The wait never seems to end at Rajawadi junction. Some spend the time talking and laughing, others over multiple cups of tea, still others reading the newspaper. But Chotkun doesn’t want to talk about it. “Poocho mat. Don’t ask.”
For the past six days, 41-year-old Chotkun has been coming to Ghatkopar East at 7:30 am, to join several hundred men in search of daily labour. But as the hours pass by, work never arrives and he leaves dispirited, only to return the next morning.
On Saturday, Chotkun set up vigil near a tea stall on instructions from a labour contractor. “I do not know if he will show up or if I will have to spend another day without work,” he said. Around him, as men more arrived on foot, in buses and in autorickshaws, each wore the same expression, exasperated and weary.
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Several men said that prior to the Centre’s demonetisation exercise, Rajawadi Junction was a lively ‘kamgar naka’ or labour market — one of Mumbai’s many, where contractors pick up men for construction jobs. But as the money dried up, so has the work. The chaos around Rajawadi Junction between 8 am and 9.30 am, with work guaranteed for at least 100 of the men gathered, has died out. The contractors have stopped turning up and the few who do have nothing to offer. So, the wait goes on.
A father of four children in Faridabad, Uttar Pradesh, Chotkun was earlier able to send anywhere between Rs. 2,000 and Rs 10,000 home after a week’s work in Mumbai. Post November 8, the Rs 500 he gets paid for a day’s work barely lasts three days. “If I do not find work the next day, what will I save from my wages? After three days, I have no money for food,” he said.
Chotkun first came to Mumbai in search of work at the age of 12. While his family cultivates wheat in their farm, there are no jobs he finds suitable at home. Having decided against joining his brother’s cattle dealership, Chotkun had the choice of looking for work in Delhi. “It is closer than Mumbai, but it’s too cold there,” he said.
If the contractor does show up, this would still be only the second day that Chotkun would have worked since January 2. Having never attended school, Chotkun cannot while away time reading the paper, unlike a group of men from Nanded standing close by.
Part of the Nanded group, Sanjay Dhange and Anil Mudiraj are seeing out their fifth consecutive day without work. “There was a time,” Dhange said, “when contractors would call us to work. Now it is the other way around.”
In their late thirties, the two men have farmland and the security of three meals a day waiting for them at home. In Mumbai, they’ve only worked 15 days in the past two months. “Things were good before notebandi. Now I don’t have money to buy soap to wash my clothes,” said Mudiraj, gesturing at his muddy pants.
Businesses around the junction know that the unemployed men are desperately broke, said Dhange. “They won’t even give us a vada pav on credit,” he laughed.
By 11 am, the duo has decided to return to their rented room at Ghatkopar. The very thought of spending another day indoors agitates an already impatient Chotkun. But just as he begins weighing whether or not to buy his second cup of tea, the contractor walks up to him. After a brief conversation, the contractor walks away, saying, “Kal aa jaana (come tomorrow).” There is no anger on Chotkun’s face “If this continues, I will have to return.”
Chotkun’s wait goes on.