Fear of losing work has made them cling onto their jobs, braving heat and injuries besides making do with half their usual wages
On a roadside in west Delhi’s Raghubir Nagar, Inder Yadav, a 49-year-old construction worker, was dripping in sweat under the searing sun. His right hand is injured, he manages with half the wages he used to get in the past, yet he keeps plugging on so that he could feed his family.
A resident of Bihar’s Samastipur, Inder, who lives in Vikas Nagar with his wife and four children, is a daily wager. Whether his children will get meals for the next two days depends on what he earns on a particular day. For over a month, he and his wife often fooled their children saying that the food they were eating was not just plain flour.
“There were days when my wife made chapatis and to show children that there’s something to eat the chapati with, she would add water to wheat flour and tell them it is gram flour instead and that they were eating kadhi,” he says as he broke into tears. “There have been days when we ate only salt and chapati. Today, I’ve brought only chapatis and potato for lunch”.
Inder used to get ₹800 as he is a construction repairman (mistry) but currently, he is being paid ₹400 a day for 10 hours of work. Labourers working with him are getting ₹300 as opposed to ₹600 they earlier used to get.
More workers, less work
“If we don’t agree to work, he will get someone else. There are so many labourers at the chowks looking for work. There are more workers and less work right now. At least with this money, I can ensure that my children don’t sleep hungry or cut down on any meal,” he says, adding that milk, curd and vegetables are a luxury these days. Grocery store owner refused to give ration on credit despite Inder’s children pleading with him, he adds.
Adding to his mental woes, he got injured during work. He twisted his right hand while lifting a heavy stone. But he is not thinking of taking leave. “I cannot afford to take any off. Someone else will be hired in my place,” he says.
The impact of the crisis is not limited to food. The family owns one smartphone, which was bought during last year’s lockdown for children’s online classes. And now, Inder doesn’t have money to recharge the phone. They only hope that they’re able to manage once school reopens after summer vacations.
Working with Inder was Jagdish Kumar (28) and Bablu Kumar (28), both from Uttar Pradesh and residents of Hastsal Village in the Capital. They are working for ₹300 per day, half of what they used to get. Their reasons remain the same as Inder – fear of losing work.
Woes piling on
Adding to his misery, Jagdish lost his mother 15 days ago. It saddened him even more that he didn’t have the money to manage the expenses of last rites. But thankfully, his landlord helped him. “We have been lucky. He is a good man. He ensured all of us were fed two meals a day irrespective of money. He also helped with my mother’s last rites,” Jagdish says.
His wife gave birth to their daughter nine months ago and while they need nutritious food, they could only manage with “dal roti”. For Bablu, this lockdown meant adding debt which he already owed to his landlord. “I have a debt of ₹25,000 from last year’s lockdown and our house rent is ₹3,500 a month. If I don’t pay ₹5,000 to the owner, he threatens to levy interest. Nobody understands,” he laments.
Cooked meals were provided in schools last year but that is not the case this time around. “Kabhi kabhi jab log khana bantte hain to hum bhi line main lag jaate hain [Sometimes when people distribute food, we also stand in queue],” says Bablu.
At a construction site in Mayapuri Industrial Area, Dharampal (23) has just returned from his village in Uttar Pradesh with his wife and a 10-month-old daughter. Living in the jhuggis close to the construction site, he had left the Capital on May 15 and returned on May 31. “There was no work. The contractor gave us money for dry ration but then he deducts that money from our daily wages now. We thought it is better to leave,” recounts Dharampal, who left for his village on top of a bus after paying ₹1,206 for two tickets.
However, there has been no reduction in Dharampal’s daily wages before and after lockdown. He used to get ₹400 a day and continues to do so. For women, though, it’s ₹350 a day.
At Tilak Nagar Labour Chowk, a crowd of daily wagers wait and peer at every car passing by with hopeful eyes. Thinking that someone approaches them for work, most of them arrive at 8 a.m. and leave by 4 p.m., often after finding no work. While most said they need to show a unified front and not settle for less than ₹500 a day, a few bowed down in the face of penury. “Jise zaroorat hai woh ₹250 main bhi kar raha hai [The one who needs is also doing it for ₹250 a day],” said Abhishek Singh (32), who dishes out ₹3,000 per month for rent in a cluster nearby.
“Two days ago, I worked for ₹300 a day for painting at a construction site. What to do? If I’d said no, I wouldn’t have been able to take flour and pulses back home. My wife and children were waiting,” he added.
No rent respite
Most labourers said their landlords continued charging rent. For two days, 24-year-old Ravi says, he lifted debris from construction sites to make money. He used to work in a private showroom in Subhash Nagar as support staff but the showroom, which shut due to the lockdown last year, has not reopened.
“I used to get ₹10,000 and it was a private job. I never thought I’ll have to go back to labour work,” he says, adding that he is worried for his daughter’s education because he doesn’t own a smartphone and has informed the school that he can’t afford it. “They ask me to take help from landlord but who will give their phone for hours? Thankfully, they have not struck my daughter’s name from school”.
This article was originally published on The Hindu