Friday, April 11, 2008

Fancy a Shoe Shine?

As the world economy sinks into an abyss, let's talk about something trivial like shoe-shining to let off some steam.
If you live in Bangalore, you might not even be aware that people would shine your shoes for a paltry sum. Well, ask the Mumbaikar who has immaculately shiny shoes, thanks to the shoe shine boy at VT.

I chanced upon this article 'The Politics of Shoe Shine' in NY Times. Roger Cohen points out that the reasons why you couldn't get your shoes polished by someone in France and the reasons why you can easily get it done in the US are taxation, universal health care, entitlements and unemployment.

Sounds unconvincing at first, but as you read on you begin to nod along.

The Sarkozy revolution in France, of still uncertain outcome, was essentially about the French realization that a country where it was often more profitable not to work than to work was a country with a problem.

High tax rate and generous unemployment benefits and other entitlements are the main factors that nudge people to shape their country into one where you can get your shoes shined and ones where you just can't.

The shoe-shine rule goes something like this: if you can't find one, you are probably in a society with a developed sense of egalitarianism and social solidarity, high taxation, a broad safety net, universal health care, extensive entitlements and high unemployment.

That sounds like France/Germany alright.

If you can get them shined, you're probably in a place with low unemployment and little of the above social security, a place where capitalism is crueller and more vital, a place not unlike America.

But what about back home in India? These factors become irrelevant in the context of a developing country and also within different states inside a country where the economic situations are comparable and the states are governed by the same economic rules and benefits like taxation and unemployment benefits if any!

So why is it that you can get your shoes polished in Mumbai and not in Bangalooru? Where are the boot polish walas in Bangalooru?

Both the cities are over-populated. People migrate to these cities from all Indian states in search of work. So what's the tipping point?

From my experience, I feel that it's far easier to get people to do menial labour in Mumbai. Within days of moving into Mumbai, I had four women pleading me to let them be my housemaid. Some even gave me the offer of a try-free-for-a-week before hiring! In Bangalore - I found it easier to give up the search and do all the work myself. Finding your soul-mate could be infinitely easier than finding a not-too-demanding housemaid in Bangalooru. I am not exaggerating.

Photo: Rajesh Sundaram

I think the answer to this conundrum is in two factors - supply and willingness. Sure, Bangalore gets its share of immigrants - but mostly white collar workers. Whereas Mumbai gets a lot more people from the lower income group, who are ready to
- cook for you,
- take care of your baby,
- mow your lawn (oops sorry, who has a lawn in Mumbai except maybe the Ambanis!),
- drive you around,
- deliver hot breakfast, lunch and dinner right to your doorstop everyday for an amount that wouldn’t get you from Koramangala to M. G. Road in an autorickshaw in Bangalooru,
- deliver eggs and fresh bread everday,
- clean your loos,
- deliver your grocery and vegetable shopping at the touch of a phone call,
- take your dog for a walk while you watch the soaps,
- clean the window panes of your car at the traffic signal,
- give you a smooth shave and even a massage in the street.
And of course, shine your shoes maybe?

You don’t have to be rich to afford all this in Mumbai. Case in point – my maid in Mumbai had her own maid to clean her house! There are so many people willing to work in Mumbai that even if a part of the society wouldn’t want to do this work, there’s always another sizeable group who would welcome it as an opportunity to make their living.

The second factor is willingness (for want of a better word). Most of the shoe shiners you would see in Mumbai are boys aged anywhere between 5 - 20 years. There are apparently 600 shoe-shine boys at 28 suburban railways stations in the city. In Bangalore, you would find that homeless boys prefer to beg/steal/sell-pirated-DVDs rather than shine shoes.

Agreed that there are people who beg for a living in Mumbai as well, but is it the egalitarianism of people in Mumbai that would have them stoop to shine shoes rather than stretch their hands out to beg?

Thoughts welcome.

Unrelated, but shocking


Anonymous said...

Hey you are right! I've had the same experiences you have mentioned in Bombay and Bangaloru. But what's with the shoe-shine? We could really use some in Bangaloru!

Anonymous said...

good one....
migration to mumbai started decades before that time it was all about textile/manufacturing/blue collar work. hard physical labour for survival. The culture still stays. blore is recent high tech migration. lots of people making loads of money. so, by default there will be more cheaters/piracies by people looking for easy money. hard labour does not have a place here.

Rajesh Sundaram said...

This is Rajesh Sundaram. The guy who shot the picture. I am ok with you posting any picture that is posted on my blog.

Thanking you for the link. You have a great blog going here.

Macadamia The Nut said...

" maid in Mumbai had her own maid to clean her house!.."

:O Are you kidding me???

Shanks_P said...

Never been to Mumbai but it is very tough to find a chappal-walla or a shoe shiner boy in bangalore ...
As you said abt the soceities ...It is tough to find one in Trivandrum also ... They where their! but vanished in time ....Blame it on inflation :)

Vimal alias khan said...

I think its got to do with two factors - 1) dignity of labour n 2) The anonymity offered by mumbai.

For any profession to attract enough people to it, they should feel whatever they r doin is important n more importantly others should respect the kind of work they r doing. N I think in mumbai, thats the case n hence the shoe-polishers thrive.

The anonymity offered by the city might also be another of the factors.

Meanwhile, awesome blog uve got Komrade :)

Girl With Big Eyes said...

Dirty shoes eh? :)

Good point about the culture. But then there is enough population near the poverty line would could a living if only they took up easy jobs like this.

Thanks Rajesh.

Nope, I am not. And now that we are on it, my maid was also in the process of buying a flat in Mumbai, while I couldn't dream of something like that. That's a different thread to this post anyway.

Wouldn't believe Kerala is a good market for shoe shine. Not many people wear shoes and even in places like Cochin, where there might be a sizeable population of shoe-wearers they would use their cars rather than public transport. Note that in Mumbai most of the shoe shining happens outside the train stations. So shoe shiners are doomed anyway in Kerala! And I guess they would get more money participating in a strike or a morcha rather than stooping down to shine shoes :)

I like your point about dignity of labour. Yup, that explains why you would find someone willing to do almost anything to make your life easier in Mumbai.
I don't agree on the anonymity factor though. Blore is a big city as well, you can easily come from say Bihar and work as a shoe shiner here and no one might ever know back home!

INJEY! said...

Most thoughtful one and well analyzed! Agree with you without any doubt.

Vimal alias khan said...


I feel the size of the city is not the only aspect which has a bearing on the anonymity, the pace of the city is also important. The pace of mumbai is much faster than that of blore.
And I think anonymity is not only about ' people back home not knowing ' its also about ' people in the city itself not peepin into ur lives '.

shrek said...

I second the dignity of labour opinion. In fact, remember discussing in my school times that in India, even sitting in a telephone booth/shop would be seen as giving up . (ofcourse talking about middle class lives)

Girl With Big Eyes said...

Thanks for the comment Injey.

I see what you mean. But feel like the dignity of labour for any kind of work in the city is the main reason. Thanks!

In my native place, Kerala, government tried to tackle the employment problem by encouraging people to set up std phone booth/xerox/internet centres. And have to say, it was received pretty well. You'll never be too far from an std booth in Kerala.

Kochuthresiamma p j said...

very interesting blog.
here's my take on it:
mumbai has huge migrant population. many who have been there for generations live in slums &chokda pattis, and enjoy voting rights, have rationn card-the works. the statistics(dunno whether to believe it) is 60 % of the mumbai population do not have proper houses.But nobody starves in that city with a heart large enough to accommodate anyone who comes there to earn a livelyhood. u land up in bombay and the bombay bug gets u.every work has its dignity - work is worship.even the mallu in mumbai works like a dog- his inherited work culture has no use in mumbai.
remember what bangalore was mebbe 30 years back? a sleepy beautiful garden city but a happening place in its own way. the milling crowd we now see comprise the IT employees.
Also, the proximiy to kerala and the wind blowing from god's own land also has something to do with the absence of such 'menial' employment:-))
Am not justifying the system that gives rise to the type of work one see people doing in mumbai(it's unbelievavle- i would say shoe shining is a very dinified one compared to say, cleaning the ears!, shaving & trimming beards etc)
But the point is the government cant take care of them. so they take care of themselves, working- instead of going the inquilab way.

Girl With Big Eyes said...


Thanks for your insightful comment. You have beautifully explained the 'dignity of labour' point.

And a good take on the Mallus there. If you haven't noticed, Mallus stop being lazy the minute they go outside Kera-land. They are industrious everywhere else. Case in point: Gelf construction industry!!

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