Manhattan’s Manhole Covers, Made in India

By Jeffrey Bonior
Aug 18 2015 |
Foundry workers barefooted in Howrah, India. | Photo courtesy Natasha Raheja

A documentary explores the realities of global trade by observing Indian foundry workers.

Natasha Raheja had her curiosity piqued about New York City manhole covers in much the same way that I did from strolling the streets of Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia.

The Dallas native was walking along the thoroughfares of New York City one day shortly after having moved from Texas, when she noticed “Made in India” stamped upon the many manhole covers that dot our urban landscape.

For me, my residence in Alexandria is surrounded by iron manhole covers and grates also made in India. But when my daily commute ends in our nation’s capital, the iron covers are identified as “Made in the USA,” or occasionally, there is not even a manufacturing location displayed.

Raheja had completed a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and a BA and Masters of Arts in Asian Studies at the University of Texas before moving to New York to pursue a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at New York University. Filmmaking is part of her curriculum and the Brooklyn-based graduate student, whose interests are in areas of migration, material flows, and belonging, decided to create a documentary about the ironworkers in India who manufacture the manhole covers.

During her tenure at NYU, Raheja also became involved with the organized union movement as part of the Graduate Students Organizing Committee (GSOC), which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW). She served as a bargaining committee member from the NYU Academic Workers for a Democratic Union caucus. The graduate employees won the right to unionize despite a 2004 National Labor Relations Board decision, which ruled that private sector graduate employees do not have an economic relationship with their universities.

In her 26-minute documentary Cast In India, Raheja travels to a manhole manufacturing foundry in the Indian region of Howrah and documents both how and why the products of an entirely different culture find their way to one of the largest and most influential cities in the world.

In a short interview, Raheja talks about raising questions around the disparate conditions that shape geographies of production of everyday urban objects and how the infrastructure of New York City conceals the labor infrastructure on which it stands.

Jeffrey Bonior: What inspired you to make Cast in India? Was it your first film?

Natasha Raheja: Manhole covers are an iconic and ubiquitous part of New York City’s urban landscape. While on a stroll along the city streets one day, I noticed that many of the manhole covers have the words “Made in India” boldly emblazoned on them. I became curious about how these pieces of city anatomy are made. I wanted to learn more about the labor infrastructure concealed in the built infrastructure of our cities. Cast in India is my second short film.

Had you been to the manhole cover manufacturing facilities in India before making the film?

No, but I familiarized myself with parts of the metal casting process at a bronze foundry in New York.

 What messages are you trying to bring to viewers of Cast in India?

Cast in India raises questions around the disparate conditions that shape the geographies of production and consumption of everyday urban objects. What gets made where, by whom, and why? Amidst this, I hope viewers recognize the dignity and skill of the foundry workers. The film also makes me think about how the mobility of workers compares to the mobility of the goods that they make. Enlivening the objects around us, the film also points to questions around the entrenched structures and conventions that obscure people and relations from our purview.

Some people may view the factory as unsafe, unhealthy manufacturing, while others might consider the work an art form. What are your conclusions?

The two responses aren't mutually exclusive. The film showcases how the foundry work is simultaneously artisanal and industrial. It's surprising to learn that each manhole cover is “handmade.” Of course what gets to be considered art depends not only on the technical process but on who is making a given product and for whom. The foundry workers have an acute awareness of the everyday dangers of their jobs and don’t have the luxury of thinking of themselves as artists. 

 How does the film and study of India’s manhole-cover makers relate to your work as an anthropologist?

Anthropology's hallmark research method is ethnography, which is patient and immersive. In Cast in India, I aimed to build an immersive viewing experience. I chose to employ a filmmaking style that foregrounds presence over explanation and feeling over interpretation. As an anthropologist it was also important for me to convey a shared time and space between viewers and workers. While the film was not a fully collaborative project, I made it a point to show the workers some footage and incorporate their input on my representations of them.

How does your work as part of the GSOC/UAW bargaining committee relate to your thoughts about people who are grossly underpaid in grueling, labor-intensive jobs?

My union activity sensitized me to the importance of organizing and collective bargaining for workers as a way to improve workplace conditions. In my union, over 40 percent of the workforce are international student workers. Whatever our respective nationalities, we are in it together. Organizing with people from various nationalities with various levels of compensation taught me the importance of solidarity across these lines. There are real differences across workplaces and my union organizing experiences taught me how important it is to foster labor solidarity among ostensibly respective struggles. Some workers certainly have more privilege than others but recognizing that privilege shouldn’t distract us from building power. It's important especially to leverage privilege when appropriate in the support of labor struggles that may not seem to directly affect us.

In Alexandria, Virginia I walk over manhole covers, the majority of which are made in India. Why should my state buy from India and not American-made foundries that create jobs for Americans?

It’s a real tragedy that American manufacturing has declined. I would say though it's not just a question of "creating jobs for Americans — is that solution even available to us? It turns out that some American factories outsource their production to Indian factories, so cities with Made in India manhole covers may still be “buying American.” As long as corporations call the shots, they are going to source from what profits them the most. By and large today’s corporations don’t think patriotically. And most states are not in a position to resist private corporations' demands for more and more profit at any costs. When only the boss' profits are the bottom-line, workers stand to be exploited whether in American foundries or Indian ones. In fact, forms of nationalism can operate to pit groups of workers against each other while bosses continue to have their heydays and hoard profits. In pointing to the ways that we as Americans are implicated in global divisions of labor, I hope this film points to opportunities for global labor solidarity. In any case, I don’t think patriotism will save us from the perils of capitalism.

How did the manhole cover workers feel about their work? Were they proud of their skills and having a job despite the low pay?

These are highly skilled, dignified foundry workers and of course they should be compensated at higher rates. The foundry workers I met are proud of what they do; they have a union that organizes against great odds to try and make a safer and better-paid workplace. The extent to which worker organizing is successful depends on global labor solidarity so that corporations in developed countries cannot get away with extracting cheaper labor from the Global South.

 Are there any more film projects in your near future?

I’m working on circulating Cast in India as widely as possible at present. I have a few other ideas for future films in the works.

Cast in India is screening at theaters around the world. The next scheduled screenings will be during the month of October at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Please visit the Cast in India website for more information. The documentary can be purchased on the website.