Slowdown Woes: India’s mazdoors struggle to survive 

The labour markets which provide thousands work are not governed by any law. The only law which governs them is the law of demand and supply

Slowdown Woes: India’s mazdoors struggle to survive 

Biswajeet Banerjee

In the mazdoor mandis or labour chowks of Lucknow, both skilled and unskilled labourers come looking for work. Some are trained masons, plumbers, carpenters but a vast majority are semi-skilled or unskilled workers. This market comes to life early in the morning between 7 am and 10 am. Labourers throng the sidewalks of the main crossings of the city. Skilled labourers assemble on one side of the road while the unskilled labourers gather on the other. The sidewalks are filled with makeshift stalls which sell bags, mobile covers, bangles, mirrors and wallets.

Sometimes five to six labourers consisting of a mason, a plumber, a carpenter and helpers work to build a house. Contractors come here to pick people of their choice. But the slowdown has hit these people hard. There is no more regular employment. “Earlier we used to get regular employment but nowadays, we return empty handed pretty often,” is the common refrain. Manish Sahu, a labourer from Chhattisgarh said that he has not got work for the last 12 days.

These markets which provide thousands work are not governed by any law. The only law which governs them is the law of demand and supply. The unskilled labourer is supposed to make Rs 400 per day and a skilled labourer Rs 700. But rarely they get the prescribed rate. The contractors bargain hard and work has become difficult to find. Often, the labourers have to accept a much lower rate.

At times, three or four members of a family gather here looking for work as there is a better chance of at least one of them getting picked up. That will ensure food for the family that night. But those who work as individuals are the worst sufferers. If lucky, they get work for three or four days in a week. They cook their food by the roadside and sleep on the dividers at night.

In UP, which is home to 24 crore people, such daily wagers account for almost 11 per cent of the total population as per government records. They are the people who are forced to leave their home in search of work. A large number of them come from Chhattisgarh. Shockingly, the UP government does not have any law to protect daily wage earners. The government has announced minimum wage to be around Rs 7400 per month for an unskilled labourer who works in a construction site. This also includes variable dearness allowance.

M.L. Verma, convener of the Daily Wagers’ Association says that in the absence of a law, the only yardstick can be the MGNREGA scheme where a labour gets somewhere around Rs 180 per day for working for eight hours a day. But, MGNREGA guarantees 100 days of work to a worker in his own village. “For the labourers in the cities, employment is not regular. They are lucky if they get work for three days a week,” he adds.

School dreams goes awry

Raju and Sonu, school dropouts from Mahasi village in Bahraich district, have come to Lucknow, looking for work. Their families could not afford the school fees. Though they have land to till, lack of rains and rampaging stray cattle have destroyed their crops. They throng the mazdoor mandi every morning.

“I want to study. But I do not have money to pay the fees. I wish to work here for some days, save some money, go back to the village and re-start my studies,” Raju said. He has passed his class IX examination from the Vaidya Bhagwan Deen Mishra Gandhi Inter College and will appear in the Class X examination this year. His look is deep as he speaks: “The situation in villages is very bad. Farming is no longer a sustainable option. The MGNREGA scheme is also not working. This simply means we do not have enough to sustain our lives. In this scenario, how can a poor parent pay fees and bear the cost of books and stationery?”

“I want to save some money so that I can pay the board examination fees and purchase some stationery. I wish to go back in November and return only after the board examination,” he adds.

Raju came to Lucknow with his friend Sonu, whose uncle is a mason and cousin a painter-cum-labourer. Sonu’s uncle had assured both of work.

Raju has been coming to the mandi for the last 15 days but has got picked up for work on just three days. “I work as a labourer and am paid Rs 400 per day. But the situation here too looks very dim. Every day in the morning we come with hope that we will get some work. But mostly, we return home dejected,” he says.

He glances around him at the hundreds also looking for work. Then he says, “We do not have work in villages. We do not have work in cities. Where will we go?”

Sonu finds a bit of humour even in the middle of their struggle to survive. He tells Raju, “Yeh Modi ka achche din hai. Koi kaam nahi, ghar ja kar aaram karo (These are the good days of Modi. There is now work. Go home and chill).”

‘We are bandhua mazdoor’

The evening of March 14, 2019, is etched in the memory of Suresh Kumar. Holi was just round the corner and he was planning to return to his native place in Sitapur. He had worked as a mason in a businessman’s house but his dues were not cleared. That day, he had gone to collect his dues. But, he was beaten up mercilessly and left bleeding on the road.

“I do not know how long I was left unattended. When I gained consciousness, I found myself surrounded by unknown faces. I was taken to the hospital where I was told that I had a broken leg and bruises all over my body,” he said. “I was beaten up because I had asked for my dues from a man whose house I had painstakingly built and repaired for over 15 days,” he laments.

In February, Suresh entered into a verbal agreement to repair the house of the said ‘Seth’. “I had asked for Rs 700 per day as daily wage but as the work required a long engagement, I agreed to bring it down to Rs 600. For the first two days, he paid me Rs 500 per day, said he was running short of money and that he would clear the dues once work was over. This continued for many weeks. I needed the money and when I threatened to lodge a police complaint, he beat me up,” Suresh recalls.

The labourers, surrounding him at the mandi, express their sympathy and solidarity. “This is nothing new. Ask labourers around you they will tell you stories as to how people who live in big kothis (bungalows) have duped them. These people can spend thousands on sharab (liquor) but does not have money to pay the labourers,” Pintoo Gautam, 23, says. “Even the police support them because they have the money to grease the cops’ palms,” he quips.

Everyone who comes for work here knows that he may be working as a bonded labourer or at least will be made to work without any payment. “We are not mazdoor, but ‘bandhua mazdoor’. It is true we are allowed to go home in the evening but seldom we get full payment,” Pintoo says.

The graduate who sleeps on Lucknow’s streets

If you think the labour market is just a place for illiterates or school dropouts, you need to meet Yogesh Chandra from Pratapgarh who has been forced to come to Lucknow and work as a labourer because of closure of the chemical factory he used to work in. A B.Sc. from Allahabad University, he in the factory in Mumbai. The factory shut shop recently as the owner was not being able to pay taxes and salaries to the employees. He had stayed back in Mumbai for a couple of months, looking for work. But nothing came his way.

“It was very tough in Mumbai. I was living in a chawl near Khar Danda in Mumbai with one of my village mates who used to sell guava on the streets. He took care of me for a few months but then I decided to come back to Pratapgarh,” Yogesh says, avoiding eye contact.

He continues: “Education cannot guarantee jobs. You can lose your job any time because of a whimsical decision of the government. Sarkar ul-jhalool nirnay leti hai, yeh bhi nahi sochti ki logoka kya hoga (The government takes absurd decisions without thinking what will happen to the people).”

He admits that he is a misfit here. He throws a glance around the people standing there and says: “I do not know the work of a mason or plumber. I am a farmer’s son and can do menial work. So, I am ready to work as a labourer. That’s what I am doing here.”

Yogesh sleeps on the streets of Lucknow. “In Pratapgarh, I saw people sleeping on the sidewalks. I never thought I would be doing the same one day. Bhagya hai sahib (It is all fate),” he says with a shrug of his head.

Mazdoor mandi’s music man

Rupesh Kumar Nishad, 21, works frantically on his laptop that is perched precariously on the carrier of his bicycle, unmindful of the milling crowd of labourers around him. A few years back, he was one of them till the entrepreneurship bug bit him. Now, he downloads songs and movies for them. Hundreds of these labourers who have swarmed the C-block Crossing of Indira Nagar in Lucknow are not sure whether they will get work. But Rupesh’s business is brisk.

“These labourers are my clients. I download songs and movies for them on their mobile phones. They listen to these songs while at work. This is my business,” Rupesh says.

Just three years back, Rupesh was a labourer who had come to Lucknow from Kavardha district of Chhattisgarh. A class 12-pass, Rupesh noticed that while at work, labourers listened to Hindi or Bhojpuri songs. And in the evenings, they watch movies on their mobile phones.

“The labourers used to go to small kiosks and waste their precious time. It was then this idea struck me,” Rupesh says, adding: “I worked as an apprentice in a mobile shop. I bought a second-hand laptop. Now, I go to labour markets on my bicycle and download songs and movies as per demand.”

Rupesh charges Rs 30 for 4 GB and Rs 60 for 8 GB songs or movies. “I earn enough to pursue my studies. I am doing a certificate course in computers,” he says with a broad smile before a commotion breaks out. A ‘Seth’ has come, looking for labourers. Those who are huddled around Rupesh, run towards him.

“Poor chaps! Just 25 per cent of them will get work and rest will return dejected. I know this because I was myself a labourer. I will tell you another fact. Those who will get work will not get the money as promised. The owner will not pay in full. He will retain some of the money, saying he will make full payment upon completion of work. He will make them work as slaves. They are nothing but bandhua mazdoor (bonded labourers) and there is no one to save them,” he says without looking up, his fingers busy on the laptop’s keyboard.

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