There is a consensus that Indian cities have become more hostile towards the urban poor over the last three decades—a phase overlapping with the neoliberal reforms in the Indian economy. During this phase, the neoliberal ethos has offered an alternative—more market-oriented and less centered around social justice or redistribution—of what cities can become. These neoliberal visions have erased the laboring poor from the imaginary of Indian cities, resulting in large-scale anti-poor state actions over these decades. These actions have often resulted in mass evictions of informal settlements, relocation of small industries, and the ban or relocation of informal livelihood options, such as street vending, in the city.

Interestingly, it is not corporations who made these anti-poor actions possible and so widespread. Instead, it was the urban ‘middle-classes’, i.e. the professional class and the owners of small businesses, who became the vehicle for the neoliberal transformation of urban space. The mushrooming of middle-class gated neighborhoods (GNs) and, more importantly, the rise of their representative organizations, Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWAs), have been critical markers of neoliberal urbanism in the Indian scenario. This was critical in two ways. First, the GNs and the RWAs privatized control over territories and regulated access to these spaces strictly based on ownership of property, by using technologies of surveillance and ‘security’. Second, even beyond the GNs, the RWAs played an active political role in urban civil society, using the rhetoric of (middle-class) ‘citizenship’ and ‘participation’ in democracy. As scholars have shown, the civic participation of RWAs was instrumental, for instance, in pushing for actions that further marginalized the urban poor.

However, there was a contradiction: while these intermediate classes have been so hostile towards the existence of the urban poor in cities, the latter (who work as cooks, gardeners, and security guards, etc.) have been instrumental to maintain the former’s privileged lifestyle. From the RWA’s side, they have devised ‘technical solutions’ for this contradiction, which are social in nature. Domestic workers working in the households in these GNs have to negotiate the fortified nature of these spaces by producing identity cards (which are issued by the RWAs), being subject to surveillance from the CCTV cameras and the security guards. However, as I explore in my recent article, something is changing about the urban poor’s relationship with these securitized spaces.

Using the case of domestic workers’ collective actions in Indian cities, I see a unique new trend that should make us revisit neoliberal urbanism and its possible limits in the Indian context. GNs and RWAs have been the quintessential markers of the urban affluent class’s ability to separate themselves from the poor and restructure the city in ways that have certainly had adverse consequences for the working poor. But, ironically, the domestic workers’ collective actions of resistance and building power as a group are using the exclusionary aspects of GNs and RWAs to their advantage. How are the affluent classes’ instruments of control and power becoming the means of resistance for the urban poor against those very affluent classes as their employers? Not only are domestic workers subverting their relationship with the GNs and RWAs in strategic ways, their acts of subversion are also solving a historical obstacle of collective action among workers whose workplaces are households that are scattered.

Through my research in New Delhi and Mumbai, I argue that the aforementioned subversion takes place in three ways, which I elaborate in the rest of this article.

The GNs are fairly enclosed spaces that can have common spaces (like a park or sitting hall), implicitly or explicitly, designated for the workers, like domestic workers, and the residents. The fact that the workers sit in these common spaces during their breaks and get to interact with each other and know about each other’s workplace, creates the basic condition in which workers can have a feeling of a shared workplace. The unions, which always struggled to organize domestic workers, because they could not enter the private homes where the workers worked, could now meet the workers in one place in these common spaces in the GNs. In the places where unions are strong (like in Mumbai) and/or have negotiated access to the GNs, the unions often hold their weekly/monthly meetings in these common spaces. As a result, the actions that the domestic workers’ organizations undertake are no more confined to an individual household or group of households. Instead, they increasingly plan actions that incorporate the unit of GN in their actions. One example: if a worker is having issues with a particular employer in a GN, the workers in that GN can decide to boycott that household. And to enforce their boycott, workers can ‘warn’ the security guard to make sure that no outside worker is allowed to enter (breaching their group solidarity) and sabotage their boycott. Historically, domestic workers have had little to no power to take actions like the one I just mentioned, because the workers always feared that the employers could easily replace them. But with GNs, with limited entrance gates, domestic workers’ organizations can now strategize to curb employers’ ability to employ anyone, while dismissing their former workers unfairly.

Similarly, domestic workers’ organizations are treating the RWAs as employers. It is very common for the RWAs in big Indian cities to try to ‘regulate’ domestic work by imposing wage-ceiling, a limit on holidays, and other disciplinary requirements on domestic workers. In addition, the residents’ representative bodies often issue domestic workers’ identity cards to regulate their access to the GNs. Of course, originally, these practices have their origin in the will to discipline domestic workers and enhance the employing class’s power over them. However, over the years, domestic workers’ organizations have turned these RWA interventions to their advantage and have redefined the meaning of ’employer’ for domestic workers. Given the multiplicity of employers, it is a huge challenge to negotiate minimum wages and other working conditions with each employer. But with the rise of the RWAs, domestic workers’ organizations are now negotiating with the RWAs for minimum wage and other working condition standards in a locality and trying to hold them accountable for implementing the same among their member households in the GN. Similarly, these RWAs often issue domestic workers ‘identity cards’, or ‘entry passes’, for regulating which workers can work in a locality. This has worked as a disciplinary instrument historically because if a worker gets into a dispute with the employer, the RWAs can take away their pass and deny entry to the worker into the locality. But over time, domestic workers’ organizations have found another use for these passes that serve domestic workers’ interests. Some of the domestic workers’ organizations, for instance, have used these entry passes as proof of employment of their members in registering their trade union with the labor department.

But the relationship between the domestic workers and the RWAs and GNs is not always peaceful. The RWAs are not always interested in engaging with domestic workers’ organizations, which often leads to workers’ (un-unionized) and workers’ organizations resorting to disruptive forms of action. Once again, the idea of disruptive actions at the workplace was never possible for domestic workers: what do you disrupt by stopping work in a single household? But with the mushrooming of the GNs, the households have arranged themselves in a larger unit, which can be disrupted. The architectural features of these GNs—the large gates, big boundary walls, and barbed wires—originally for fencing off the undesirable elements of the city, i.e. the urban poor, have aided the possibility of these disruptive actions by the workers. If domestic workers in GNs reach deadlock in their negotiations with the employers/RWAs, they can protest at the entrance of the locality and block it causing a stoppage of work in the individual households.

I see domestic workers’ actions in Indian cities as a curious case, which should make us think about the complex ways in which the power of workers can be contingent on processes that often do not even enter our analysis of working-class power. The actions of domestic workers in India are tied to the processes of how Indian cities have developed over the last three decades. Elaborating on these actions, I do not intend to say that domestic workers disrupting GNs is a widespread phenomenon across Indian cities. Instead, I use the workers’ experiences in these two Indian cities to hint at political futures which, if harnessed, can transform the social standing of some of the most marginalized workers in Indian society.

Sonal Sharma (he/him) is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA.

To read more, see Sonal Sharma. “Contradictions of Neoliberal Urbanism: The Case of Paid Domestic Workers in Indian Cities” in Critical Sociology 2022.

Image: Mumbai disparity of living via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)