Saturday, 28 July 2012

A Building Site in Bangalore

Spending all day on a building site in Bangalore may not be most people's idea of a reason to feel grateful for life's opportunities. But that's what I did on Wednesday this week and that's how it made me feel.

I was down in Bangalore supervising the pilot stage of a research project we are doing at the moment. I won't bore you with the details, but it involves evaluating an initiative undertaken by a local NGO to assess the skills of labourers working in the informal construction sector. There are a lot of people doing this kind of work in India - putting in long, hard hours - and they live a fairly precarious existence, traveling wherever the work is and with no contractual protections. They've very rarely had any kind of formal education and the skills they have have been picked up on the job, with no formal recognition at all. So the idea of the project is to recognise and certify their skills, facilitating access to work and further training, as part of India's wider efforts to train its population. As a policy specialist, most of my work is done at a computer or in meetings; it's not all that often I get to see what's happening at the ground level. This was a rare exception.

Building sites in India are, by and large, hot, dusty, noisy and relentless. There's often very little shade. The workers slog under the sun before squatting in the unfinished buildings to eat their lunch. Underfoot is pretty much a mass of rubble; strange struts of metal stick at random angles out of bare concrete staircases. Mechanisation is usually minimal; bricks are either carried up flights of stairs on people's heads, or hauled up by pulleys. This is not an easy existence.

In Bangalore, there was a girl in a red outfit with a toddler hoisted on her hip. She looked about seven or eight at most. My colleague from the local NGO asked why she wasn't in school; she ducked her head and wouldn't say a word. Her father explained that he couldn't afford to send all of his children to school. Some would get an education, some wouldn't, he said. She was needed to take care of her little brother. Like her parents, she will probably remain illiterate.

We interviewed a number of workers for the pilot. Of course I couldn't understand what was being said, but a translator was to hand. At one point, one said that "the big people" had come and asked him to take the assessment. Big people, I asked? He means the NGO folk, I was told. But we are all big people to him. We have an education.

I didn't feel like a very big person at that point in time; I just felt like a very lucky person. I wanted to ask, does that mean he sees himself as a small person? Is that just accepted? But I felt foolish. There's no way I can understand the perspective of someone whose start in life has been so utterly different from my own. And no amount of liberal hand-wringing about inequality or caste can change the fact that, for him, that's just the reality of his world.

Our research partner commented that he thought it was impressive that I was willing to come to places like this; most people wouldn't bother, he said. I tried to explain that I see it as an extraordinary privilege. In my work I've had the opportunity to meet village women in Ghana, labourers in India, policy makers and researchers from countries across the world. Every one brought fresh perspective to me and enriched my world. I know that the villagers and labourers will never have the chance to broaden their horizons in the way I have, and that their lives will likely be hard until the day they die. Meeting them, even briefly, is humbling and something for which I'm incredibly grateful.

Back home, my friends are posting about their excitement at being part of the Olympics, and I have to admit to feeling a twinge of regret at not being there to participate in the spectacle. But on the whole, I'm glad I'm here instead.


Sally Roden said...

And your well-written blog helps us broaden our horizons too, Chris. Thanks!

Anj said...

Brilliant stuff, def do more of this

Chris said...

Thanks guys. I'd love to write more like this but my job is all too often based in the office. People better than I are the ones out there actually delivering training and education!