The neoliberal transformation of Delhi is creating spaces of engagement between Northeasterners and the Indian mainstream. The desire for Northeast labour in the city’s global spaces is fuelling a rapid increase in migration from the Northeast frontier, the very limit of India’s geographic and territorial imaginary. It is precisely because these spaces are crafted as un-Indian that they are open to peoples outside the boundaries of the nation. Importantly, economic inclusion is not matched by social inclusion, and this will become clearer in later chapters. Here I focus on economic inclusion in two sectors: the rapid growth of new consumer spaces for the middle and upper classes, and the growth of the services sector serving global capital. I focus on these two because they were identified by respondents as the most common sectors for Northeast employment in Delhi. Both sectors are also popular in Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Mumbai. Two other sectors that draw Northeast labour are the airline industry and the hospitality industry, especially high-end hotels and resorts. These are not discussed here, as overall employment of Northeasterners is lower and they tend to be centred in other cities in India.
New consumer spaces
In Delhi, neoliberal transformation has produced consumer spaces that are physically within India but resemble other ubiquitous, though amorphous, global spaces. New consumer spaces are exemplified by the proliferation of upscale shopping malls. Unlike neighbourhood bazaars where shops are usually organised along adjoining lanes and may include ‘dry market’ goods like clothes and electronics alongside ‘wet market’ goods like fish and vegetables, shopping malls are contained spaces without ‘wet market’ goods, the climate is controlled, entry is restricted, customers are dropped at the door in vehicles – thereby minimising contact with the street – and restaurants and cinemas are included under one roof. As Christiane Brosius argues, the mall in India makes shopping an ‘experience’ (2010: 53), while Nita Mathur argues that the shopping mall in urban India helps to ‘reframe status distinctions’ (2010: 219). During fieldwork I concentrated on three interlinked malls in Vasant Kunj, a suburb in south Delhi: the Ambience Mall, the DLF Promenade, and the DLF Emporio, marketed as Delhi’s ‘most exclusive’ malls with almost 300 stores across the three malls. These malls are the outcome of the ‘planned’ and ‘world class’ development described above. The malls are owned and operated by the Indian firm DLF Ltd., a real estate firm described as using construction projects in Delhi ‘for expressions of numerous ideologies of modernity and community life’ (Srivastava 2009: 338).
The malls are by any reckoning exclusive spaces. Right of admission is reserved, airport style security is performed, access is difficult without motorised transport, and the scale of the space itself seems designed to intimidate. As Brosius’ study of consumerism in Delhi has shown, at the heart of consumer spaces like the DLF malls is the aim to satisfy the desire of the upper and aspiring middle classes to ‘live abroad in India’ (2010: 65). To truly experience this kind of statusdriven consumption, consumer spaces serving these classes have become de-Indianised. By this I mean that these spaces seek an aesthetic that transports consumers away from the city, and even the nation, outside and into the global world of fashion, food, and brand-name consumer goods. This has served the interests of Northeast migrants. Migrants from the Northeast have Tai, Tibeto-Burman or Mon-Khmer lineage, and thus their features are similar to those of East and Southeast Asian peoples. Their labour is in demand because they reproduce the de-Indianised aesthetic without the need to import foreign labour.
During fieldwork I visited these three malls over twenty times. I visited at different times of the day and on different days of the week to converse with Northeast migrants. I also met Northeasterners working in these malls at other sites including Northeast neighbourhoods and university campuses. Northeasterners are ubiquitous in clothing stores, sports stores, spas and beauty stores, restaurants and cafes (except Indian restaurants of which there are few), and home wares stores. They were especially well represented in stores that project a global brand image: Adidas, Benetton, Esprit, Levis, Nike, and Zara. There were very few Northeasterners working in ultra high-end retailers aimed at rich consumers making major purchases: jewellery, expensive watches, wedding dresses, and expensive suits. In restaurants, Northeast men and women worked as wait staff, maître d’s in more expensive restaurants, and in the kitchens of cheaper eating-places. They also work as concierges at the mall entrances.
This suggests very defined roles for Northeast migrants in the new consumer spaces of Delhi. Aside from those working in the kitchens, Northeasterners are all in very visible roles. They are rarely in managerial positions and in some stores they do not handle cash transactions. Women are cast in highly sexualised roles, particularly in fashion stores, restaurants, and spas. The body is emphasised in tight clothes, heavy eye make-up, and lipstick. In some restaurants and spas, women were dressed in cheongsams, the tight fitting Chinese evening dress. Given the historical and contemporary anxieties over China in Indian political and popular culture, the sheer number of Chinese restaurants in malls and upscale south Delhi neighbourhoods is astounding. Most are simply more expensive versions of Indian-Chinese restaurants found throughout the country. For the extra cost, the interiors are full of hanging red lanterns, dark wood tables, dragon motifs, and Chineselooking staff from the Northeast. In other cases, emphasising body shape is less important than portraying exotica. In more expensive Korean restaurants I have met Naga women wait staff wearing hanbok, a flowing traditional dress that hides body shape. In an upscale Himalayan restaurant in Hauz Khas, the female wait staff wear bakhu, a Bhutia/Tibetan tunic with a long dress and a silk honju (blouse) underneath. The irony is that many of these women are not from Sikkim or other parts of the Himalayas but are from Manipur and Nagaland. They look the part, but likely work for low wages and speak good English to better communicate with the clientele – a mix of trendy Delhi youth, artists, foreigners, and visitors to the city from across the Himalayas. The contrast to the clothes worn by women out on the streets of Delhi could not be greater. The masculinity of Northeast men is less clearly defined, though in places their bodies are emphasised through dress projecting athleticism and street fashion sense.
In these global spaces, Northeasterners perform these roles because they look, speak, and act ‘un-Indian’. They are not associated with a particular caste, religious or regional group within the boundaries of mainstream India. They are simultaneously neutral and exotic. Their high visibility in Delhi is recent, owing to the surge in migration, and thus they act as a new labour force to complement the new consumer spaces of the global city. The labour force crafted through orientalised exotica, mixed at times with a sense of East Asian cool, constructs a space that is in India but not of India; perfect for ‘world-class’ aspirants of the middle classes. As Zana, a 23-year-old male from Nagaland put it, ‘for Indians it is like going to Bangkok for shopping. We look the same but some of us can speak Hindi’. Many of the young people working in these jobs are very aware of the ways their race is desired and many are uncomfortable with this construction. Yet they also see it as a way they can take advantage in a highly competitive urban labour market. Thus tolerating and utilising this portrayal is an important part of staying afloat in Delhi.
Northeast migrants working in malls and restaurants expressed a number of reasons for pursuing this kind of employment. Some work in order to pay for their education, some for their siblings’ education in Delhi, some send their earnings back home, some are working to stay in Delhi and seek refuge from conflict, and others to set themselves up to travel abroad. For example, Ben, a 19-year-old male from Haflong, a town in the Cachar Hills district of Assam, worked as a concierge in one of the malls. He came to Delhi at age 17 to find work. After two years in Delhi he had recently got his job at the mall after working in a restaurant kitchen. His main duty was to give directions to consumers and to tell people not to take photographs in the mall. He found the job boring but liked working inside the enclosed space away from the dust, the cold winter, and the hot summer. He wants to go back home but he is not sure what he would do there, so for now he stays in Delhi though he doesn’t make enough money to send home. In a global chain restaurant in a new shopping mall I met Chon, a woman from the Naga areas of Manipur working as wait staff. She had come to Delhi at age 18 to work and send money back to her family. She had got the job through her flatmate, also from Manipur, and she had since secured jobs for other friends. She found the work good but as the restaurant closed after midnight she didn’t like leaving alone late at night. She misses Manipur but feels she is better off than she would be at home.
Many respondents had experience working in other locations before getting their job at the malls. For some of these respondents working in these malls was better than their previous jobs; they were paid more, it was clean and quiet, they were shielded from harassment and violence, and several respondents were proud to work in such a fancy place. A few respondents mentioned that the clientele in the malls was easier to deal with than in other shops and restaurants they had worked in previously. Others seemed conscious of their disproportionate representation in malls as opposed to any other area of life in Delhi. However, the most critical views of mall labour came from Northeast migrants who were not working in malls but who witnessed the phenomenon through friends, relatives, and neighbours. Achi, a Naga woman from Manipur resident in Delhi for over ten years, said that Northeasterners have come to be servants of the ‘wealthy and sophisticated’. She said this is creating aspirations among them that life back home can’t fulfil. Zana argued that Northeasterners work in these malls but can’t afford to shop there, so they are becoming viewed by the Indian mainstream as a race of shop assistants and waiters. This makes it easier for them to get work in these types of jobs but harder for them to be taken seriously in other professions or in their studies.
The Services Sector
A major part of Delhi’s transformation has been the shift from manufacturing and heavy industry to the services sector. In response to pressure to ‘clean up’ the city in the 1980s and 1990s, coming from what Baviskar (2003) refers to as the diffusion of ‘bourgeois environmentalism’ among the middle and upper classes, the Supreme Court pushed for the relocation of polluting industries outside residential areas (Rosencranz & Jackson 2003). This was followed by the pursuit of foreign investment in the services sector, and the powerful DDA has worked to appropriate land and make it available to developers courting foreign capital. As Dupont demonstrates, Delhi ranked first in cumulative foreign direct investment flows in India from 2000 to 2005 (2011: 540-1). Investment has benefitted the services sector, especially in the special economic zones. Delhi and the National Capital Territory area has had 72 such zones approved since 2005 and these are concentrated in Gurgaon and Noida, satellite cities that have stretched the reach of the Delhi government into neighbouring states (Dupont 2011: 541). Call centres have been set up in these zones and in other redeveloped parts of the city. Gurgaon and Noida are home to Delhi’s call centres mostly serving global corporations (Taylor & Bain 2005). Call centres depend upon access to a relatively low-cost labour force and one that is welleducated and fluent in English. This has served the interests of urban upper-caste workers, but as yet there has been no analysis of the explosion of Northeast labour in call centres, especially in Delhi (Upadaya 2011).
Northeast labour is in high demand in these call centres. Unlike shopping malls that desire a visual orientalism, call centre employers desire the non-Indian accented English spoken by most Northeasterners, especially those from the hill states. Literature on call centres in India has identified the various tactics adopted to hide the accents and personalities of the labour force (Taylor & Bain 2005: 278). Research in Delhi call centres serving North American voice-to-voice clients shows that workers in call centres are trained to ‘neutralise’ their accents (Mirchandani 2004). Additionally, call monitoring, scripting, and ‘locational masking’, as in hiding the fact that the call centre worker is located in India, are all crucial components of call centre work.
Most Northeasterners from the hill states and hill areas attend English medium schooling, and literacy rates in hill areas are very high (Government of India 2002). English is also the lingua franca spoken between different ethnic groups. Some may speak Hindi but usually after English, as they attend school in the English medium and consume English language films and television. (5) Hindi is banned in Manipur as a result of ethno-nationalist campaigns to restore the Meitei language and resist Indian domination. With limited engagement with the Indian mainstream, most Northeasterners do not have a typical Indian accent in English. In addition, most Northeast migrants in Delhi are unmarried and in their 20s. Most do not have children or have left their children with relatives back home. This makes them able to work shifts timed to serve Australian, European, and North American business hours. As such, Northeasterners have become desirable as a ‘flexible’ and well-qualified workforce for the burgeoning call centre industry.
As familiarity with the industry has grown, Northeasterners have begun migrating to Delhi solely to work in call centres. As mentioned in the previous chapter, call centre recruitment agencies travel to the Northeast recruiting high school and college graduates. Job advertisements are plastered all over Northeast neighbourhoods in Delhi. During conversations with Northeast call centre workers it became clear that migrants with experience of the industry act as conduits for new arrivals. There is no sense that there is any financial gain in this, rather this is a function of community support among migrants. Salaries in call centres are undisclosed, and if an employee discusses their salary with other employees they can be fired. Most salaries are determined at interviews with recruitment agencies in the Northeast and in Delhi. In a conversation with two respondents from Nagaland, Stephen and Zana, both of whom had worked for several years in call centres, discussed how they trained their friends for these interviews so they could have a larger starting salary. Call centres also try to poach workers from one call centre to another by offering higher salaries. Wary of this, experienced migrants encouraged friends to overstate their salary slightly and baulk at offers to move until those targeting them increased their offer. Sometimes they would mention this offer to their current employers and ask for a pay rise to stay put. As Zana noted, ‘it’s survival of the fittest in the call centre.’
For many Northeast migrants the call centre industry offers livelihood opportunities that can’t be found at home. Finding work is relatively easy, and migrants who come to Delhi for other reasons often find themselves working in call centres when their initial plans don’t work out. I met respondents who had taken full-time work in call centres after dropping out of university. Others were trying to get a job after university to tide them over until they could break into their preferred field. Others had gone back home and found it difficult to adjust and had come back to Delhi with no real plan and eventually took up work in the call centres. Others stayed working in call centres to avoid having to go home, especially to areas of conflict.
Call centres have been particularly resistant to unions (Norohna & D’Cruz 2006). Respondents rarely mentioned unions. Those that had problems in their workplace left and found work somewhere else or put up with the conditions. Most Northeasterners depend upon support networks with their own tribal and ethnic groups or the church, and labour organising means joining networks with Indians with whom there is limited trust. Similarly, workers’ unions back in the Northeast are far less powerful than ethno-nationalist organisations, student organisations, and insurgent groups. In the context of high unemployment and low wages back home, introspection on working conditions is less pertinent. This plays into the hands of employers who have a growing stream of well-qualified ‘flexible’ employees who are well qualified, unorganised, and far from home.
(5) The exceptions are Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, where Hindi proficiency is much higher than in the other hill states.
Excerpted from: McDuie-Ra, Duncan. Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012. (pp 71-77) Dr Duncan McDuie-Ra is a senior lecturer in development studies at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. His research focuses on development and change in Northeast India and other border areas of Asia and the Pacific. His most recent book is The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India: Tools and Traps (Kumarian, 2011), co-authored with Nandini Deo.