The plumbers of Delhi: Migration, plebeian sociality and citizenship in an occupational community

Blog 25th October 2023

In this guest post, previous USF Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Sanjeev Routray discusses his 2022 research and organising work with plumbers in Delhi, which was supported with a USF Knowledge Mobilisation Awards grant.

Between 2016 and 2019, I received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Urban Studies Foundation to carry out research on a project entitled The Plumbers of Delhi: Transregional Migration, Plebeian Sociality, and Citizenship in an Occupational Community. The project examines the expectations, aspirations, and social mobility experiences of plumbers of Delhi who belong to two different castes, most of whom undertake transregional, circular, and/or seasonal migration from a particular district of the Indian state of Odisha. As part of my ethnographic research in different neighborhoods in Delhi, I realized that most of the plumbers did not obtain any state welfare entitlements in the city. The Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board was established in 2002 to regulate safety and health and to extend welfare rights to the construction workers in the city. However, none of the plumbers I worked with between 2016 and 2017 possessed a labor card—which should have made them eligible to receive a panoply of welfare rights from the Board in Delhi. Furthermore, the plumbers faced systemic structural disadvantages to navigate the labor board and court if they experienced work-related disputes in the city. The plumbers, who originate from Odisha and speak Odia, also face a huge language barrier because they most often cannot read and write Hindi or English—the official languages in Delhi. It is also an arduous task for them to establish residency in the city and produce a range of error-free documents that are required to be eligible for membership with the Board.

Colour photograph of four people sitting outside on the grass and making signs
The team (source: author’s own)

After I had realized these issues in 2017, I had initiated efforts to organize the plumbers during the last leg of my research. Despite a clear interest among them, I could not make much headway in this regard, as I had to travel back to Boston to complete the remaining part of my postdoctoral research and writing. However, the Urban Studies Foundation offered me a Knowledge Mobilization Award to carry out knowledge mobilization among the plumbers of Delhi in 2022.

As part of this research, I had two primary objectives:

1) Organize plumbers to claim workers’ and welfare benefits from the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board.
2) Organize community members to navigate mechanisms of redress, especially with respect to wage theft and other labor-related disputes in the labor courts of Delhi.

I started this project in July 2022 with Jai Prakash (a unionist). We were assisted by a group of local activists/community members (Rishikanta Malik, Kunti, Rinchu, and Pooja) to carry out this work. To begin with, Jai Prakash and I offered training to local activists and community members about the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Act and the Board. Then we held meetings in different neighborhoods, including Masoodpur, Katwaria Sarai, Hauz Khas, and Kotla Mubarakpur, to inform Odia plumbers about the Act, the Board, and the mandated welfare entitlements. Additionally, we translated important information and government circulars into Odia and disseminated these materials in the neighborhoods. Our local activists pasted notices about our work in different neighborhoods. We informed residents that we would assist them in applying and receiving labor cards from the Board. We also informed residents about the legal routes to resolve work-related disputes in the city. Many plumbers routinely visit their villages to engage in agricultural work, address domestic responsibilities, and carry out care work for ailing partners and family members. As such, I went to the villages and held meetings with the plumbers. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that the retired plumbers (above the age of 60) who returned to their villages permanently were ineligible to apply for a labor card and so ineligible to obtain monthly pensions from the Board. Nevertheless, I met many plumbers in these villages who in turn called their village and kin members and informed them about our work in Delhi.

Colour photograph of a group of people sat on colourful mats in a leafy, outdoor space
Workshop in Masoodpur, July 2022 (source: author’s own)

On July 26, 2022, we held a workshop in Masoodpur to discuss the Act, Board, eligibility, required documents, and mandated welfare entitlements for construction workers in the city. We also offered training on the option of legal recourse and labor courts if the plumbers encountered work-related disputes in the city. Between August and December, the local activists along with the unionist collected documents and registration and annual subscription fees (25 rupees per worker) from plumbers and other construction workers (mostly of Odisha origin). Jai Prakash registered each individual plumber/construction worker with the e-district portal and uploaded the required documents to the portal. Subsequently, the team also arranged to carry out verification by taking live pictures of the workers when the Board sent notices for uploading live photos on the portal. Jai Prakash mediated with the staff of the Board and attempted to speed up receiving labor cards from the Board. We held weekly WhatsApp meetings to discuss our challenges and everyday issues and to deliberate on the future course of action. I coordinated the weekly meetings remotely and our team members diligently shared updates about their work in our WhatsApp group on an everyday basis.

Colour photograph of a group of people sitting on chairs outside facing a panel of people sitting in front of a building wall, with one person standing and speaking to the group
Union discussions in December 2022 (source: author’s own)

The team held meetings in Masoodpur, Katwaria Sarai, Kishangarh, Kalkaji, Kotla Mubarakpur, and Sangam Vihar in the month of December. We offered dissemination materials, clarified the Act and laws concerning the building and other construction workers, and explained our main objectives, in part to build trust among workers in different neighborhoods. I also held meetings in two villages (Rishikanta Malik helped to arrange a meeting in one of them) and discussed our aim to start a union of plumbers in Delhi. We received phone calls from various neighborhoods in Delhi after I had made these trips to the villages. On December 26, 2022, we organized a meeting/workshop with the plumbers to discuss starting and running a union. Many plumbers (representatives) from different neighborhoods participated in the workshop despite the biting cold of the Delhi winter. We have so far registered workers from the following neighborhoods: Masoodpur, Katwaria Sarai, Kishangarh, Hauz Khas, Sarita Vihar, Sangam Vihar, Shahpur Jat, Kotla, Kalkaji, Tughlaqabad, Mehrauli, Govindpuri, and Shanti Camp. We have registered 143 workers (mostly plumbers from Odisha) so far, out of which 93 workers have received labor cards from the Board already.

Colour photograph of two groups of seated and standing people facing eachother alongside a gated path with trees and residential buildings
Kotla Mubarakpur meeting in December 2022 (source: author’s own)

We have encountered a few difficulties, too. Our work overlapped with the Delhi government’s (Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Branch) anti-corruption drives to weed out ineligible construction workers. This delayed our efforts to receive labor cards for the workers from the Board. While many of our applications were pending approval, the Board created a new portal to upload the required documents. As a result, we had to start the process from scratch by once again applying for labors cards and uploading documents to the new portal.

Meanwhile, we have built a roster of workers who have joined our union and we have applied for registration of our Union at the Southeast District Labor Office, Giri Nagar, Kalkaji, New Delhi, 110019. We have named our union ‘Delhi Odia Plumbers Union (DOPU)’. To this end, we have drafted a constitution, printed stationery, and formalized our union. The Constitution offers details about the composition, protocols, and objectives of the union. My primary role so far has been to bring all the stakeholders together by offering knowledge and contacts useful for the plumbers during my stay in Delhi. When not in Delhi, my role has been to facilitate and coordinate the project remotely.

Colour photograph of five people standing outside an urban building with signs and facing the camera
The team (source: author’s own)

Jai Prakash and I (as co-founders of Delhi Odia Plumbers Union) will serve as honorary members of the union. Jai Prakash will serve as the ex officio President of the Union. His primary objective will be to routinely update workers about government rules and policies and support workers to obtain cards, claim reimbursements, and address workplace grievances. Jai Prakash will also act as the ombudsperson, especially if there is a deadlock concerning any issue. Sanjeev Routray will work pro bono primarily as a facilitator and coordinator (mostly remotely) to organize workshops and meetings (chiefly when present in Delhi) for knowledge mobilization purposes. The honorary members will not have any power to decide on the everyday functioning of the union. Their work will primarily consist of translating materials into Odia, facilitating activities, and supporting events/workshops of the union.

We acknowledge advice and input from the following public intellectuals in our endeavors: Dr Shahana Bhattacharya, Rakesh Kalshian, Dr Pratik Mishra, Dr Mythri Prasad-Aleyamma, Dr Jayaseelan Raj, and Dr Himanshu Upadhyaya.