Dalit History Month: The Living Conditions in a Chawl that Inspired Baba Saheb Towards Indian Labor Reforms

As we approach towards the culmination of the Dalit History Month, it is worth reflecting on the significant efforts of the 'Untouchable' Barrister, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, in securing labour rights for every working Indian.
Ambedkar delivering speech in one of the peasants' movements
Ambedkar delivering speech in one of the peasants' movements

From being an exceptional scholar to becoming the first Labor Minister of India in the Viceroy's Executive Council (1942 to 1946), Baba Saheb Ambedkar's contributions to Indian labor law are unparalleled. But what's often overlooked is the fact that it was his own experiences of grappling with poverty and discrimination that ignited his passion for bringing about change in workers' lives.

Upon completing his studies with exceptional achievements from Columbia University and London School of Economics, he returned to India and eventually became a respected Professor and Principal of the Government Law College in Bombay. However, despite his notable accomplishments, the barrister belonging to the 'untouchable' caste couldn't find a suitable place to live and was forced to live in a chawl.

Can you imagine that for over two decades, this distinguished barrister and professor had to live in a chawl, belonging to the Bombay Development Department at Parel, due to a lack of suitable housing. The chawl was meant for the lowest level of workers. There was only one toilet and one tap for bathing and cleaning utensils in each floor that had to be shared amongst all tenants. The majority of them were mill workers, and Dr. Ambedkar had a front-row seat to their daily struggles.

The historic BDD chawl where Baba Saheb lived for 2 decades.
The historic BDD chawl where Baba Saheb lived for 2 decades.

The historical BBD chawl Number 1 is composed of 80 rooms and is one of six such chawls in the area. Room no. 50 and 51 of this chawl served as Baba Saheb's residence and office from 1912 to 1934. The rooms measured 180 sq feet each . During this time, he initiated multiple social reform movements and published numerous editions of Bahishkrut Bharat and MookNayak, the fortnightly newspapers that were used to spread his message. Additionally, it was from this residence that he attended the historic round table conference and performed Manusmruti dahan in protest against the caste system. In the present day, many academicians, historians, and Ambedkar followers have visited this site to pay homage to his legacy. Furthermore, in 2019 former CM Uddhav Thackeray announced the plans to transform the legendary abode of Dr. Ambedkar and his family into a memorial.

Witnessing firsthand the plight of these workers and their abject living conditions ignited a fire within him, and he vowed to dedicate his life to their welfare. He visited mills and saw the hardships that laborers had to face to earn their daily bread, and soon enough, he became a beacon of hope in their lives.

The Second World War brought about a tremendous transformation in the Indian economy, presenting many opportunities for the expansion of various industries. Despite the optimism among entrepreneurs and managers for their future prosperity, the labour force was not given the due share it deserved. It was during this time that Dr. Ambedkar spearheaded and introduced several measures for the welfare of the labour community.

The Independent Labor Party

The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was a significant political organisation formed under the leadership of B. R. Ambedkar on 15 August 1936. It was created to challenge the caste and capitalist structures in India, working towards dismantling the caste system and supporting the rights of the Indian working class. While the Communist leaders were not in support of the formation of the ILP, Ambedkar argued that they focused only on workers' rights but not for the human rights of Dalit workers.

ILP agitation led by Dr Ambedkar in 1938
ILP agitation led by Dr Ambedkar in 1938

In the 1937 Provincial elections, the ILP was able to secure 14 out of 17 contested seats, including 11 of the 13 seats reserved for traditionally oppressed communities. This was a significant achievement for the party, demonstrating its broad support.

In 1938, the ILP collaborated with the Congress Socialist Party to organise a march of 20,000 tenants from the Konkan region to Bombay, which is considered to mark the largest pre-independence peasant mobilisation in the area.

Ambedkar delivering speech in one of the peasants' movements
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Overall, the ILP was an essential political organisation in India's history and played a notable role in advocating for the rights of the working class and opposing the caste system.

Industrial Dispute Bill: "Bad, Bloody & Blood Thirsty"

Not a man to mince his words and always standing up for what's right, Dr. Ambedkar was quick to call out the Congress Government when they presented the Industrial Disputes Bill in 1938. This bill had many clauses that were anti-worker, curbing their right to strike and rendering their protests illegal. To make matters worse, employers were also not required to disclose their budget, making it harder for laborers to bargain for their fair share.

The party collaborated with the Communists to mobilise Bombay textile labourers in opposing the bill. Dr. Ambedkar accused the bill of being "bad, bloody, and bloodthirsty." He knew that the consequences of the bill would be dire, and if passed, it would be a crushing blow to the Indian labor force. He led a fierce campaign against the bill, with a one-day strike to put more pressure on the government. Dr. Ambedkar's stand was unwavering, courageous and proved to be a turning point. Eventually, the government had to rethink its position, and the bill was modified to become more labor-friendly.

In 1938, while addressing the GIP Railway Dalit Mazdoor Conference in Manmad, Dr. Ambedkar declared that Brahminism and Capitalism were the two enemies that Dalits had to confront. He understood the ramifications of these systems and their impact on India's marginalized communities.

As First Labor Minister of India

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar was a visionary leader whose contributions to society are immense. However, his role as a labour leader is often overlooked. Dr. Ambedkar took over the Labour portfolio in July 1942, following the establishment of the Department of Labour in November 1937. He secured the rights of Indian labourers and without him, the future of Indian workers would have been bleak.

He brought the 8-hour working day to India, reducing it from 14 hours, during the 7th session of Indian Labour Conference in New Delhi on November 27, 1942.

Ambedkar delivering speech in one of the peasants' movements
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Dr. Ambedkar also framed several laws for women workers in India, such as the "Mines Maternity Benefit Act", the "Women Labour Welfare Fund", the "Women and Child Labour Protection Act", "Maternity Benefit for Women Labour", and the "Restoration of Ban on Employment of Women on Underground Work in Coal Mines".

Employees State Insurance (ESI), providing medical care, medical leave, physical disability compensation, workmen's compensation, and various other facilities, was also enacted and brought for the benefit of Indian workers by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. India was the first East Asian country to introduce an Insurance Act for employees' well-being.

Dr. Ambedkar's contributions to Indian labour rights are vast and significant. He placed Labour in the Concurrent List, appointed Chief and Labour Commissioners, and formed the Labour Investigation Committee. The Minimum Wages Act was also introduced by him, empowering workers. The presence of Employment Exchanges in India can be attributed to Dr. Ambedkar's vision.

Furthermore, Dr. Ambedkar recognised the Right to Strike by workers, and on November 8th, 1943, he brought the Indian Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill for the compulsory recognition of trade unions. He believed that the depressed classes should play an important role in the country's economic development.

From DA to leave benefits, we owe him all

Every increase in 'Dearness Allowance', every instance of 'Leave Benefit', and every 'Revision of Scale of Pay' should remind us of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's contributions to Indian labour rights. So, if you are happy with your company providing you with health insurance, or any other benefits, please remember to thank Dr. Ambedkar.

Ambedkar delivering speech in one of the peasants' movements
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Dr. Ambedkar had a bold and visionary idea for creating a fair and democratic society. He recognized that inequality was deeply rooted and needed significant changes to be addressed. In his memorandum that was published in May 1947, titled "States and Minorities: What are Their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India," he recommended that important industries should be managed by the government, and all agricultural land should be taken over by the state and split up into smaller farms with a standard size. These farms would be rented out to the residents of the village to be cultivated collectively.

Dr. Ambedkar was of the opinion that allowing private enterprise to lead the way towards industrialization would only create more wealth inequalities in India, much like it did in Europe. He had a strong premonition that such inequalities are not compatible with democratic values. In his view, wealth inequalities led to the compromise of people's fundamental rights in exchange for mere survival.

As he approached the end of his life, Dr. Ambedkar began to explore alternative systems to capitalism and even contemplated communism as a possible solution. Although he did not actively become a member of the Communist Party, his political ideology allowed for the inclusion of working-class struggles. In fact, his framework for political praxis provided a solid foundation for uplifting the working class and supporting their struggles against economic oppression.


- Ambedkar, B.R. (n.d.). Annihilation of Caste (Vol. 1).

- CK, S.N. (2021, April 15). Dr. Ambedkar the architect of Indian Labor Reforms. News Bharti.

- Guthala, R. (2020, May 1). Some unknown facts on Baba Saheb Ambedkar on 'May Day.'

- Unknown Author. (n.d.). Volume 10 – Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar as member of the Governor-General’s Executive Council (1942-46). Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India.

- Mendelsohn, Olive, and Marik Vicziany. "The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India." Contemporary South Asia, vol. 4, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

- Singh, Mahendra Prasad, editor. "Indian Political Thought: Themes and Thinkers." Pearson Education India, 2011.

- Jaffrelot, Christophe. "India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India." C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 2003.

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