Welcome to Bhatan By Sarah Matthews

In a small village called Bhatan, on the outskirts of Mumbai, a woman named Nanda lives with her son, daughter-in-law and her two grandchildren. Her home is modest but beautiful, and every doorway, table surface and wall space is intricately decorated. Cricket trophies award to her son adorn the wooden cabinet in their small living area. Her daughter-in-law smiles shyly from the kitchen where she makes cups of chai. Nanda has lived in Bhatan since she was married to her husband 32 years before.

What is unique about this village, however, is that it is situated a mere five minute walk from one of the best private universities in Maharashtra state. Amity University was built three years ago, and has over 1,500 students from all over India and the world, many of whom live on campus. Nanda works as an assistant warden in the girls dormitory at Amity. She received her job at the university along with hundreds of other inhabitants of the nearby villages as a part of an agreement that Amity made with the villagers when it began construction on what was once agricultural land. Nanda likes her job, and life for Nanda and her family is significantly easier now that she has a job at Amity. Previously, she had worked as a vegetable vendor in the villages nearby, and she says that her new job allows for a much more stable income, as the nature of agriculture is that it changes seasonally.

Nanda's daughter-in-law inside her family's home
Nanda's house is adorned with many symbols of her Hindu faith
The family in their busy home.

Amity University is the epitome of modern Mumbai. It has been built almost incongruently in the middle of the most traditional Marathi communities, and the difference in culture between the two is stark. The university students take auto rickshaws to and from the mall. They wear brand-name sneakers and designer jeans. They speak in a mixture of Hindi and English. Most of the time, the two communities live in complete harmony with each other. However, as in any situation where there is such a jarring clash between the old and the new, tensions are bound to arise.

Padma, and Aneya both work as cleaners at Amity University, but live with their families in Bhatan. They say that preserving the culture within the village is a concern for them, now that the university has been built so close by.

“We don’t let out girls dress like that (the students at Amity). It is in our pride. We are Marathi people."

"We don’t wear clothes like these. We keep out daughters in saris and suits, and we like it this way.”

Both of these women have been living in Bhatan for over forty years, since they were married to their husbands before the age of twenty. Now a grandmother herself, people from Padma’s family have inhabited the village for four generations. Like Nanda, they are both happy with their jobs and their lives now that they can receive a steady income from Amity University. However, this was not always the case, and still is not the case for everyone from Bhatan.

In an agreement made between the university and the village, hundreds of villagers were given jobs as security guards, grounds staff, cleaners and wardens at the university. But, Padma says that not everyone in the village was happy with this.

“The sold their land, and they wanted money according to that. But they’re not getting money, they’re getting employment.”

“Not all of them want to work. They didn’t really get a choice.”

Padma and Aneya’s are two of around 20-30 cleaners at Amity, and their job is a huge one. They clean the entire campus, including the student housing. They are on their feet for hours and hours each day. When they were first employed by Amity, they were earning only five thousand rupees per month, which is around 100 Australian dollars.

Here lies the dilemma. The people who work in the university were aware of their own exploitation, but painfully aware of the fact that the alternative is a lot more dire.

They were trapped.

So, the workers from the village decided that it was time for change, and that they would not allow the exploitation to continue. During the first semester of 2016, over 100 of the employees at Amity University went on strike. A student at Amity University, who asked to remain unnamed, said that the strike made a significant impact on the university.

“There was this entire strike period they they (the employees) had, and all the villagers just sat in from of the gate and the police were called in.”

“We couldn’t go out because they were just sitting there."

However, the strike proved to be incredibly successful. The objectives of the strike had been achieved: more jobs for members of their community, and a salary rise for all employees.

“Eventually their leader came in and had a talk, and eventually they were promised some things. I think they delivered after that,” the student said.

Associate Professor for the School of Communication at Amity University, Dr. C.K Singh, said that although there were disputes between the university and some employees from the village, they have now been resolved.

“As regards the payment issue is concerned, it has been adequately addressed and the matter is settled amicably.”

“As regards the strike, the villagers were exhibiting their dissent on their participation in proportional terms with the University authorities. This issue has also been settled amicably,” Dr. Singh said.

According to Aneya, the cleaners at Amity have had a salary increase to $7,000 rupees per month, and most of them are relatively content.

Niravi, Sunita, Rebha and Sheva are employees at Amity University who were all involved in the strike last semester.

Sitting proudly in front of her home, with her one-year-old grandson fidgeting and playing with her jewellery as he sits in her lap, Nanda speaks very diplomatically about the strike and the dissent of her colleagues and community.

She acknowledges that adapting to the existence of Amity University has not been easy for every member of her local community, and she understands why. However, she was not personally involved in the strike.

It seems that Nanda, as well as the majority of her colleagues now feel that the outcomes of having a modern university as a neighbour have been overwhelmingly positive.

“I was not involved in the strike. I had my job and I was happy so I did not want to participate in the strike.”

“Since Amity has been built, life has been better.”

When asked about the potential for the sacred culture of the village to change, as the children of the village grow up interacting with the university students, Nanda does not seem phased. In fact, she thinks that her children being exposed to this new way of life can only benefit them.

As an assistant warden in the university housing, Nanda spends a great deal of her time with the students. These young women who come from a world that is so different from her own have become like her own daughters, and she thinks that the two communities have a great deal to benefit from each other.

“If people do come into the village, our children will change. But, I think it’s for the better.”

Nanda’s grand-daughter is eleven years old, and her eyes glimmer with vivacity. She attends a primary school nearby, and she tells me that she enjoys it. Her grandmother watches her grandchildren affectionately as the elder of the two picks up her baby brother to kiss him on the forehead.

“Now that I’ve worked in education, the importance of education has been changed in my head. My grandchildren have started studying, and now they will grow up to become successful.”

“That is what I want.”

All photographs by Sarah Matthews

Special thanks to Nanda, Niravi, Sunita, Rebha, Sheva, Padma and Anyea.

Special thanks also to Ayushi Saxena, Shivam Je'mini and Shaleen Jha.

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Sarah Matthews

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