How do Indian garment workers live? Visiting the Sanjay Colony slum

How do Indian garment workers live? Visiting the Sanjay Colony slum


On 20th October I visited Sanjay Colony in South Delhi, a small slum established in 1970s by the workers of garment factories located in the Okhla Industrial Area Phase II. Apparently, most of the ‘Made in India’ clothes are still produced in the area.

Ethical tourism

Although tourism always involves trespassing and invading personal space of local people, the moral doubts only surface when you make use of your financial privilege to… do what actually? Peep at the poverty of those who were not lucky enough to be born in a wealthier corner of the Earth? Get a kick out of trespassing a territory considered somewhat shady and dangerous? I had read all too much about ‘favela safaris’ in Brazil and elsewhere whose sole purpose was for the tourists to indulge in poverty porn and take photos documenting deprivation, criminality and danger. So why did I decide to participate in the slum tour after all? Perhaps because of my sociological curiosity that insisted on seeing with my own eyes what I had heard and read about many times before: that our irresponsible consumption contributes to the oppression of garment workers in the Global South. Talking to the tour operator, Reality Tours and Travels, also gave me an ease of mind: the guides come from and live in Sanjay Colony, small tour groups, ‘no photos’ policy (all the photos presented courtesy of Reality Gives), 80% of profit (about 30% of revenues) invested in the community projects aimed at empowering young people in the slum. And, maybe most of all, their goal to change preconceptions (prejudices?) about the ‘slum’. Preconceptions that apparently involve abject poverty, misery, apathy, laziness, and even crime. At the risk of sounding self-righteous and pretentious, we should already know that slum was not something that underprivileged communities created for themselves, but something that the structures of global trade, among other things, had built for them.

A rooftop view of the Sanjay Colony slum in Delhi. Photo by Dhruv Malik


Living conditions in the slum

Eetti always talks about how little garment factory workers earn for long days of hard work. On average, a worker in a garment factory located in the Okhla Industrial Area makes 7,000 to 9,000 rupees (95 – 120 euros) per month, working 12 hours per day, six days per week. They can earn more if they decide to also work on Sundays when the rate is double the daily wage. From the Western perspective, 100 euros per month is painfully little but what kind of living conditions does this sum actually afford? We know that it is below the living wage (estimated in India as 19,000 rupees) but what does it really mean?

A recycling worker surrounded by bagged up scrap clothing. Photo by Ravi Chandrashekar

Well, some things in the slum are exactly as expected.

First of all, the housing situation is haunted by uncertainty. Sanjay Colony, like other slums, is an informal settlement, illegally built on the government-owned land. Even those few who actually own a property in Sanjay Colony rather than rent at a price of approximately 2,000 rupees a month per room are living under a constant threat of suddenly having it demolished. Most of the residents of Sanjay Colony moved into Delhi from the countryside, many of them having sold their land and family homes. Thus, they no longer have a place to return to. This is what has happened to the dwellers of several slums in Delhi who faced forced evictions and saw their houses demolished as India was preparing to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Of course, no alternative housing was offered, forcing many residents to relocate to other slums. However, according to our guide, after winning the case in court, Sanjay Colony should be spared for the moment.

A typical narrow alley in Sanjay Colony. Photo by Dhruv Malik

Secondly, not only is housing uncertain, but also insufficient. Sanjay Colony occupies the area of 25 acres (approximately 100,000 m2, so about 10 largish football pitches), housing some 45,000 people. As one can imagine, the colony is crowded and people live in ‘layers’, on top of one another. Well, so do we in our blocks of flats, but the limited living space in Sanjay Colony makes it much more literal and tangible. Most of the buildings currently have three storeys, in line with the official regulations, but they are likely to be expanded in not too distant future.

Thirdly, the access to some vital amenities is limited. Only some 30% of houses have running water. Majority of the residents get their water supply from the government-operated water tankers which visit daily. Water, clean and perfectly drinkable as it leaves the tanker, often becomes contaminated as the residents transport it to their respective households. Due to the lack of infrastructure, the transportation involves rolling the unsealed containers on dirty, narrow and muddy alleys. As a result, many residents experience more or less serious stomach problems. The scarcity of water means that only about 10% of houses have private toilets. Recently, the government has built one public ‘washroom’ area to be used by the remainder of the population. However, the limited capacity of 300 persons at a time and a fee of 1 rupee per visit force some of the inhabitants to continue using the nearby forest. We are talking about 21st century here. Moreover, the single garbage bin in the colony is emptied weekly – it hardly keeps the area clean.

Residents filling their buckets and cans with water. Photo by Ravi Chandrashekar

The life in the slum

Some things in Sanjay Colony are slightly more unexpected; the things that make you realise that the ‘slum’ is just a circumstance, not some overdetermining misery. Undoubtedly, the slum shapes the living conditions of its residents. Yet, the life in a slum is not so radically different from ‘our’ lifestyle; it is not filled, as popular imagery would have it, with demoralisation and continuous despair. 

Sanjay Colony is actually very much like a crowded and tightly-built village with its own school, small doctor clinics, corner shops, a temple and a mosque, and even a wholesale garment market which is a popular shopping spot among retailers from outside Delhi. The houses – although cramped and crowded – are rather solid, made of bricks and concrete. The residents have access to electricity and mobile internet. The roofs are peppered by satellite dishes (the conspicuous luxury that those who do not ‘believe’ in the structural global injustices, only in individual laziness, so often frown upon). About 90% of children receive schooling (which means that some 10% are still shamefully and illegally employed at the nearby garment factories, producing clothes for brands they do not even know), and an increasing portion of youth continue their education all the way to the college or university. NGOs, such as Reality Gives, offer extracurricular courses in IT and English for young people to widen their future employment opportunities. And when in my ignorance I asked whether it was possible to ‘leave the slum’ (knowing that, for example, in Paris having certain address makes you virtually unemployable) I was told that of course, if one found a better job. (They did not say how likely it was to get a better job but my understanding was that the home address is not a factor in a recruitment process.) However, most do not want to leave in spite of the housing uncertainty and poor infrastructure because Okhla Industrial Area is where the jobs are. And the residents of Sanjay Colony want to work.

A local worker sorts scrap clothing to be recycled in Sanjay Colony. Photo by Ravi Chandrashekar


Written by Kinga Polynczuk-Alenius, PhD researcher, Eetti Helsinki

rooftop view of the Sanjay Colony slum in Delhi. Photo by Dhruv Malik