Updated: June 27, 2021 12:09:32 pm
For seven years Ritesh Wadhwa and his father ran the canteen at the College of Vocational Studies (CVS) in Sheikh Sarai in New Delhi. The thought of doing any other work had never crossed his mind, until the institute was shut due to the pandemic. Now, Wadhwa is a motorcycle driver with Uber, barely making enough to survive in the city.
“The college shut soon after the pandemic hit last year, and we didn’t know how long it would last. I paid my nine workers their salary for three months but I couldn’t afford to keep paying them once the college closed. I tried my best, and managed to get most of them employed as workers in various companies, but my own situation was not good,” says Wadhwa, who stays on rent with his parents, wife and a young daughter.
“In college, my father would handle the cash, and I would look after the managerial work. Once the canteen closed, he could no longer work. In October last year, I decided I had to start looking for work because colleges were not going to open soon. I started working with Uber. I work 12-13 hour shifts every day, and seven days a week. On any day, I don’t earn more than Rs 300-500. It’s been a very difficult time,” he adds.
Delhi University’s (DU) college canteens were once a beehive of activity, always bustling with people. After the first lockdown last year, canteen managers and workers suddenly found themselves without any source of income. Several have since moved back to their villages and are either working as labourers or tending to their farms, while others sit at home waiting in the hope that colleges would reopen soon.
On May 10, the DU Teachers’ Association even wrote to the University Grants Commission on providing aid to contract workers. “Additional funding should be provided to institutions to maintain contract workers through this period of pandemic whose salaries were otherwise generated/arranged by institutions through students’ fees. Not only will institutions lose skilled workers who have served for long but this will also push families of these employees into depression,” the letter read.
Kapil Panwar, who had been running the canteen at Shaheed Rajguru College of Applied Sciences for the last 7-8 years, says all of his 18 workers returned to their villages.
“They have all gone back home to their villages. All my savings have been spent. Nothing is left. I’m the sole breadwinner of the family and it has been one and a half years of just sitting at home. I just can’t understand what to do ahead,” he says.
Kamal Singh, one of Panwar’s workers, who had returned home to his village in Uttarakhand’s Almora, says “relying on farming is not an option”.
“If I was in Delhi, my situation would have been worse because here I have my own home, but the safety net is no longer there. We have a little land, but the wheat crop last year was not good. So relying on farming is also not an option. I don’t know if I’ll ever get my job back,” he says.
Brijesh Kumar, who worked at the Kirori Mal College canteen for two years, started working as a daily wage labourer during the pandemic. “Now I have given up. I worked as a waiter for some wedding parties and get-togethers on daily wages, but that money was never paid to me. My boss has even blocked my number. Right now, the only earning member is my father, who works as a labourer near the Red Fort area,” he says.
For some managers, the problem is worse as they are forced to pay the canteen rent. M V Anthony, who has been running the canteen at Hansraj College for 38 years, says he has to pay an annual rent of Rs 1 lakh despite the canteen staying shut since March last year.
“Earlier we had 10 KW electricity meters, but during renovation around two years back, they put four ACs in the canteen, and the principal gave me a meter of 55 KW. Now we are paying Rs 18,000-19,000 per month for electricity due to service charge etc, whether we use it or not. This is in addition to the rent. Thankfully, some students were helpful and collected money for my staff who had been left jobless and paid them Rs 10,000 each last year which helped a little,” he said.
Hansraj College Principal Rama, however, said the rent had to be sought since the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) had objected. “The electricity bill is coming according to the consumption by his staff; nobody else uses that area. The power metre was installed as per the NDPL norms,” she said.
Anil Barman, who runs the canteens at Miranda House and Hindu College, said even the future remains uncertain. “I’m currently in Mumbai with my son who’s thankfully earning well, but the overall situation is grim. Generally, canteens are run on contract basis. Our contract was till March. That is when it would usually get renewed. But there was no tender floated this year. Our worry is not just the campus reopening, but also that we don’t even know whether our contract will be renewed or not,” he says.
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