Urban life today is undergirded by technological systems, rapidly cutting through various domains that make up what we know as life in the city—public and private spaces, governance, public utilities and infrastructure, labour processes, cultural production, interpersonal interaction, family structures and so on. Think of an oft-expressed question—what impact do technologies have on society? Let us begin with the basic categories at work in this by-now-familiar narrative. Categories in any narrative or discourse do the work of classification by operating as oppositional binaries. In answering this question, we borrow from and reproduce the binary between technology and society.

These categories are not useful beyond a point since they sometimes conceal more than they reveal. By externalising technology as outside of society, the end result has led to what can be called technological determinism, the belief that technology can cause things to happen, as if it is possible to isolate a pure entity called technology independent from other systems and networks—economic, political and cultural—and measure its ability in terms of cause and effect. Such categories produce a limited and often conspiratorial understanding of the rapid changes that are taking place around us.

The actual transformation of technological systems over time is much more messy, uneven, keenly conflicted and contested, often subject to chance, failure or luck rather than by design—in other words, the process is subject to contingency.

There are enough studies on various technological systems (from the railways and typewriter to smartphones) to show that these are very much socially constructed and implicated in political and economic networks. Further, they produce changes in society which in turn directly or indirectly produce subsequent technological innovation. This movement is a historical process that can and indeed has been studied across various contexts (although more work needs to be done in Global South countries). It is also a process that has no linear tendency towards ‘progress’, even though in popular culture the history of technological systems is almost always depicted as evolutionary—faster, better, more efficient and so on. The actual transformation of technological systems over time is much more messy, uneven, keenly conflicted and contested, often subject to chance, failure or luck rather than by design—in other words, the process is subject to contingency.

Given these problems, this issue of Bevaru presents a somewhat different way of engaging with the transformations involved with technological systems in urban life and particularly with the labouring class in cities. Broadly speaking, when we refer to technological systems, we refer not just to the technical aspects of objects in terms of their characteristics (application interface, materiality of physical objects, etc.,) but also what technologies do when they are put in practice. Technical descriptions usually erase any mention of the subject—that is, it is as if technological systems work by magic, without human and social presence. In reality, technological systems come ‘alive’ only when they are being used in society in some way. In other words, we refer to technological practices implicated and integrated in everyday life rather than technology in the abstract.

Image by Rudra Rakshit
Such perspectives give an experiential and affective sense of what it means to be a worker whose labour is technologically mediated. Understanding the role of technology in transforming our experience, our sense of the world and self, makes for a more empathetic and deeper understanding of what the gig economy is really doing to workers.

Nihal’s article adds to valuable previous work on gig economy by drawing attention to how some of these technological systems are operationalised as daily practices. He signed up as a gig economy worker (with a well-known courier company in Bangalore) and delivered food for nearly a month. This was also an opportunity to meet other workers and interact with them about their experiences and thoughts. The article thus manages to provide a glimpse of how mundane practices create a real sense of suffocation and powerlessness. The account of Ravi (who also signed up as a gig worker), on the other hand, is a fictionalised story of a young man who migrates from rural Karnataka to Bangalore. The narration pulls together various stories from workers he interacted with during his month-long stint. We can see how there is a sharp skew between digital cultures and systems in rural and urban areas. Aadhaar authentication problems create issues for his family in the village while the worker struggles with private gig economy systems to make a living. Similarly, Angarika’s article on domestic workers illustrates the everyday practices of finding and doing domestic work mediated through apps in a radically alienated and segregated urban society. High-rise apartment buildings occupied by upper-caste and upper-class families demonstrate a sense of paranoia, pettiness and cruelty as domestic workers experience humiliation, fear, anger and frustration. These feelings emerge precisely at the point of everyday practice that usually involves a repetition and thus a ritualisation. Such perspectives give an experiential and affective sense of what it means to be a worker whose labour is technologically mediated. Understanding the role of technology in transforming our experience, our sense of the world and self, makes for a more empathetic and deeper understanding of what the gig economy is really doing to workers. Priyanshu’s account of sex workers transforming their work during the pandemic is evidence that all technologisation is not necessarily oppressive. Given that sex work has to be done in the shadows of society, there are no large corporations who control the labour force. Sex workers have innovated significantly in order to reach out to clients directly while also increasing their own incomes without putting their bodies at risk. Even as older sex workers grapple with new technological practices, it remains to be seen what kinds of struggles and opportunities lie ahead for sex workers in this new environment.  

Attention to human subjects engaged in concrete everyday practices puts technology firmly back in the social domain rather than as something external. Bringing back the social element into technology raises the further question of how technological systems (practices and processes) play a role in shaping human activity and identity—whether it is based on the intentions of those who designed technology, or the technical features that have been used in unanticipated ways with unintended consequences, or through efforts taken up by users who use technologies towards their own political, economic or cultural ends, and so on.

These processes are sometimes quite obvious, for example, the smartphone in combination with online social media practices (liking, sharing, commenting, etc.,) operating within capitalist society surely has played a major role in creating a new subjectivity, a new way to perform the self. In other instances, the processes are quite subtle and complex. Think about how a Metro train network has shaped urban subjectivity. Does Metro travel produce a different cartography of the city in the traveller? Does the aerial view of the city or the underground travel produce a different sense of being an urban citizen? What new kinds of social interactions are enabled or erased because of travelling in these trains? Clearly there are a wide range of technological systems, from the very intimate (the smartphone) to the very broad and subtle systems (Aadhaar card and infrastructure) which we have difficulty in perceiving as shaping us in any way.

We realise that technological systems are deeply embedded in the social only when we see results of their spectacular failure, when users realise that these systems are not designed keeping social realities in mind.

Janani’s article discusses the struggles of a garment worker in accessing her own money stuck in the Employees' Provident Fund because she is unable to negotiate with the Kafkaesque system of online forms, ID proofs and an absence of a human to take her problems to. We realise that technological systems are deeply embedded in the social only when we see results of their spectacular failure, when users realise that these systems are not designed keeping social realities in mind. Her article shows how migrant workers from far away states struggle to access their EPF funds due to various problems with the biometric authentication system of Aadhaar. Similarly, Yameena’s article on Anganwadi workers in Delhi illustrates how public workers are harassed with technological procedures in the name of greater efficiency. The technologised surveillance of workers towards transparency and efficiency is the first step in the rapid liberalisation of the public sector. Anganwadi workers, who often don't have their phones during work as they share the device with family members, end up recording data manually and then later re-entering on their mobile phones in the designated app. Designed to be efficient and transparent, these systems are increasing the work for Anganwadi workers. Priyanshu’s article on compulsory biometric attendance for powrakarmikas in Bangalore also emphasises the same pattern. Initially seen as a step towards regularisation (since the Aadhaar ID of the powrakarmikas are linked to biometric attendance), this move has since resulted in greater inconvenience and surveillance of the workers. By removing the possibility of negotiating with humans, the biometric systems are leaving them with no option but to comply with the machine.

These articles have been written after interactions with many workers on multiple occasions and are representative of the larger workforce. They are snapshots of a new working subject—partly alienated, partly empowered, partly negotiating and partly subverting their way through new working environments and thus new challenges. There is much more to be done, but we hope that this issue provokes a wider and deeper public interest in how workers and their labours are transformed in the age of technologisation.

Ram is a co-founder of Maraa, a media and arts collective, and is a media and communications researcher.


This edition was written during the peak of the second lockdown in India.

In early 2019, we launched Bevaru (sweat in kannada) a bi-monthly newspaper dedicated to the views, experiences, and opinions of the informal workforce. The newspaper foregrounded the perspectives of the women workforce in Bangalore.  We felt that coverage of workers in mainstream media was inconsistent, insensitive, and often unidimensional. They appear as victims of death/accidents  or as an undifferentiated mass, at protests, even though they contribute significantly to the functioning of a city. Further, the experiences of the women workforce are often invisibilized. This representation or the lack thereof,  reveals who can be seen and heard politically. Our commitment is to bring to the fore representation(s) of unorganised labour, beyond reductive framings of wage and exploitation. We released six issues, and organised talks and public events in this vein, revealing different kinds of challenges and possibilities.

In conversation with powrakamikas, domestic, sex, garment and migrant workers, we tried to represent stories of violence, untouchability, exploitation, and injustice as descriptions or questions to the middle and upper class/castes in angry, melancholic and sarcastic tones. We also spent time with workers in their homes, and in their brief moments of leisure, where we learnt of fantasies which escape the mechanization of daily life. Our conversations began to unfold the inherent contradictions within capitalism; degrees of alienation produced by work ; frictions between individual struggles and processes of collectivization; conditions and structures that produce exploitation and discriminatory practices; the body and its relationship to labor. The experiences of the women workforce foregrounded the connections between home, workspace, and public space, as she negotiates her time between freedom, responsibilities, and aspirations.  

Questions of inter-dependence and exploitation between various publics in the city came into sharp focus during the Covid 19 crisis. The media was full of images which depicted workers as hapless victims. Further, in most coverage, civil society activists, academics, government representatives were called upon to speak for workers. We were keen to challenge this representation. We launched a Youtube channel, where we encouraged workers from our networks to produce videos/images about their experiences. A move toward self-representation, where workers could share their experiences without the framings and assumptions of upper-caste/class publics. We did not want to assume the crisis in a worker's life, nor their demands or desires. Further, our intention was to start a conversation between diverse groups of workers, a space for collectivization, free expression, discussion, friendship and solidarity.

We faced many challenges. For example, we were not able to figure out a smooth process for content distribution. Due to a lack of time, workers were unable to produce content regularly.  The women lacked frequent access to smartphones to be able to shoot and record, and so on. However, the channel is still active. Moving forward, we hope to organize media trainings, specifically for the women workforce and their children. We will continue our efforts to encourage various networks of workers to produce content that can speak in a manner of their own choice, on their own terms.

In the meantime, we continued our practice of writing about labour and our relationships with workers. In March 2021, a year after the first Covid 19 lockdown, we planned for a ‘retrospective’ issue of Bevaru. But with April, came the news of another lockdown. This time there was a strange sense of preparedness and resignation. One of the construction workers we met last year, called us before the lockdown was officially announced and said he was heading home. “I'd rather stay hungry in my village than suffer the humiliation of last year again.”  But no one was prepared for the loss of life that followed.

Alongside many others, we set about raising funds, ensuring ration and wages, trying to help workers access basic healthcare. Confronted with the grim realities of the new lockdown, we wondered what to write about in the next issue of Bevaru. Should we stay true to the experiences of the last year? How do we write about death? Oscillating between lockdown and unlocks, how can we read into the past to make sense of the present and what are the visions for the future? Should the tone be reactive or reflective?  Or should we just remain quiet and mourn the loss of life around us?  

The question, however, was not only about what to write, but also how to write

The question, however, was not only about what to write, but also how to write. We set ourselves the task of writing ourselves into our pieces, to reflect on our relationships with workers. We tried to move away from observing and reporting facts, and dwelled more on our own caste positions, within the chaos and grief around us. Challenging our own representations from previous issues, we did not want to escape the frame.

What ‘voice’ do we use to situate an experience?

We grew conscious of the ways in which we consciously and unconsciously reveal ourselves. For example, what ‘voice’ do we use to situate an experience? Passive or Active? What does it reveal about our position within an interaction? How honestly can we receive what another person says or does, and how much gets colored by our own projections? Why should a workers’ story provoke only guilt? What else can it provoke? What images of workers are showcased to evoke empathy amidst a violent and cruel hierarchy  of power?  Situated at opposite ends of the class-caste spectrum from worker, how do we acknowledge this difference within our writing?

We wrote about our experiences with workers we have spent deep time with, not limited to the ‘crisis’ of the virus alone. Disagreements that underlie our differences and confessions that brought us closer together. As a worker shared, “When someone asks how you are, you feel you are not alone in your sorrows. You share a little and in that moment, you feel a little lighter.”  We chose to illustrate our own pieces, with drawings/paintings/posters that perhaps capture a mood, a fantasy, an observation that escapes the confine of our words. We chose not to translate each piece to retain the ways in which language shapes our perceptions.  

From one lockdown to the next, we have been forced to reckon with the circularity of our utopias, casting light on the failures of political and social imagination and accountability. There are many questions and conditions to reckon with. As we move forward, we hope to transition Bevaru into a quarterly magazine. This issue is a step in that direction, with explorations that are not definitive or prescriptive. We lay bare our struggles in absorbing, witnessing, and representing the violence and grief around us. We hope we have done justice to the resilience of our friends, and the dignity of their assertions.


The lockdown restricted one’s mobility to a tinier geography, in some cases a room of one’s own. We got involved in certain tasks, in a repetitive fashion. Recently, I stumbled upon a painting titled “unperceived” and it described how much lies in our imagination, dead or alive.  The image was not a macabre imagination of the future but did not shy away from a powerful cavity of time that remains unperceived. It may have happened, but we may not have perceived when and how this ‘something’ happened: the act of coping, deciding, remembering and forgetting.

When we speak of representation of labour, a few ideas came back to us with more clarity. They might seem obvious but are useful reminders for the future.

Acts of violence will resurface, provoked by unperceived irrational situations and reasons. Because we don’t fully know.

Unless definite, tangible material demands are met in one’s life, it is impractical to expect any other form of change. For instance, housing is one of the most basic needs that remains a never-ending dream for many who have toiled from one generation to the next. Everything in Indiranagar has changed, but in ward 88, the public toilet for the basti is still not functional. People have demanded permanent housing historically. The house is not just scaffolding, tenements, tin sheets or a concrete room without a window; such a place can never become a home. However basic, every person deserves a sense of a home, a place where one has agency over aesthetics. In the way we organise and arrange things, defines autonomy over a way of living. For years now, the phenomenon of ‘adjusting’ has led to unforgiving compromises and unresolved suppressions. The State is aware of this and yet denies it or ‘provides’ it, as mere tokenism, with vested interests. Why should someone doing a Government job be living in a rented house? Let’s be sure, there will be an uprising. Unperceived. Acts of violence will resurface, provoked by unperceived irrational situations and reasons.

Painting titled “Unperceived” by Lee Jin Ju

Popularly known as crime, theft, violence, suicide. Curing symptoms does not cure the disease of hatred and violence. To expect peace and solidarity is simply unreasonable.

Why do we expect peace, empathy and solidarity when one is surrounded by violence? These virtues may work in an ideal scenario when everything is equal for all subjects. In real life, such a premise does not exist. Displaced violence stays in a child forever. It could return as fatality, nihilism, trauma or violence, on oneself or the other. Laws that curb freedom of expression, restrictions to choose your lover, occupation or God, will lead anyone to take unperceived risks, and to believe otherwise. But when these risks turn into action, the police arrive. There will be blood. Between insiders and outsiders. And perhaps, it’s not just mental illness.

Death is inevitable. As people remember and mourn in their own ways, what is the function of immortality? “The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours, but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone.” A quote from Milan Kundera’s immortality, reminds us of dignity at the time of death. When the memory of it looms large around us, we hope to be mindful, in remembering those who have passed, at a spectacularly large scale, together. We could turn to animals for clues, and observe how they behave when they lose one of their own. If there is any time that privacy matters, it is at the time of death.

We hope this issue invites you to observe how time passed through us as we absorbed, withdrew and reacted in this context, to the “unperceived” experience of labour. Because we don’t fully know.


It has only recently become easier to realise that before the virus made its presence felt, different groups of people were obeying different kinds of clock-time(s) all at once. For many, work produced its own time - which in turn created a small window of spare time, some of which was allocated to leisure time and some of it was time to reproduce oneself for work the next day. It is only after these delicate arrangements have been shattered that one can see its fragments more clearly. Money for labour depended on how one moved one’s body around the city fitting into schedules and systems made by (invisible) others. The screen of the phone is now the window through which precious spare time is spent. The virus seems to have unchained time from the rhythms of work and money.

It might be hard to believe now, but this system of ‘managing time’ that shapes our habits and ideas is only about 150 years old. The virus unknowingly exposed a great number of things that used to be considered ‘normal’. Some of the experiences in this issue reveal how people make sense of their lives in ways that refuse the order of time. Big events we see on TV or hear about from others get mixed with personal incidents. The present seems out of reach - haunted by the past and a dread of the future. The city is always presented as a fast-paced creature, but it turned out to be no more than an illusion. The fragile and cruel realities of the city are clearly out in the open for anyone who wants to see. The city's pulse is erratic now.

It is clear that while the reality seems like a bad dream, there is another reality that deliberately presents itself as a bad dream. During the time of COVID, the world of media produced a new class of people called the tragic migrant workers - especially those who not only suffered but were reduced to only suffering subjects for others to consume. Those who were locked into their homes saw on their phones and TVs thousands of people out on the streets walking an impossible journey. Caste, language, place and history all dissolved until only the suffering body remained for the cameras. Months of media coverage on this suffering migrant worker became possible because of this tragic adventure which people could follow on their screens. Such a pure suffering subject without politics (who can refuse to feel for such a figure?) became the centre of blame and credit, for state versus centre, for economy versus health, for insider versus outsider.

When other sections of society are intent on playing such games, what would it mean to demand justice? Before justice appears, there must be a shared acknowledgement of the problem. That shared acknowledgement will not be given, it must be claimed. There were and will be stories of unpaid wages, lack of or faulty infrastructure, of delayed or non-compensation which may provide some temporary relief, but until there is a shared acknowledgement of who it is that stands behind the screen; until there is recognition of the complex realities of people behind the image of the worker, all the noise will only result in creating a perception of justice. Some of the experiences recounted in this issue we hope, will go a small way in bringing out that other life of labour, outside of the illusion that has shielded it so far.