Umesh Kumar had been waking up at 6 am for the last two weeks, to queue up outside SBI’s Wazirpur branch to get his Rs 10,000 salary exchanged. A 26-year-old contractual worker at a steel utensil factory in Wazirpur Industrial area, Umesh was paid his October salary in old Rs 500 notes on November 10. Days later, he along with 74 others at the unit, lost their jobs, as demonetisation hit the factory’s revenue.
On Friday, Umesh, who has worked in Delhi for five years, woke up with a new plan. “I am going to Mehezpur, my village in Bihar, today. It has been eight months since I last visited. My wife and children will be waiting,” he said. In Delhi, his home was a small blue room, located in a jhuggi cluster near the factory. He split the Rs 1,500 rent with three other factory workers — all of whom left for Bihar last week.
“They were sacked before me. None of us were paid wages for the 10-odd days we worked. The owner said he will pay us when we return. I will go home for two months because I am running out of money. I owe my landlord a month’s rent and money for everyday items,” Umesh said.
A little later, he went to the factory to meet a friend, and “settle money matters”.
Wazirpur, in northwest Delhi, has roughly 1,300 factories that employ 75,000 workers. But the area, hidden behind a row of banquet halls, has been unusually quiet since the demonetisation.
Jai Kishore Bansal, president of the Wazirpur Industrial Estate Welfare Association and owner of several factories, said production had fallen by 90 per cent. “No one is buying steel utensils. Sales are down and shopkeepers have cancelled orders. We have stopped production because we already have a stockpile of unsold inventory,” he said.
But he refused to link demonetisation with workers leaving in droves. “It’s wedding and katai (reaping) season. They tend to go back to their villages this time of the year,” he said.
Back in his room, Umesh packed a saree and slippers he bought for his wife, and sweaters for his sons and parents. His friend Lakshman, who is staying back in Delhi, handed him biscuits, soaps and creams to deliver to his family in Mehezpur.
Satyender, Umesh’s friend who is travelling with him to Sasaram, told them that the Poorabiya Express was running a few hours late. Eventually, the two reached Adarsh Nagar station, where the Poorabiya visits twice a week. Hundreds of people, majority of them labourers headed for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, crowded the station.
“Khush hain, ghar jaa rahe hain,” Umesh said. Minutes later, Binod, a friend who had also been laid off and was travelling to Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur, ran into them. “I just paid an old Rs 500 note for a Rs 230 ticket,” he said.
The three discussed how they will have to look for work once they return to Delhi. “Once we are laid off, we look for work in other factories. We usually get work in a few days, but this is different. We don’t know when markets will pick up and when factories will hire again,” Umesh said.
After hours of wait, the Poorabiya Express rolled in at 9 pm. The three friends disappeared into the crowds scrambling for space in unreserved compartments, turning their backs on the capital this winter.