In a room that opens directly onto a narrow and crowded street in Kurla, a densely populated Mumbai suburb, 17 photographs are exhibited in colourful cardboard frames on a plain, whitewashed wall. One depicts a man, wearing no protective gear, cleaning out sewage, and another shows a man carrying a large load of wires on his head. The photographers who took these images are Altaf Khan and Waqab Khan and they, like the 15 others whose work is part of Bade Sheher ki Chhoti Khaaniyaan (Small Stories of Big Cities), are migrant workers.

Organised by Aajeevika Bureau, the week-long exhibition opened on December 18, which is recognised as International Migrants Day by the United Nations. The organisation invited photo entries from migrant workers on the theme, and received 36 submissions. The 17 images displayed revolve around the migrants’ workplaces, featuring them engaged in labour either on the street, or in small, ill-ventilated and sparsely lit rooms. Coupled with captions that quote the worker who took the image, each of these photographs narrates eloquent and layered stories of the lives of migrant workers who live and work in the area.

“We were trying to begin conversations about risk and safety at workplace, but we didn’t want to narrow their imaginations,” said Reetika Subramaniam, who works in the research wing of Aajeevika. ”That’s why we picked a broad theme. We wanted them to talk about their individual lives. But the photos we got revolved around work, because they spend at least 10-12 hours at factories.”

When someone comes to Mumbai for the first time, they first think about places like Gateway and Colaba. But for workers like me, who labour at the wire galli day and night, this is our Mumbai. Photo credit: Wahab Khan

This exhibition was a part of the organization’s attempt to enable migrant workers to ruminate on their own life through a research technique known as photovoice, a method in which people who have been discriminated against are encouraged to capture photographs of their lives to begin discussions on overlooked topics.

Difficult lives

The entries submitted by the migrant workers provide solemn portraits of their private and public lives. An image clicked by Mukesh Pawar features a man pushing a heavy handcart down a street. Pawar works across the road from where the images have been displayed. “There is a steep incline here, and the men pulling the hand-cart normally wait near my shop to rest before they proceed,” he said. “So I speak with them sometimes. Since these workers are allowed to stay in godowns, they are not paid regular wages. Whatever money they are paid, gets shared by a group of four or five people. Their conditions inspired me to take this picture, because they work so hard.”

Workers wait at the naka from 8 am to 10 pm. Demonetisation has caused a lot of problems. Whatever work is available, it has to be taken up. Photo credit: Mohammed Sheikh

On the hand, Omkar Gupta’s photograph, which captures a man handling a large machine without any protective gear, narrates the story of a personal tragedy. “I had an accident three years ago, so I clicked this picture to ensure that no one else suffers like this again,” said Gupta, pointing to a three-inch scar on his hand. “I complained after I hurt my hand, and now my employers have put sensors there so that the machine shuts when hands come close to it.”

The images have been clicked on smartphones that the workers either owned or borrowed. One of the ideas that triggered the exhibition was the knowledge that a lot of the factory workers owned smartphones. A cursory research conducted by the Aajeevika Bureau reportedly found that seven out of 10 factory workers in the area owned a smartphone.

Labourers have to work in the factory even in such sparse light. In such conditions, there is a greater possibility of accidents. Photo credit: Tushar Shetty

A safe space

All the entries at the exhibition this year have been submitted by men. Subramaniam said the organisation hopes to encourage women migrant workers next year. “The lack of female entries for this exhibition is reflective of the reality of the women migrants,” she said. “Access to a mobile phone with a camera is difficult for women, because of several factors, including the wage gap.”

Ajeevika was founded in Udaipur in 2005 with the aim of providing solutions to economic and socio-legal problems of migrant workers, but began operating in Mumbai two years ago. “When we came here, there was a realisation that if we wanted to improve the work and living conditions of this community, we need to understand their situation better,” said Aajeevika’s Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions director Amrita Sharma. “This exercise is geared towards helping the community reflect better on their problems. The issues and problems need to be flagged by them, so that we can then build on their own assessment of the situation.”

Labourers work on powder coating without wearing masks or glasses. Because of this, their lungs start aching and they get breathless. Photo credit: Shreyas Sawant

On the first day of the exhibition, Aajeevika organised an interactive discussion among the migrant workers in the area. “We encouraged them to look at the photographs, and we were able to generate a quality debate amongst them,” said Sharm. “The aim was to give a trigger to the agency that these workers have within them. Somehow that agency suppressed when they walk into an alien setting.”

The photographs have already prompted a discussion about safety at the workplace, and the need to wear protective gear. However, Subramaniam admits that they have not yet been able to impress upon the workers that their safety at the workplace is their employers’ responsibility. “Questioning the employer about safety would mean endangering their own jobs,” she said. “And that is something they simply cannot afford to do.”

With the exhibition, Aajeevika also aims to change the way that people in the city see migrant labourers, since the discourse around them can tend to be negatively-charged and insensitive. “They are looked at as a burden, and public policy acts in a brazen manner. We want to demystify the migrant population and highlight the amount of work that they do to build the city,” Sharma said.

Children are employed here, even though they should be studying and playing at this age. Photo credit: Mohammed Gulab
A worker enjoys music along with his work. Photo credit: Mohammed Firoz
Photo credit: Altaf Khan
We work 12-14 hours a day. Sometimes, we also have to work Sundays. Photo credit: Ramchandra Prajapati
Photo credit: Mukesh Pawar