‘Can't Afford to Make Air Pollution an Issue,’ Say Labourers in Delhi

'What’s worse – staying jobless and hungry indoors or facing the polluted air outdoors?’ ask labourers in Delhi.

7 min read
Hindi Female

As the air quality in Delhi deteriorates to hazardous levels amid rising pollution and meteorological factors, such as wind speed, the government last week ordered a ban on non-essential construction work in the capital region.

In the wake of the construction ban, which has been invoked several times over the past few years, The Quint revisits its story from last year where we spoke to daily-wage construction labours on how the ban would dent their livelihood. Also hear from gig workers such as delivery persons, who have no choice but to be exposed to the toxic air engulfing the city in order to ensure they have enough to feed their family.

As you approach a rather silent labour chowk at the locus of a cacophonous street in south Delhi’s Gautam Nagar early Monday morning, a group of men come scrambling, all saying the same thing — “koi kaam hai kya?” 

It’s been over a week since the Arvind Kejriwal-led government in Delhi announced a ban on non-essential private construction activities in the Capital owing to alarming levels of air pollution. As a result, daily-wage construction workers are left in the lurch with no work and no means to a livelihood.  

'What’s worse – staying jobless and hungry indoors or facing the polluted air outdoors?’ ask labourers in Delhi.

Workers awaiting contractual jobs at the labour chowk in south Delhi.  

(Photo: Aakriti Handa)

And then there are street hawkers, security guards, fruit and vegetable vendors and food delivery executives in the city who are exposed to long hours of pollutants-laden air in Delhi year after year.  

The Quint spoke to four such people, who say they don’t know what’s worse – staying jobless and hungry indoors or facing the polluted air outdoors?


‘Have Got No Work Since Construction Ban’: Rajaram 

For the last one week, 32-year-old Rajaram has returned home with no money. A construction worker who hails from Bihar’s Madhubani district, Rajaram has only worked for 10 days since Diwali, which was on 24 October.  

“This happens every year now after Diwali. The ban on construction activities is an annual activity. As always, I have got no work since the ban,” he told The Quint, at 8 am at the Gautam Nagar labour chowk, where he awaited a job for the day.  

'What’s worse – staying jobless and hungry indoors or facing the polluted air outdoors?’ ask labourers in Delhi.

Rajaram has been out of work for the past eight days, and worries about his domestic expenses. 

(Photo: Aakriti Handa)

The Centre's air quality panel on 29 October had imposed a ban on all non-essential construction and demolition activity in Delhi-NCR due to worsening air quality levels.

On 7 November, the government eased the ban, allowing construction work related to highways, roads, flyovers, pipelines and power transmission. But the ban on private construction and demolition work will continue until the air quality gets better.

Before the ban, Rajaram used to work as a mason.  

He earns around Rs 500 a day, and is the sole breadwinner of his family of eight. The bad air is the least of his worries. 

Hawa ka kya karenge jab khana-paani hi nahi hoga aur ghar pe paise nahi honge?"

What will I do with the air quality if I don't have enough money for food?” he asked.  

Every day at 7 am, he reaches the labour chowk with hope and trepidation in equal measure.  

 “On usual days, labourers get hired by 8.30 am but due to the ban, we keep waiting till noon. No job has come my way in the last one week,” he said. This means, Rajaram has not earned Rs 3,500 this week – a sum equivalent to his monthly room rent in Delhi.   

For the last one week, Rajaram has been returning home by noon. Rajaram has four daughters -- the younger ones live with him and his wife in Delhi, while the older ones live with their grandparents back home in Bihar. He has not been able to send money home to his parents, and with a construction ban in place, it seems unlikely that he will have enough saved up month-end to send home.

"The last two years have anyway been difficult with COVID-19 shutting work. In 2020, I walked back home. What do I do now?"

 Rajaram has no idea about the Kejriwal government’s recent announcement of giving Rs 5,000 per month as financial aid to construction workers. “We are not educated. We don’t know anything,” he lamented. 

On 2 November, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that construction workers will receive a financial assistance of Rs 5,000 per month from the government during the time construction activities are prohibited in the national capital.

Rajaram is not alone. Others like him at the labour chowk too have no idea about the aide they are entitled to as construction workers. 

'What’s worse – staying jobless and hungry indoors or facing the polluted air outdoors?’ ask labourers in Delhi.

Construction workers at a labour chowk in Delhi on Monday. 

(Photo: Aakriti Handa)


‘I Wear A Mask at Work Because I Sit Outside All Day’: Shahbaz Khan, Security Guard  

“Gaaon mein ped zyaada hai, har jagah hariyaali hai. Mahaul khula-khula hai…(In my village, there are more trees and it’s all green),” reminisced Shahbaz Khan, about his village in Bihar’s Darbhanga.

On Monday, 7 November, he stood outside, guarding a high-end housing society in south Delhi, squinting at the grey morning sky, with no sign of sun or blue .  

Subah ke waqt ka andaaza hi nahi hota, itna kohra rehta hai (You don't realise it’s morning, there is so much smog),” complained Khan. He works as a security guard from 8 am to 8 pm daily for Rs 12,000 a month.

Jab kaam pe chalke aata hun, toh saans phool jaate hai (When I walk to work, I find myself short of breath),” the 18-year-old said. Taking a leave from work, however, is not an option.

'What’s worse – staying jobless and hungry indoors or facing the polluted air outdoors?’ ask labourers in Delhi.

18-year-old Shahbaz Khan sits out for nearly 12 hours a day, exposing himself to hazardous air quality in Delhi.

(Photo: Aakriti Handa)

The Air Quality Index (AQI), a yardstick of the amount of pollutants in the air, of Delhi has been hovering in between the 'severe' and 'unhealthy' category for the last 10 days. Some reports have even equated the hazardous air quality to smoking 30 cigarettes a day.   

For 12 hours, Khan sits outside his booth, makes entries in a register of all incoming and outgoing vehicles and visitors. Every time a car or a bike whizzes past the entry gate, he quickly covers his face with his cap.    

“I can’t wear a mask all day, it’s difficult to breathe but I do wear it at work,” said Khan. Apart from this, he said he washes his hands and face thoroughly after reaching home to “wash off” all the pollutants and dust. 


‘Fell Sick Due to Smog’: Raju, Street Hawker 

 “I have got a cold, sore throat and headache because of the smog,” said 40-year-old Raju, who sells sweet lime juice outside Sarojini Nagar market in Delhi.   

Each day, he walks seven km one way, manoeuvring his cart through wide roads with bustling traffic and dusty by-lanes to reach the spot where he parks it. Along the way, he inadvertently inhales toxic fumes emanating from vehicles' exhaust pipes. The cool, slow-moving air, unable to disperse the pollutants, has only exacerbated the situation.     

'What’s worse – staying jobless and hungry indoors or facing the polluted air outdoors?’ ask labourers in Delhi.

Raju, who sells sweet lime juice outside Delhi's popular Sarojini Nagar market, complains about the poor air quality, and is worried about his daughters' health.

(Photo: Aakriti Handa)

 “I spend at least 14 hours outside home,” said Raju. Last week, as the air quality in Delhi plummeted to the 'severe-plus' category, the government brought in strict curbs including shutting schools for primary classes, directing people to work from home, and banning diesel vehicles which aren't BS-VI compliant.   

 “Market bhe dheeli ho gayi hai (The market is also down). People are not stepping out because of the pollution,” he said. To beat pollution woes, Raju gargles with lukewarm water, and puts warm mustard oil on his head every night.  

A native of Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich, Raju is worried sick about the impact of the pollution on his two daughters. “I was relieved to know that the government shut down schools, so my daughters can stay indoors,” he said.  

Raju said that if it weren't for his livelihood, he would have left for his village a long time ago. ”The air is cleaner there," he said.


‘Have a Constant Headache But Have to Work‘: Sonu, Delivery Executive  

“My head feels heavy perpetually,” said 35-year-old Sonu, as he awaited a cup of ginger tea at a stall on Monday afternoon. He had barely squeezed in a few minutes between his work.  

A native of Delhi, Sonu works as a delivery executive with a food delivery company in Delhi. He works nearly 12 hours a day, and drives from one corner of the city to the other on his two-wheeler.  

 “The day of Diwali was the worst. There was so much smoke in the air, so much pollution. I faced breathing issues that day. Other than that, I have not faced any issues except a constant headache,” said Sonu, as he frantically checked his phone for the next delivery.   

'What’s worse – staying jobless and hungry indoors or facing the polluted air outdoors?’ ask labourers in Delhi.

Sonu, a delivery executive complained of a constant headache due to poor air quality in Delhi. 

(Photo: Aakriti Handa)

"Ab kaam to karna he hai, chaahe jaisa bhi ho (I have to work no matter what it entails)," sighed Sonu, who earns approximately Rs 15,000 per month, cris-crossing through the city, delivering food parcels. He asserted that he wears a mask on the days it gets "bad" -- his barometer for which is poor visibility.  

“So far, we have received no directives from the company to reduce the number of working hours or issue protective gear to limit our exposure to harmful air,” said Sonu, minutes before he left for another delivery. 

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Topics:  Air Pollution   Delhi 

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