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2/2/11: Faces of Invisible Labor; Jawaharlal Nehru University: Delhi, India

posted Feb 3, 2011, 11:22 AM by Brett Ramey   [ updated Sep 5, 2011, 7:34 AM by Horagewi .com ]
I wasn't in the US for the 2008 presidential election.  Instead, for the week prior I was in Italy as part of the North American Indigenous Delegation to Terra Madre, an international gathering of farmers, seed savers, food policy shifters, artisans, chefs, and others interested in working for the health of their local food systems.  The day of the election itself I was on a flight from Rome to Delhi- leaving the fallen empire of Rome for an aspiring empire of India to hear election results of the current empire of the United States.

I arrived in Delhi at sunrise then immediately took an auto to Jawarhalal Nehru University (JNU) in South West Delhi where some friends live, study, and work tirelessly for the rights of workers on their campus.  While I was (obviously) anticipating the results of the election back home, I was equally excited to spend some weeks with friends walking around the cavernous streets of Munirka, hitting up pani puri and paan wallahs, and hearing updates on the numerous social movements they are connected to in India.  It was fascinating to watch the response of "our" election from so far away.  If for no other reason than because it reiterated that what happens in the US, or anywhere for that matter, reverberates over mountains, across oceans, and beyond political boundaries.  It's all part of the same web.

Like many nations (and unlike a web) a highly stratified class system is alive and well in India.  The primary difference, from what I could observe with my limited understanding,  is that it does not attempt to appear otherwise.  I didn't see any carrots dangling from strings at the top of every hill and around every corner.  People knew exactly where they stood today and where they would stand tomorrow, because their families had been standing there for countless generations.  Despite standing in the same spot for centuries, many of the workers at JNU remained invisible to the students they held on their shoulders on a daily basis.

My friends had been organizing with workers on their campus to help secure wages, gloves for the sanitation workers, and other basic necessities that they had not already been granted due in part to their position in the class (caste) system.  Their relative privilege and student status gave them access to policy makers within the JNU administration who the workers could not reach on their own.  Although they were having some success with the administration they recognized a need to get more popular support from students, many of which had not been reached by the previous tactics of marches and sit-ins at University offices.  They wanted to do some creative actions that would not only get the attention of the other students, but also begin the process of regaining respect and dignity for the worker's trades.

Within a few days of my arrival my friends, the workers union they support, and I decided to do an installation on a dhaba (cafe) in a highly visible spot on campus.  The installation would address the ongoing invisibility of the skilled workers that keep the university functioning and would be conceptualized and installed by the workers themselves- with the support of a few additional artists and facilitators.  We knew that the images should be easily replicated across campus through stencils, literature, or future installations.  Most importantly, we wanted to help create a platform for the workers themselves to share their stories and skills with young people who, like in many places, are rapidly trading in their local land-based knowledge for promises of prosperity in the global economy.

We decided to do the project the same day as a weekly cricket match organized by some of the workers.  While some played cricket, others began conceptualizing the specific themes and design for the installation on three walls of the dhaba.  Within a couple hours the first wall was ready for th
e first round of the installation.  It depicted workers squatting below the main counter of the dhaba, bearing the full weight of the exchanges of food and money that takes place across the counter with their backs and hands.  Around the corner the second wall had over 100 photocopied images of the workers themselves with faces painted black, revealing only their eyes.  The phrase "The Many Faces of Invisible Labour" was scrawled over the top to further illustrate the point.  Another section of that wall had the phrase "Do not remove until worker's rights are enforced on campus".  The third wall (pictured right) had outlines of workers holding yellow stencils of the tools of their various trades.  These tools would become symbols that could be replicated around campus to keep visibility of the worker's contributions strong.  The words above the outlines said "Life", "Work", "Knowledge", in Devanagari (Hindi) script.  (see photo essay of the installation here)

Many of the campus workers are Adivasi (Indigenous) from rural villages and bring vast amounts of land-based knowledge related to farming
, building construction, traditional food and medicine preparation, textile production, etc. (ie; all of the things we need to survive, but that few of us know how to do).  Many of them tend the gardens on campus, often in the shadows of the buildings containing classrooms their caste will never permit them to enter as students, much less teachers.  Similarly, many of the students and teachers inside the classrooms will never, within the current system, develop the knowledge or skill base that comes from tending to the land. 

As a way to begin blurring the line between teacher, student, and laborer, we set up a short tour of the campus with some of the gardeners.  The hope was that they could eventually lead larger groups of students and share their knowledge in an informal, outdoor, credit-free setting.  We spent a couple of hours walking around learning countless uses for what seemed like every plant we saw.  Did you know that aloe vera can not only help heal burns, but can prevent them from happening in the first place?  I had read that somewhere before, but only truly learned it after the gardeners showed me how to do it for real.

The ongoing struggle for respect and dignity that "unskilled" workers face in India is similar throughout the world.  In the US, there is an increasing abundance of highly skilled farmers, artists, computer programmers, doctors, writers, healers, mothers, grandmothers, fathers, etc. whose knowledge is not widely shared either because of their immigration status or because they are not immigrants at all, but are the Native people of this land.  Their trades and experience, developed over many generations in diverse geographic and social contexts, would add a much needed boost to the resiliency and skill-base of the National and global society as a whole.  But instead, legalized discrimination and assimilation often pushes this knowledge underground, sometimes even placing it out of reach of the families and communities where it originated in the first place.

The loss of land-based knowledge is a global epidemic.  As many of our Native communities in the US know, it takes only a couple generations of assimilation policies, formal or informal, to disconnect from land-based knowledge that took centuries to develop.  Fortunately many of the skills related to working with the land and each other that went underground over the past couple of generations are reemerging.  Through collaborative efforts between grassroots organizations, Tribal governments, families, and even academic institutions land-based knowledge is reclaiming a voice in circles previously dominated by western education systems and institutions alone.  One reason for this is that traditional knowledge systems are resilient, observant, and do not inherently reject "new" innovations, partnerships, or current social realities.  They acknowledge the wisdom in adapting to current realities, without completely abandoning their own foundation.

Finding the intersections between these "different" types of knowledge systems, elevating the positive elements of each, and above all honoring the people who posses that knowledge can begin reweaving the web between the numerous and equally important ways of knowing that exist in the world, regardless of what stage of urbanization, assimilation, or empire a community is at.