiry, matter of fact woman. Babu is the surprise – reed-thin to the point of emaciation, it appears incredible that he carries loads heavier than himself for a living. He is also painfully shy. Kalabai is the one who describes their day.

They reach the Sanichari, at walking distance of about a kilometre, around 7-8 am every morning just as the auction of the newly arrived vegetables is beginning. Since the family moved to Bilaspur only a little over two years from Bhatapara, Kalabai and Babu have not yet found any form of semi-regular employment with the wholesale traders. Instead they carry sacks of up to 50 kg to the Chateedee Mandi a few hundred meters away. Depending on the weight of the sack, the earnings per piece are between Re 1 and Rs. 2. By making 25-30 such trips and more in good seasons, mostly the Monsoon, Kalabai and her son bring Rs 40-80 home everyday. They finish work by 1 pm when the day is already well-advanced for the sale of perishable vegetables but the rounds of receiving payment do not finish till well afterwards, rarely in fact before 3 pm.

The profile of the Devangan family, despite ostensible differences, in other ways resembles closely the families of other hamaals I have met in Chingrajpara – the Lodhis (Slum Diaries – II) and the Sahus (Slum Diaries – I).

The differences first. Unlike the Devangans who have been itinerants now for many years (they were construction labourers in Delhi 3-4 years ago) the Lodhis and Sahus are both long-time hamaals – hamaali has been their family profession now for generations. Both husbands and wives in these families earn their living in the Sanichari though Bhagwan Lodhi has withdrawn due to illness and his eldest daughter Rohini has increasingly taken his place.

The most notable similarity is in size. And like the other families, none of the four Devangan children younger than Babu go to school though the youngest has started attending the anganwadi. (The illusory prosperity made possible by multiple breadwinners allows the Devangans however the luxury of a black-and-white television, a magnet for neighbourhood children). In the hamaal's occupation certainly, as in other occupations open to Chingrajpara's poor, more hands, or more backs, translate into higher earnings, often the difference between starvation or not. But the roots of these patterns, particularly the poor educational status of hamaals' children, lie as much in the disempowering work conditions for the hamaals. Working generation after generation as human mules, these families appear to have lost the ability to envision a better future.

Also significant is the distribution of power between men and women (Slum Diaries – II). Not only do the women work longer hours than their men in all of these families, their productivity is limited by cultural norms. Thus only Lalit Devangan is able to control the family's capital supply, i.e., the bicycle and finances he has invested in his kabadi business, and augment the returns to his labour. Though there is a possibility that being a boy Babu may yet be able to afford himself a bicycle cart in the future, the Lodhis' daughter Rohini is not permitted to use the family's newly acquired cart even as it lies unused after her father's temporary withdrawal from the labour market.

So the women go, whether pregnant like Kiran Sahu or nursing like Kamla Lodhi or simply old and tired like the anonymous woman who collapsed in the vegetable market one morning a few months ago, to carry the Sanichari's burden. It is not surprising that these power patterns are reproduced in the Sanichari.

II. Sanichari Wholesale Trader's Association

Reposing at the massive desk that dominates his shop overlooking the bustle of the vegetable market, Satish Kumar, the Secretary of the Wholesale Traders' Association, reels off a series of impressive numbers – daily aggregate sales Rs 15 lakh, number of hamaals who find work in the vegetable market 1000, daily average earnings for each hamaal Rs 100, earnings on good days up to Rs 200. He appears not to notice that as per his figures, the hamaals' earnings are an unrealistically high proportion of daily sales. Since the Sanichari was moved by the Municipal Corporation of Bilaspur from its location in the older part of the city across the Rapta Bridge three years ago, business has been better than ever, he says.

This business of the vegetable market is controlled by the Wholesale Traders' Association, a group of 30 commission agents. According to Satish Kumar, each commission agents employs roughly 5-6 hamaals on a regular basis. He himself has an understanding with about 10 hamaals. When I ask him about the records of employment, he claims that he does not keep such documentation - it is the hamaals who keep accounts.

Strikingly, the Ahmedabad-based SEWA research team found a similar lack of records among employers of home-based workers. Though nearly 85 per cent of workers in their sample had worked for the same employer for upwards of two years, the overwhelming majority of employers they interviewed did not even keep a register of their transactions, often to avoid demands for higher pay.

The hamaals of Sanichari share another feature of employment with home-based workers – payment by piece-rate. Satish Kumar of the Traders' Association quotes to me the following rate structure, arrived at he says through mutual consultation with hamaals:

Up to 20 kg: Re 0.75 per sack or box
20-30 kg: Re.1 per sack or box
30-60 kg: Re. 1.50 per sack or box
60 kg and up: Rs.2 per sack or box

These rates, he says, apply to unloading or carrying the sacks to the trader's stalls within the vegetable market. For longer distances or in dealings with outside vendors the hamaals negotiate their own rates. In response to my question about why the payment is not on a daily or monthly basis particularly for the hamaals he employs, Satish Kumar is dismissive. The present system allows the workers flexibility to work for other employers, he claims and augment their earnings.

This claim is hotly contested both by Kiran Sahu, who works for a Seth (or wholesale trader), and Kalabai Devangan, who works only for outsiders. They complain instead of interminable waits each day to receive payments as low as Rs 5 from numerous traders and vendors, often after tiresome haggling to establish the right amounts. They would prefer steady, reliable employment any day.

The piece-rate system for home-based work reflects well-recognized incentive issues. Without direct supervision, the employer can be sure neither of the quantity nor the quality of work. For the home-based workers that SEWA works with, bidi-rollers, garment-makers and others, substantial deductions are made by employers for quality shortfalls.. For the hamaals however quality issues are irrelevant and supervision is not impossible. The casualised piece rate system thus reflects the monopolistic bargaining power of the employers, particularly the small group of wholesale traders that set the tone for other retailers and vendors.

As SEWA's research suggests for home-based workers, the first step towards turning this market in favour of the hamaals is to mandate some degree of record-keeping by employers.
 •  Pulling the workhorses
 •  Working in the world, women
For illustrative purposes, consider the following list, adapted from a 1997 list compiled by J. John of the Labour File, of labour laws employers in the Sanichari are able to evade: Minimum Wages Act, 1948; Employer State Insurance Act, 1948; Employees Provident Fund Act, 1952; Industrial Disputes Act, 1947; Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923; Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1923; Inter State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979; Equal Remuneration Act, 1976; Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.

While there is no category for hamaals or loaders in the state's minimum wages schedule, for comparison purposes we may consider the Rs 72 daily for construction labourers. Even discounting for slightly shorter hours of work, there are many days in the off-season when the hamaal does not even earn this much after a full day of work. The bargaining power of women is particularly weak. Their earnings lowered partly by lower labour productivity. (It is also significant that the 10-12 bicycle carts in the market are all driven by men.) But there are hints also of discrimination in piece rates.

As SEWA's research suggests for home-based workers, the first step towards turning this market in favour of the hamaals is to mandate some degree of record-keeping by employers. The wholesaler's association serves as an excellent point of entry. Modifying contracts to daily/monthly basis calibrated to minimum wage levels may benefit workers who have undocumented but longstanding relationships with specific employers in this group.

In the final analysis however wider socio-economic improvements in primary education, health and food security cannot be separated from labour market interventions for hamaals - if the next generation at least, the Babus and Lacchmis and Rohinis, are to escape becoming beasts of burden.