Mehnat Manzil-Museum of Work

Mehnat Manzil is an unique museum that celebrates the life of people who undertake informal work. They form nearly 80 percent of the work force in India and many South Asian countries. By a rough estimate they contribute more than half of the national income of these countries. Yet, they are the most ignored, unsung and nearly invisible segment of the population. In general Museums display objects of art, historical or scientific objects. In Manchester I did see a Museum devoted to labour and women workers in the period when it was known as the Textile Capital of the World.

Ahmedabad was known as the Manchester of India when the cotton textile mills flourished. In the early 1980s the decline of the textile mills began. The Mehnat Manzil museum records this as a period when a large number of workers exited the formal sector and entered the informal sector in search of a livelihood. The first set of photographs is of this period depicting life in the chawls (low income housing) owned by the textile mills. The workers in the textile mills came from many states of India, mainly the north Indian states of UP and Bihar, and the south India state of Andhra Pradesh, depicting a mini India. They also belonged to all religions and many castes.

Mill Worker colony before the textile mills closed down and workers turned to informal work, Mehnat Manzil

Street vending is one activity that the workers take up as they lose formal jobs. Street vending, at least in the early years, was seen as a trade with little entry and exit barriers. Both men and women engage in street vending.

Women Vegetable Vendors, Mehnat Manzil

Migration Entry into informal work also occurs when people migrate from rural to urban areas due to distress conditions in the agrarian economy. The Museum depicts migration through a ‘bioscope’ of the bygone era. These three boxes (in the picture below) have two eye holes through which one can see a three dimensional urban scene. As Avni, the curator, explained, if one closed the right eye and looked through the left eye alone one sees a rural scene, and with the right eye alone the scene transforms into an urban landscape. The Magic ‘bioscope’ depicts the transition of the workers from the tranquil rural life to the near chaotic urban one!

Network: The limited nature of the Networks of informal workers is depicted through a map. In the map displayed in the museum a Housemaid describes her network, mainly family on the father and mother’s side, and her husband and his family. As you can see most of the members in this family network work as informal workers. Male members in the second generation have graduated to being salesmen, delivery boys, bus drivers and so on. The Museum encourages visitors to create similar maps of their families. In all probability the visitors will note how different is their network in terms of social and economic class. The idea is fascinating as it was like a short class in the concept of social capital, network theory and much more.

Standard of Living The idea of a standard of living is explained through the eyes of an informal worker, a cook. The installation consists of two jars of dal (lentil) soaked prior to cooking. The one on the left is what the worker would do in her kitchen and the one on the right is what she does in the employer’s kitchen. A cryptic comparison of the nutritional status of the household of the employer and worker. This was a lesson in standard of living that I would never of thought of in class. All the same I must say we noticed this when we used to go to the inner city area, Teen Darwaza, to get our weekly supply of vegetables and meat. At the meat store we bought in kilos and some customers bought in grams. When we inquired with the shop keeper (obviously we were young and naive too) he told us that they make a broth of the meat (soup) and shared among the members of the family. A practical lesson in poverty and inequality.

Technology: Another installation that fascinated me was the headgear that headload workers make for themselves to be able to bear the burden and increase productivity. There were stacks of the headgear that is generally made out of used cement bags. I have seen many museums on science and technology. They generally depict the leaps in technological history such as the airplane, space technology or history of the textile industry through machines, the steam engine and so on. But is there a museum of technology to help the manual worker? Is there a museum of worker-designed technology to ease burden and increase productivity? A tribute to the ingenuity of the working class.

Installation of the ‘equipment’ of headgear made from cement bags to ease the burden and improve productivity

Reaction to Poverty: The middle classes have historically supported welfare policies and those that help alleviate poverty. At the same time there is a fear and shame associated with display of poverty. The museum has dedicated a wall to a picture frame of a green cloth that I first thought was some textile product created by the workers. The green cloth, a combination of cloth and plastic depicted the ‘purdah’ (screen in Hindi) that is often used to cover the areas where the poor live or work. Solace to the eyes of the rich.

The short story by this name ‘Purdah’ written by the famous writer Yashpal graphically depicted the nature of this screen of shame. It is the story of a Muslim clerk, whose family had seen good times, who kept the women in his home behind a purdah installed at the entrance to their home. Unable to re-pay the Pathan money-lender the family slowly sells everything and the women are dressed in tatters. The climax is when the Pathan in his anger pulls down the purdah at the door and is faced with the ‘shame’ of poverty!

Once I landed at the Lucknow airport and was picked up by the organizers of the event I was to attend. These were the days when Madam Mayawati was the Chief Minister of the state of UP. While travelling down the beautiful 4 lane road from the airport to the town I noticed that there was a wall on the right extending all along the road. I casually asked the driver whether there was a new infrastructure project being constructed behind the wall. He said No. “Well then why the wall?” I persisted. Prompt comes the response, ‘इसके पीछे कच्ची बस्ती है’ (‘Behind that is a slum). I was shocked, a wall to screen the delicate eyes of the rich from poverty? Yes and that is called ‘Purdah’ in this day and age!

Structural constraints of informal work: Most museums have working models to encourage visitors to experience the concept. This museum had a board game, a maze with one little silver ball in it. Visitors were encouraged to play the game and try to get the ball out of the maze. I tried, obviously one cannot win this game. The idea is used to explain the concept of the structural constraints of informal work and poverty. You may try as hard as you may, through your network, or technology, but poverty and informal work is a trap that is difficult to escape due to structural factors. Structure is the way the economy and society is designed, All the concepts of network, inequality and incremental self-designed technology described above do not add up to provide an impetus that can release you from these structural constraints! The idea was a little pessimistic I thought. Organisations of the informal workers, aligned with practitioners, academics, NGOs and association engaging with the government and international organisations could work towards helping ease some of these constraints.

Entry and Exit: Feel Burden of Informal Work

As you enter the Museum you are given a swipe card and a wrist band as is often done in international museums. The swipe card allows you to enter and you cannot exit the museum in less than 25 minutes! So please pay some attention to informal workers and their lives at least for this short span of time.

The wrist band is not an ordinary paper band. It weighs 2.5 kilograms! The visitor gets an idea of how it feels to carry around 2.5 kgs for 25 minutes! Not too happy with the idea? Well imagine the informal workers, they carry and experience much greater burden all their lives! A visit to the museum is clearly a lesson in ‘experiential learning’! The last exhibit consists of a set of pegs to finally unburden yourself of the wristband! It does not however unburden you of your experience in the museum! Thank you Saath and Conflictorium for this unusual museum as a tribute to the invisible workers who have made our lives so much easier!


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