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The Real Chowkidars of India

Lives behind the Metaphor

Sarthak Gaurav (sgaurav@iitb.ac.in) and Rayees Ahmad Sheikh (rayees018@gmail.com) are with the Shailesh J Mehta School of Management, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

Looking at the profile of chowkidars (watchmen), using National Sample Survey Office unit-level data, it is evident that their work conditions are deplorable. A typical chowkidar is a middle-aged male with poor education and skills, working in urban areas on a low salary and without any written job contract or social security coverage. Instead of appropriating them as a metaphor for political gains, ensuring their job security should be a policy priority.

In the build-up to the 2019 general elections, Narendra Modi spearheaded the “Main bhi Chowkidar” campaign to counter the “Chowkidar Chor Hai” (the watchman is a thief) jibe of the opposition.1 This catchphrase that translates into “I, too, am a watchman” received large support on social media, particularly in the form of #Main­BhiChowkidar campaign on Twitter.2 It was undoubtedly an attempt by the ruling party to “regain the reins of the master narra­-tive in Indian politics” (Kawade 2019). “Chowkidar” as a metaphor acquired connotations going beyond that of a mere watchman or gatekeeper to that of the guardian of the nation, and one who guards against corruption.3 There was also a much-publicised address of Modi, contesting as the leader of National Democratic Alliance, to around 2.5 million security guards across the country in which their dedication and hard work was highlighted. In the light of such an appropriation of “chowkidar” and the semantics associated with it, it is worth examining who the real chowkidars of the country are; where they work, what are their earnings, and whether they have social security protection. This is much needed, as despite their ubiquity, not much is known about the labour market conditions that chowkidars face across the country.

Data and Methodology

In order to answer these questions, we have analysed unit-level data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) 68th round of employment and unemployment, 2011–12. The NSSO data captures almost all professions, but we have also used National Classification of Occupations-2004 (NCO) to identify chowkidars in the surveyed sample. We used a broader category of occupations under the gamut of “chowkidar” that comprises occupations such as doorkeepers, watchmen, security guards, messengers, and related workers, because the unit-level data provides only three-digit NCO classification that helps identify this broad occupational category.4 We identified workers as chowkidars on the basis of their usual principal activity status (UPAS).5

The UPAS is the status of activity on which a person has spent relatively longer time of the preceding 365 days prior to the date of the survey. Following this metho­dology, the total number of chowkidars in the sample comes out to be 1,104.6 However, the effective sample for analysis is 1,045, as these are the chowkidars who reported their weekly earnings.7 The data on chowkidars are tabulated along the various demographic factors (age, gender, place of residence, religion and social group), human capital factors (education and vocational training), enterprise factors (enterprise type and location of enterprise) and employment factors (contract of employment, and social security benefits) to shed light on demographic and labour market aspects of chowkidars.

Profile of a Chowkidar

Summary statistics of the sample of chowkidars has been presented in Table 1 (p 16). A typical chowkidar is a 42-year-old male and works in an urban area. This is indicative of the labour market reality that most among the chowkidar in urban areas are migrants from rural areas. Although there is demand for chowkidar jobs in rural areas, urbanisation is the prime driver of demand for chowkidars. It is likely that social networks, which are primarily caste-based, play an important role in the job search of chowkidars in the absence of formal certification and other screening mechanisms. There are migrants, predominantly from Nepal and hilly regions of India, who are employed as chowkidars in different parts of the country. The archetypical “bahadur,” a brave security guard who guards the property irrespective of conditions of work is also mostly a migrant worker.

On an average, a chowkidar has weekly earnings of ₹1,761 (around ₹7,000 a month, at 2011–12 prices). For a comparative perspective, the minimum wage under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme ranged from ₹125 per day (₹875 per week) in Odisha to ₹155 per day in Karnataka (₹1,085 per week) in 2012 for unskilled and semi-skilled labour. In the metropolitan areas in particular, chowkidars are expected to spend considerable amounts on rent and commuting; expenses that their rural counterparts spend much less upon. This raises concerns about the standard of living as well as saving potential of chowkidars. In order to supplement their low earnings, 10% of the chowkidars reported having subsidiary economic activities. It is not uncommon for chowkidars to have part-time jobs that they undertake after spending time on their principal activity. Furthermore, chowki­dars have to grapple with spells of unemployment: on an average, a chowkidar remained unemployed for two days in the reported seven days.

Table 2 presents the summary statistics of educational attainment of chowkidars. The average is low. In both the rural and urban samples, nearly half of the chowki­dars have completed middle and secondary school education. Interestingly, in rural areas, a higher percentage of chowkidars have completed higher secondary schooling than in urban areas. The extent of diploma and certification courses is considerably low. This is indicative of the barriers that prevent their entry into vocational and skilling initiatives, as suggested by the low formal vocational training incidence as well (Table 1). There is a considerable rural–urban divide, with a higher proportion of chowkidars in urban areas having completed graduation than those in rural areas. This suggests that a majority of those working as chowkidars in urban areas may have migrated due to lower educational attainment and lack of adequate employment opportunities in the rural areas commensurate with their relatively low educational attainment.

Table 3 presents the location of chowki­dars’ workplace. Nearly half of the chowkidars work at an urban location at the employer’s enterprise/unit/office/shop but outside the employer’s dwelling in an urban area. Around 30% work at the employer’s enterprise/unit/office/shop but outside the employer’s dwelling in a rural area. The third most preponderant location of workplace for chowkidars is the employer’s dwelling unit in an urban area. This distribution gives a fair idea of the actual conditions of work, and is representative of imaginations of the stereotypical chowkidar at his place of work. Further, considering the type of enterprise where a chowkidar is employed (Table 4), public/government sector enterprise emerges as the main employer, followed by male proprietor (self-employed worker), company (public/private limited), and the employer’s household. In cities, the private security guard is conspicuously visible at residential areas, private offices, and public spaces such as malls and automated teller machines. Interestingly, the public sector chowkidar may not appear as the preponderant subgroup among chowkidars whereas this sector is the second highest employer of chowkidars. However, they are widely visible in company premises. The rural chowkidars in government service are mostly those appointed at the patwari circle level of revenue administration, and their duty is mainly related to land administration and maintenance of law and order.8

In order to understand the nature of employment of chowkidars, we examined the nature of job contracts of chowkidars. As shown in Table 5, 60% do not have written job contracts. Thirty-one percent have written job contracts that extend beyond three years. Around 8% of chowkidars have written job contracts of duration of less than three years. More­over, examination of social security coverage (Table 6) reveals that despite the critical services offered by chowkidars in both urban and rural areas, the social security coverage is poor. Nearly 60% were not eligible for provident fund/pension, gratuity, healthcare, or maternity benefit. This suggests that despite a majority of the chowkidars being employed by the public sector, most are not covered under social security benefits. This is also likely due to the contractual nature of most of the jobs as discussed earlier, and despite the fact that around 92% get regular salaries for their work. The terms of employment of private security guards is also deplorable as most of the chowkidars who find employment in the private sector are employed by private security agencies that are known to keep a “cut” from the salaries before handing over the salaries to the security guards.

 

Concluding Remarks

Examining the unit-level data from the NSSO 68th round of employment and unemployment for the period 2011–12, it was found that most chowkidars are males working in urban areas, at an enterprise/unit/office/shop outside the employer’s dwelling. The public sector employs most chowkidars, followed by male proprietors and companies. The nature of employment suggests considerable informality. Around 60% do not have a written job contract while 31% have a job contract of over three years, and more than half are not eligible to paid leave. Educational qualifications of chowkidars are low and less than 2% have had any formal vocational training. In the light of the fact that the ratio of private security guards to police officers in India is the highest in the world in India, and the private security industry is fast growing (Provost 2017), questions of regulation and terms of employment should be given importance to safeguard the interests of the low-paid security guards.

It is an irony that despite appropriating the “chowkidar” to weave a narrative for political gains, these grave issues that the chowkidars face in their lives remain unaddressed. The real chowkidars have low earnings and poor work conditions. They have to grapple with episodes of unemployment, and are often excluded from social security coverage. These raise serious concerns about saving potential and retirement savings of chowkidars. The recent attempts of the government under pension schemes such as the Atal Pension Yojana for the unorganised sector workers, may improve social security coverage for them. However, poor educational and vocational training among the chowkidars pose considerable challenges for providing secure and decent work, irrespective of what political connotations are attri­buted to them. In the exuberance around chowkidars as a politically appropriated tool for election campaigning, metaphors lose their signi­ficance when the real chowkidars are stuck in informality and in such work conditions that unfortunately are representative of vast majority of the labour force.

Notes

1 Since 2018, the erstwhile President of Indian National Congress, Rahul Gandhi launched the “Chowkidar Chor Hai” slogan as an attack on Modi, alleging favouritism in the Rafale fighter jet deal. The genesis of the slogan, though attributable to Rahul Gandhi, is ambiguous. The slogan however, landed Gandhi at the centre of contempt proceedings and he had to apologise to the Supreme Court for wrongly attributing the slogan to it. The Supreme Court accepted the apology and closed the contempt proceedings.

2 Several supporters of Narendra Modi added a “chowkidar” prefix to their Twitter handle following the same action by the leader. The word “chowkidar” was the top trend in India on Twitter for a few days. Related hashtags such as #ChowkidarPhirSe (watchman, once again) was also popular (Rampal 2019).

3 The word “chowkidar” has its origins in Urdu and means keeper (dar) of outposts (chauk) of a village. It is also a remnant of the legacy of colonial administration, as the occupation associated with sitting on a chair as a guard or those on the watch became the eponymous occupations.

4 According to the NCO-2004 classification, the four-digit code 9152 consisting of occupations such as door keepers, watchpersons and related workers is the closest to that of “chowkidar.” However, NSSO data limits us to the three-digit code 915 pertaining to the occupational group comprising messengers, porters, door keepers, and related workers under the broader two-digit code 91 (sales and service elementary occupations). The relevant single-digit code 9 is the division of “elementary occupations.”

5 The survey has two other reference periods: current weekly status pertains to reference period of a week and current daily status refers to a day’s reference period.

6 This is around 0.7% of the total workforce.

7 We have dropped an outlier: an observation reporting a weekly earning of  ₹7,00,000.

8 In some parts of North India, such as Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, village watchmen are appointed in proportion of the households in a village. The head watchman is designated as “daffadar.”

References

Kawade, Ankit (2019): “#MainBhiChowkidar: What Are the Political Implications of Narendra Modi’s #MainBhiChowkidar Camapaign?,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 54, No 20.

Provost, Claire (2017): “The Industry of Inequality: Why the World Is Obsessed with Private Security,” Guardian, 12 May, https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/may/12/industry-of-inequalit....

Rampal, Nikhil (2019): “BJP Wins Chowkidar Game on Twitter with over 1.5 Million Tweets,” India Today, 18 March, https://www.indiatoday.in/elections/lok-sabha-2019/story/bjp-chowkidar-g....

Updated On : 29th Nov, 2019

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