Savitaben, her husband Sivabhai, and their seven children work, eat, bathe, and sleep right on the street. Their everyday lives are in full public view. Despite appearances, they are not homeless.
For thirty years, the street has been their home as well as their workplace. The family makes and sells traditional reed and bamboo stools, called mundas. Even their kids take part in the work—sorting and splitting reeds, and, when customers come, selling the stools with practiced skill.
“This was all open land before—no asphalt, no concrete,” Savitaben says. “There were big trees. It was lovely.” As urban sprawl surrounded them, the open dirt road became a paved beltway and the family found themselves living on the sidewalk.
I met Savitaben and her family about two years ago, when I was conducting ethnographic research on street-based work in Ahmedabad, an industrial city in western India. For a year, I shadowed and interviewed men and women from a diverse set of trades who depend on public space to earn their livelihood.
In India, millions of self-employed workers, like Savitaben, use the street to earn a living. Some sell goods, such as fruits or vegetables, tea or toys. Others sell services: barbers, sign painters, shoe shiners, or mechanics set up shop with a few tools and varying degrees of skill. In the months leading up to festivals, many make kites or sculpt votive images of gods and goddesses on the sidewalk.
Then there are the poorest of them all: the laborers. With neither capital nor skills, they sell the sweat of their brow. The head loaders ferry goods between businesses, and the waste pickers gather paper, metals, plastics, or wood scraps from the road and sell them to a recycler.
Although these workers are marginalized, they do not exist in the margins. They are the working poor—the body of the urban masses.
Municipal authorities see the street as a state-owned thoroughfare, a space for transit. They are not favorable toward those who use it in other ways.
“They say we are encroaching,” Savitaben laments. “But I think the street belongs to all of us because we all use it. Don’t people buy vegetables from outdoor markets? And people eat at roadside restaurants all over the city. All we are doing is living and working here.”
Looking though her eyes, it occurred to me that in India, as perhaps in other parts of the world, the city street can be considered an urban commons—a place where people buy, sell, socialize, congregate, celebrate, and rest. Here the boundaries between work and home, public and private, formal and informal are blurred.
My experience in India has led me to question many of my assumptions about city life, public space, and work. What is a street? What is its function in a given society? What is the role of public space? Who is it for?
While I do not have any answers yet, these questions helped me see that in addition to a thoroughfare, the street is a destination. Dynamic and multifunctional, the Indian street is a workplace, a social space, and a home.
Maya Potter works as a project assistant on the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s cultural sustainability initiatives in Asia.