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Lockdown Lament: A Painful Wait at Delhi's Labour Chowk as Some Seek Jobs, Other Wish to Go Home

Those dependent on daily wages, hungry for work, have hit the labour chowk since last Monday, hoping to be hired. (News18)

Those dependent on daily wages, hungry for work, have hit the labour chowk since last Monday, hoping to be hired. (News18)

Many of the migrant workers say just getting some food is a struggle and landlords are badgering them for rent; with no money and several dependents, the choices before them are few and harsh.

Labour Chowk at Sant Nagar in Delhi's Burari area is teeming with an unusual number of people since May 4, considering that there has been only a partial lifting of restrictions in the capital following the union home ministry's guidelines for Covid-19 red zones. Those dependent on daily wages, hungry for work, have hit this junction since last Monday, hoping to be hired.

Most work in the construction industry, earning between Rs 250 to Rs 400 a day. But work, even in the best of times, is hard to come by. And now the prospect is even more bleak.

Dharmendra Kumar, one such labourer from Bihar's Sarsa district, has been in Delhi for two months but hasn't found even a day's work. Broken and bereft of any hope,he says, "There are about 10 to 12 people with me, and no money to go home."

The story of MD Mustafa is not very different. Also from Bihar, he has been in Delhi for seven months now. Mustafa was lucky for five months, getting work once in a while. But he has been sitting idle for two and a half months now. He is aching to go home to his wife and two sons both below 10 years of age.

"I am getting sarkari khana (food from the government), but over there my children are starving. The government is saying that ration is being distributed but nothing is available there. One can survive for five to six days on the two to three kilos of ration that is being given. what does one do after that? Sit and watch children go hungry?"

Desperate, he adds while breaking down, "If anybody in my position had any money they would have consumed poison and killed themselves. When kids are sick back in the village, what does a man do? Is there a way out? Tell me?"

When asked if anyone at Labour Chowk has found any work, all voices cry out in chorus, "No one." As the days go by and the meagre resources of daily wage labourers have reduced to almost nothing, there is an angry questioning of the lockdown.

(Reserving a place in the queue for food.)

Middle-aged Sagar Shukla from Bihar has made Delhi his home for years. He lost his wife about eight years ago and raising his 10-year-old son is his only purpose now.

Shukla points to a cut in his head alleging that he got it when he was hit by his landlord for not paying the room rent. Like the rest of the migrants here, he, too, depends on the free kitchens opened by the Delhi government for food. As he was unwell, he sent his son to collect the food, but the boy, he says, has been turned away repeatedly and told to send his father instead. "I have no money for food. No money for rent," he bursts out in anger.

"People are now drinking liquor at home. Beedis that were selling for Rs 10 now cost Rs 45. Everything is available. What kind of a lockdown is this?"

The migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who constitute the bulk of the migrant workers in Burari find the going particularly tough, living on meals provided by Delhi government and fending off landlords, who are now insisting on rent. One voice says, "I am from Bihar but I stay with my family over here. I do not want to go back to Bihar. The landlord is harassing for us rent, and there's no money. That is why I am here."

Raja, also from Bihar, says, "In three months I got work for just five days. After that lockdown was imposed. Have been sitting around since then. Getting a little food itself is a struggle. I come here for that at 9, and have to wait in line till 12. Only then do I get to eat. We are four people but get food only for two. The landlord says 'the lockdown has ended, find some work and pay the rent. Or leave the house'."

The choices in front of these workers are bleak. Most say they would go back to their villages, while others want to stay on in Delhi but only if work is available. Manoj is from UP's Amroha district and works in the construction industry. Distraught, he says, "Why would I want to stay in Delhi? When there's no work, what should I do? Starve to death?"

Shakil from Siwan district has been here since four months. He has had no work. Standing and waiting for an employment opportunity at Labour Chowk has become difficult, he says, as the police shoo them away. However, he adds, "If work is available, I will stay here."

Kamal Thakur from UP's Aligarh is seething with anger. He was walking from Sant Nagar to Amroha when he was stopped at the border and sent back to Delhi. His elderly father in his village is dependent on the few hundred rupees that Kamal hoped to send, but he has no work and no income. "I came here for work. When there's no work, what do I do? I want to go back but they won't let me", he says. "I have no money. No money at all. What should I do?"

Sagar Shukla says, "They opened up liquor stores first, but not any work for people like us. Labourers are dying of hunger." The Delhi government has allowed construction work to resume, but only with on-site labour.

For those with other skills, there are simply no takers now. "Provide us with work, or send us home" is the common refrain of the workers here.

"Just start trains from here and we will leave," says a worker belonging to Kamalpur in Bihar. "It's an endless wait to find work, and there's nothing. We are just starving here."

On May 8, the first 'Shramik Special' train from Delhi to Muzaffarpur left at 3pm carrying 1,200 migrant workers. Another such train left for Madhya Pardesh on the 7th, and buses transporting migrant labourers to Punab left on the 10th.

In the first phase of facilitating the journey of these workers back to their home states, the Delhi Government is focussing on those housed in various temporary shelter homes in school buildings and sports complexes. For the lakhs outside shelter homes, the process of registration has begun even as chief minister Arvind Kejriwal made an appeal on May 10 for the migrant labourers to stay back , assuring that work would soon be available.

The chief minister also promised those who wanted to return that arrangements would be made for them as well, urging them not to venture out on foot.

In a rare moment of acknowledgement of the failure of various governments, he also said, "Migrant labourers , in huge numbers, are still walking from one place to another. They have been walking for days together. Their feet have been bruised by it. Some haven't eaten for days. The rotis that they had carried with them while setting off are over. There is no help available on the roads. Many are carrying their kids on their shoulders. One person was seen carrying his elderly mother. It is very painful. It feels as if the entire system has failed. All the governments have failed."