The clanging of utensils grew louder outside an MCD school in Greater Kailash where food was being distributed. But this time, it was out of anger, not gratitude.
As volunteers shut the gate at 1 pm, many women crowded outside, some of them crying. The women, almost all of them domestic helps staying at Zamrudpur village, had stood in line for over three hours, but food ran out before it was their turn. A handful of them argued with civil defence volunteers, while others retreated back to their village.
Tears trickled down 30-year-old Muskaan’s face as she wondered how she will feed her two children. Her husband has been stuck in Bihar ever since the lockdown was announced. She beat her empty lunchbox and said, “Yesterday I cooked in the same school, hoping to get some food. I got some dry atta and no roti. Today, I was too tired to work, and now I have no food. Bache marenge mere.”
Before the lockdown was announced, many of these women were working in well-to-do neighbourhoods in and around Greater Kailash, earning roughly Rs 1,000-1,500 per household and working in three-four homes every day. Each would end up making between Rs 6,000-10,000 a month, barely enough to sustain their families.
Despite the Prime Minister appealing to people, twice, not to sack or stop paying their employees, the women told The Indian Express that their employers had neither paid them, nor enquired about their well being.
Most who had queued up outside this particular school belong to Bihar and came to Delhi over a decade ago, when they were in their teens. Zamrudpur, home to the women and their families, and also to two Lodhi-era tombs, is a placement cluster — since it is surrounded by affluent colonies, there is a constant demand for domestic work.
Their husbands mostly work as labourers in several construction sites in south Delhi — for an 8-hour shift, they get anywhere between Rs 300-600. Most have not been paid their last month’s salary after the lockdown was announced. Their children study in the local government school.
Before the lockdown, the women said, they could afford three meals a day. But that changed when wages stopped and the prices of vegetables, atta and oil started shooting up in the locality. While there are ration shops dotting the area, many of the women never applied for a ration card — a decision they now rue. Some of them don’t have an Aadhaar card either, due to which they are fully dependent on the food distributed at the school.
“I used to wash dishes, cook and clean for a family in Lajpat Nagar. When the lockdown was announced, they promised to pay me soon. When I went to collect my dues, they told me from the balcony to leave, saying I may give them the virus,” said Amjrujaan Khatun, a domestic help.
Many like Khatun said the lockdown had not only robbed them of their work but also their dignity — they have gone from having a constant source of income to standing in long queues for food alongside the homeless and destitute.
Officials estimate at least 1,500 people visit this particular school every day, but there’s food for around 300. Raj Kumar Sharma, who manages the operation at the school, said they serve parathas and dal in the morning, and khichdi in the evening . “A local councillor provides us with the food and a resident of Kailash Colony provides the khichdi…Why do these women want to take food for three people?” Sharma said.
But the women have their reasons. Most have young children who they leave at home, saying they cannot risk taking them out without masks.
Malti (35), a mother of seven, has run out of the Rs 5,000 she had managed to put aside before the lockdown. Showing an empty pink purse, she said, “I have nothing. All I want is some more food for my children. Those at the shelter think I will sell the food.”
With no food to take for her children, the walk home is filled with dejection for Asradi (32). She passes through a street filled with carts laden with vegetables and fruits, but doesn’t have money to buy anything.
The entrance to the homes in Zamrudpur is stacked with garbage. Sunlight does not enter their chawl, and one has to duck to walk through the building. Standing outside her door with a packet of milk, Isra broke down. She said she had to beg her employers, and they eventually gave her the milk and some vegetables. Isra shares the items with her neighbour Roshni, who is too scared to leave her quarters since she doesn’t have a mask.
At the top floor of the building is Mamta Devi’s house. As she walked towards the terrace, she saw her children peek from an iron grill and dash towards her. “Khana nahi mila aaj. Khatam ho gaya. Shaam ko milega ab,” Devi told her nine-year-old son, who turned his back towards her.
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