Making a Living in Urban India: A Photo Essay

A photo essay on the struggles of Indians in cities and towns for existence and dignity as they negotiate their lives every day.
September 16, 2022

 “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.” Lewis Hine, American Photographer-Sociologist

The accelerated insertion of India into the structures of global neoliberal capitalism and the lack of a substantive redistribution of resources together fuel the increasing informalization and precarity of work and employment. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the slums and homelessness that were previously associated mainly with the large metropolitan centres of India are now a pervasive and permanent feature of the smaller cities and towns too. Uprooted from the rural areas, those who flock to the urban locales hope to eke out a living of sorts and survive against all odds in the precarious informal sectors.

Photo credit: Zaheer Baber
Photo credit: Zaheer Baber

The aftermath of the sudden announcement of the Covid lockdown in 2020 with its four-hour deadline to pack up and leave for where they came from, provided searing, horrific visual reminders of the millions who, who had somehow come to terms with precarity, suddenly and not for the first time, had their worlds turned upside down (Tarangini and Nitya, 2020; Patel, 2020; Baxi, 2020; Roy, Subramanian and Vandewalle, 2020; Kapoor, 2020).

Photo credit: Zaheer Baber
Photo credit: Zaheer Baber

Although the images here (shot during 2008-2016) are from the pre-Covid period, they represent attempts to document the ongoing struggles of Indians for existence and dignity as they, as active agents, negotiate their lives, and livelihoods within the very real constraints of the structures, ideologies and cultures of global and glocal neoliberal capitalism.

Photo credit: Zaheer Baber
Photo credit: Zaheer Baber

The woman who, with other family members, walks a few kilometres a day to buy dried fruits and nuts that she later sells on the pavement. The exhausted rickshaw puller who takes a break to catch up on sleep in the searing heat. The woman selling flowers, just outside her dwelling, for the local temple. The father and son selling meals to those eking out a living on the streets. The young girl who performs – as part of a troupe - acrobatic tricks in a park etc.

Photo credit: Zaheer Baber

More details could of course be provided to narrativize and contextualize each image. However, narratives – and indeed images too – even while illuminating the contexts, can also oversimplify the complexities of the multifaceted modes of existence and survival strategies of real human agents in an everchanging world. And as the great photographer/sociologist of labour Lewis Hine quipped, “if I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera”.

Photo credit: Zaheer Baber
Photo credit: Zaheer Baber

As Fanon (1963:98) put it, “The fundamental duel which seemed to be that between colonialism and anti-colonialism, and indeed between capitalism and socialism, is already losing some of its importance. What counts today, the question which is looming on the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question, or be shaken to pieces by it."

Zaheer Baber is Professor in the Department of Sociology at University of Toronto.

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This article was last updated on September 22, 2022
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Baxi, U. ‘Exodus Constitutionalism’ The India Forum 11 June 2020. https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/exodus-constitutionalism

Kapoor, R. ‘The Unequal Effects of the Covid-19 Crisis on the Labour Market’ The India Forum 27 July 2020. https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/unequal-effects-covid-19-crisis-labour-market

 Mendappa, K., Ray, R. and Hussain, M.S. ‘Confronting Precarious Work’ The India Forum 7 October, 2020. https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/confronting-precarious-work

 Nagaraj, R. and Kapoor, R. ‘What is “Formalization” of the Indian Economy?’ The India Forum 12 January, 2022. https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/what-formalisation-economy

 Patel, V. ‘India’s tryst with Covid-19’ The India Forum 17 April, 2020. https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/indi-s-tryst-covid-19

 Ray, D.R., Subramanian, S. and Vandewalle, L. ‘India’s Lockdown’ The India Forum 9 April 2020. https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/indias-lockdown

 Tarangini, S. and Nitya, S. ‘Bearing witness to the Covid-19 lockdown’ The India Forum 14 October, 2020. https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/bearing-witness-covid-19-lockdown

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