The bungalows and high-rises around them have people staying indoors, adhering to the ‘work from home’ stricture. But the lived reality of migrant workers constructing a Delhi government school in South Delhi’s
C R Park is far different.
“I have been in this line for the last nine years. For all these years, construction sites have been home for me. This is where we work and live,” said Avinash Yadav, a 22-year-old from Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district.
Yadav’s words found an echo in the voices of 40-odd men and women living at the site, in a makeshift slum of low-ceiling huts made of battered tin — seen across construction sites in India, where the line between home and work are blurred.
And with the lockdown shutting down such construction sites, workers are not only staring at uncertainty over income, they also run the risk of losing the roof over their heads.
“The contractor told us there will be no work for the next three months. And that we are free to leave for our villages. But how do we go?” Kanti Lal, whose wife also works here, said. Their two children stay with them.
The workers were being paid around Rs 450 per working day, which does not add up to the minimum wage of Rs 14,842 per month as fixed by the Delhi government. And due to the roving nature of the work, they are not registered with the construction workers’ welfare boards, a prerequisite to get the one-time assistance amount of Rs 5,000 announced by the Centre and states.
“I was in Faridabad before shifting here,” Avinash said, while his friend Ravindra Kumar was working at a site in Badarpur. The workers spend an average of three to six months at one project, before being taken to another site, mostly by sub-contractors known as “petty contractors” in their parlance.
At the C R Park site, there are 12 families, mostly from Chhattisgarh and Bihar and some from West Bengal districts such as Cooch Behar and Malda. The sub-contractor claimed the workers will be paid for the days they worked in March, beyond which no payment will be made.
On Wednesday, officials of the Delhi government provided ration to the families, after being told that they were fast running out of food. “I have been here for three months with my wife, two sons and daughters-in-law. One daughter-in-law is seven months’ pregnant. We have some money from the last payment made during Holi,” said Badri Prasad, from Chhattisgarh’s Baloda Bazar-Bhatapara district.
The workers have heard about coronavirus, but they have not been provided with masks, gloves or sanitisers, in the absence of which they are depending on soap and water from one borewell, which serves all the families.
While some like Avinash want to return to Chhattisgarh, most are inclined to stay put, saying that going back would mean toiling as landless labourers. Only Ravindra’s family owns one acre of land, which will be divided among three brothers.
Moreover, there are those like Ratan Lal who have taken advance payments from contractors, which is being deducted from his monthly wages. His wife Savitri Mahan requested the Delhi government to step in to assist them so they are not left in dire straits.
There are also labourers such as Azidul Miyan and Iman Ali from West Bengal, who spent barely a week at the site before work came to a halt. “I was working in Govindpuri until six months ago when I went to my village. And the moment I return, work stops. What do I do now?” Azidul asked.
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