Behind the Kumbh mela exotica: the other side of the grand festival..

A very nice article by Sunandita Mehrotra. She is is an independent artist and writer focusing on public and community art.

So what you get is a reality check on the hype around Kumbh mela and Harvard case studies. She shows how the lives of people who make the mela work is plain miserable:

On 22 January 2013, 8,000 workers employed by the Kumbh Mela administration went on a day-long strike, taking over main mela grounds, roads and offices. For far too many days, the administration had ignored the growing unrest and the rising anger amongst the hundreds of workers employed at the mela, with the inhuman living conditions, work times and wage rates. Some civil rights activists of Allahabad formulated a list of demands such as an increase in wages, regulation of working hours, uniforms for workers, improvement in living conditions, etc, and put it across to the magistrate and consequently, the strike was called off with the promise that these will be met by the end of January.

There is a dominant image of the Maha Kumbh which consists of both the continuity of devotion and the exotic. Behind this, however, there are thousands of workers as well as those with small jobs at the mela. This side gets completely overshadowed by the glamour of the mela. It is worth understanding who these workers are and why there is a growing discontent on their part with the mela.

How are these workers organised?

There are about 10-15,000 workers who have been here from December onwards. They are from Uttar Pradesh (UP), Madhya Pradesh (MP), Rajasthan, and some from as far as Gujarat and Maha­rashtra. Most of them have been brought by jamadars or labour contractors, who are registered with the mela admini­stration. Some have come because they were here during the Ardh Kumbh in 2007, and a few came along with the people from around their homes as they have no other work in their villages. Usually, a jamadar goes down to the villages and recruits workers. He is responsible for 150 workers. Once they reach the mela grounds, teams of 12 would be formed, each of these headed by a “mate”; often of the same village. The jamadar, therefore, is responsible for 10 mates; more often than not these turn out to be the relatives of the jamadar.

Living conditions?

The workers’ camps are spread out wherever there is space enough for a group of workers’ tents to fit, even if it is at the road side or at a far-off river bank from where they must trudge two kms through the sand to reach their work sites. Some spaces at the main grounds have about a 100 tents. These tents, like the ones for the tourists and babas, are mainly provided by “Lalloo Ji and Sons”, who have a monopoly for providing tents for all Kumbh Melas.

There is, however, a shocking difference in the kind of tents and other facilities when we go into the workers’ camps. Each tent here looks fit for two members, but houses 5-10 members. It turns out that the worker has not come alone, his wife has come to keep house, without the two of them the young and old have no home, so they come along as well! The camp sites are filled with kids of all ages playing in the ditches and filth that surround their temporary homes. The number of women employed in karamchari jobs is very low and it is children who substitute for their father, if he is sick or unable to go for work.

The karamchari jobs are of sweeping roads, tents, cleaning public toilets and other public spaces within the grounds. The working hours extend through the day, sometimes into the night. The wage rate, until last year, was Rs 156 per day. With serious campaigning by the activist groups and workers it has been increased to Rs 198. The daily wage rate in the city is already Rs 250. There is no compensation for overtime work and basic amenities are rarely provided. Every camp (ranging from 100 to 1,000 each) has just one water point, and some camps had none when the workers arrived and only after demanding repeatedly was one put in place. Public toilets are there only around a few camps within the main grounds. There are no collective eating arrangements, nor is any firewood given. As a result, a large part of the daily earnings goes into survival costs. With the temperature dipping to below zero this year, necessities such as firewood to keep warm through the night are an added cost.


The Kumbh Mela is composed of and made by these diverse groups of people, coming from different states for over the period of three months. They, like the Kalpavasis, are the ones who actually stay through the entire period whereas tourists and other religious groups come and go. Beyond the exotica and the acclaimed efficiency of the mela administration are these thousands who get no recognition and suffer bitterly through the festivities. There is a need to address the gross inequality with which amenities are distributed, with tourists and big religious groups on one side, and the working poor on the other. It is essential to have a mela administration, a state body to regulate the organisation and procedure of such a massive event, yet it is a must that the regulation should cover workers’ basic demands which are being neglected at present.

This is true for most construction sites in India. People who are behind building cities/homes are usually the deprived lot..



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