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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Watching the PM speech from Okhla, an industrial hub turned migrant base

Labourers staying around the industrial area live in houses painted in bright colours of yellow, green and blue stacked atop each other.

Written by Anand Mohan J | New Delhi | Updated: April 15, 2020 7:46:50 am
At Okhla Industrial Area on Tuesday. (Express photo: Renuka Puri)

In a one-room house in Southeast Delhi’s Okhla Industrial Area, a smartphone propped up on a small cylinder doubles up as a television. The audience is a family of labourers, watching an episode of Mahabharata with rapt attention.

After it ends, they talk about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to extend the lockdown until May 3. Though there is support for the PM’s decision, and an appreciation for the fact that he acknowledged them in his address, there is also dismay that no specific plan of action was discussed to make their lives easier. The labourers, who worked in export lines, motor companies, medicine and cosmetic units dotting the industrial area, are unemployed and — without ration cards — unable to procure food from local stores.

Daya Ram, who worked in a cosmetic factory and was paid Rs 6,000 a month, has to think of a family of 10. “No one is delivering ration here. Will this change after PM’s speech? I hope it does. Khichdi kha ke thak gaya hun.” The family lines up at a local school twice a day for food being provided to stranded migrants.

At Sanjay Colony nearby, Naseem (30), who worked as a helper in a mat-making factory, waited for over four hours for the DJB water tanker. As soon as it arrived, labourers made a beeline towards it. With lack of drinking water in the area, this is their only source of clean water.

“Modi ji called us his soldiers on the ground, I am thankful for that. He also asked us to drink warm water. But if the authorities could supply drinking water for the entire day, we can remain healthy,” he said.

Labourers staying around the industrial area live in houses painted in bright colours of yellow, green and blue stacked atop each other. Some houses are crammed inside alleys where no sunlight reaches. Almost no one has masks or gloves, many have run out of soap. There is anxiety over dwindling ration, with many families having just enough to see them through the next two days.

Manoj (26), who worked as a driver in an export factory and earned Rs 7,000 a month, stays with 10 members of his family in a one-room house that only has space for a kitchen. “Thoda pehle bol dete lockdown badhne wala hai,” he said.

There is also anger at the police for not letting anyone leave their homes to get supplies as volunteers seldom venture into this area to distribute food. The alleys have also been barricaded by parked trucks.

Dr Animesh Das, president of IFTU, a trade union in Okhla, said, “There are various problems being faced by labourers in the area — their payment is stuck; ration is being given only to ration-card holders; they do not have masks which are now mandatory; and there is a fear of not having jobs.”

The fear of job losses is felt most by labourers involved in loading and packaging work at various units — a part of the informal sector at the industrial hub.

Sunil Kumar (45), a father of three, said his job involved back-breaking unloading work at a motor company. He has not been paid last month’s wages of Rs 3,000. “I am not on the official payroll… other people were given their wages by the owner. I don’t think I will have a job when all this is over,” said Kumar.

The only factory that is operational is a grocery unit. The owner, Vishnu, sources supplies from Gurgaon and has employed a staff of around 30 deliverymen. “It is difficult to make deliveries because of barricading in the area. But the supply chain must not be disrupted here, else people will starve,” he said.

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