Barely a few metres from a prestigious school in Noida Extension’s Sector Tech Zone 4 near the national capital, five scantily-clad children sit down for lunch on the footpath in front of their tarpaulin house. With the mercury touching 40 degrees Celsius, the children struggle to shield their plates from the sand and dust blowing in from the tens of under-construction buildings in the area.
“My husband and I have worked for top real estate groups. Numerous projects are coming up here and as blacksmiths, we are in demand,” says 31-year-old Sangeeta, serving rice to the children, adding, “It is one of those rare days when we are both at home. Even on our off days, we sell momos from a cart.”
Parents of four — three sons and a daughter, all below eight years — Sangeeta and her husband mould iron products needed for strengthening foundations of buildings. “We set up a bhatti (a small furnace) at the construction site, where we beat the iron to shape and size. It is not only a tiring but also a risky job,” she says.
But it is not work that worries Sangeeta. Her concern is the safety of her children who accompany her to work. “They play among themselves but because of the bhatti, I feel scared,” she says.
Mishaps leading to loss of lives are not uncommon at sites such as Sangeeta’s. On June 18, a three-year-old girl, Monika, tied to her mother Angoori’s back, died after the walls of a ditch being dug at a site in Greater Noida collapsed. Three others, also allegedly forced into the ditch despite the earth being loose, were injured in the incident.
The news hasn’t made its way though to these parts.
“I don’t want to take my children to the site. But where will they stay after school is over at 2 pm? I have to work till 5 pm,” Sangeeta says, turning to her elder son Veer, who, she claims, is learning nothing at school but keeps getting promoted every year.
Most labourers in the area send their children to a nearby public school.
A little over a kilometre away is a slum, the residents of which work at adjacent construction sites, many of which are closed now because of fund crunch or legal issues.
Sitting in their one-room, unplastered home are 37-year-old Ashok and Chanchala. Natives of Bihar’s Jamui district, the couple migrated to Noida about eight years ago and have been working as labourers since.
As she is off from work today, Chanchala is taking care of as many as seven neighbourhood children, apart from her three daughters — two of them eight and six and school-going, and the youngest who is nearly three and needs support to walk.
“We are scared of taking her (the youngest) with us to the site. So we leave her with our neighbours if they are at home,” says 30-year-old Chanchala. But since such days are rare, Chanchala, who earns about
Rs 250 a day plastering walls, ends up mostly leaving the girl at home alone. “I keep water and food in separate vessels. She drinks and eats from them. Once my elder daughters are back from school, they take care of her. Even when I am working, my mind is at home. Before she was born, I had two miscarriages,” says Chanchala, suddenly sombre.
Ashok says the nature of his job makes things harder for Chanchala. “The thekedaar (contractor) sends me to different locations — often Sector 150 (about 30 km away) and Gurgaon (nearly 55 km away). On days I finish late, I am not able to return home.”
Sitting on a muddy road next to a construction site in Sector 4 in Noida Extension is 35-year-old Sangeeta, who has been working as a labourer for nearly 12 years now. Hailing from Bihar’s Bhagalpur district, Sangeeta is leaving five hours earlier than usual today. “I am working half day as I have to visit a relative. My husband is taking care of our three children (a daughter and two sons) at home,” she says.
On most days though, her younger son, who is not yet enrolled in school, accompanies Sangeeta to work. Pointing to the 10-storey building where she works, the 35-year-old says, “You think it’s safe to bring him? The upper floors don’t even have walls. But I have no option… Many other labourers also bring their children, he plays with them. I earn Rs 300 every day and I have to pay Rs 3,000 every month as school fees for my two kids. Then, there are other expenditures. I am not left with enough money to send the youngest one to school. But I know, if he doesn’t go to school, he will end up working like me.”
It is the same thing that bothers Ashok. Sitting in his jhuggi about 8 km away, he rues, “I grew up in Bihar. Only if my parents had sent me to school, taught me how to hold a pen, I could have done something better. Now, it is the fear that my daughters may sleep on empty stomach that keeps me going.”
(The article appeared in print with the headline: Monika & Angoori)
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