The first thing that comes to mind when you I hear the word mafia is “The Godfather”. But if I ponder over it a bit longer, Dawood and Chota Rajan quickly make an appearance to mind too. However, this term has travelled and survived across so many states and social classes in India that the picture that it paints is vastly different from the heavy photographs of Dawood or Rajan. What if I told you that today, mafia is not just about power play but about commercialising vulnerability? What if I told you that today you don’t necessarily require to carry a gun to be a part of the mafia? Or that you don’t even have to go out of your way to install fear in people to gain their respect?
(Below, I will paint a picture of India’s own mafias in considerably broad brush strokes. So please, do bear with me.)
There may be several ‘mafias’ out there which fit this description, but let’s talk about the two that I am familiar with- the sleep mafia and the water mafia. If this has to be explained in simple economic terms, consider both access and availability of sleep and water to be scarce, keeping in mind the undying demand for these products, exploiting these markets may seem as the most logical thing to do. But it is impossible to quantify the value attributed to these products and one can unambiguously point out that particular socio-economic class which have been left vulnerable enough to have to seek a market for these products. What you have here, is a ready and seasonal market which is easy whose demand is easy to predict and where demand never dies, but the characteristic of the product is such that very few are willing to take the risk to invest in this market. An entrepreneur in this market depends on the vulnerability of the people which drives them to his market because he/she is the only one willing to sell them ‘water’ or ‘sleep’ (read: space, blanket and cot to sleep for an amount of time) at a rate which is affordable to this section of the people. Thus forms the mafia, where vulnerability of the people is the right hand man.
Several states in India has been suffering from droughts (during extended summers) for the past four years with the relief from rains reducing every consecutive year (either low rainfalls or flood like situations). The agricultural model followed here has led to a significant decrease in ground water levels, thus leaving them to depend on external aides to make water available to them by transporting it from nearby districts or states; this is the source they depend on for the simplest of household chores to water for drinking. As always, there is the government aide being formulated and agencies identified to ensure that water is provided to the people in these places at regular periods and at prices which are designed to accommodate the obviously vulnerable sections of the society. But who ensures that this process happens smoothly without any glitch? The answer is no one. Therefore, it becomes easy to integrate corruptive practices here, leading to delays in delivery and soon enough, private players come into play who willingly purchase said water and deliver them at exorbitant prices. Here you see the formation of the water mafia. You see the vulnerability of the people and their complete helplessness in the situation, therefore, it is an opening to directly exploit this as they definitely do not have an alternative source.
The sleep mafia will be explained using the information gathered from the director of the documentary film “Cities of Sleep”. The sleep mafia’s consumers largely belong to the migrant category who are dependent on odd jobs and earn just enough to survive but not enough to afford shelter. His research was based in Delhi, and therefore, he explains that in the case of Delhi where the winters are absolutely brutal, especially to the homeless, sleep mafias are the only respite available to these so called consumers. They are given space, cot and blanket, each of which are chargeable therefore, the comfort of one’s sleep depends on the amount he has to spare for the night. Spaces around the city ranging from a busy bazaar to an ostracised area under the bridge are transformed into sleep enabling spaces to these groups, who are required to arrive early at the venue, lest they miss out on a chance to sleep in a relatively safe and sheltered environment.