It’s 11 am. The sun is shining bright. And Chawri Bazaar is already bustling with swarms of people going about their daily business. But in a sharp contrast to all that hustle and bustle, a sense of stillness occupies Labour Chowk that’s situated right opposite Chawri Bazaar Metro Station. I go to 42-year-old Sukhram, sitting impatiently next to a bag and a small five litre paint bucket, in which paintbrushes of different sizes can be seen.
Sukhram migrated from his village in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, to New Delhi some two decades back in search of greener pastures. He left behind his wife and six kids, and now works as a painter in the city, earning between Rs 500-600 for nine hours of work on a good day. But no work has come his way today.
Like Sukhram, there are hundreds of laborers doing all kinds of odd jobs, who wait at Labour Chowk looking for work starting in the morning at around 7-8 am . They are usually paid dihadi, or a daily wage at the day’s end, for the work done during the day.
And the one opposite Chawri Bazaar has migrants who have come from villages all over North India. Even though Sukhram’s line of work doesn’t guarantee him a fixed income, he is sure that he doesn’t want to work under a contractor; the contractors he worked with earlier would only pay half of what he earned. He prefers working as a daily wage labourer, he says.
Today was not a good day, no one came to get me for work. In fact, the whole week wasn’t good. I only got work on Monday, after which I’ve just been waiting here at the chowk. I am about to run out of Rs 600 I had earned earlier this week.Sukhram, Painter
Back in his village, Sukhram has six bigha zameen (agricultural land), where he grows wheat during this time of the year. He goes back to his village as and when required, for sowing seeds or during the time of harvest.
The wheat seeds that Sukhram sowed this season will fetch him about Rs 1,660/100 kg. He works as a painter to earn some extra income to help him invest more in his crops and sell them further.
45-year-old carpenter Tahir Ali migrated to Delhi at the age of 20, after his ustaad (master carpenter) told him about the work opportunities in the city. When Tahir got married at 22, he brought his wife along with him, but due to the high cost of living in the city, the couple decided that the wife move back to the village.
Tahir now lives in a rented room that is shared by seven other workers from his village. Together, they pay a rent of Rs 8,000 per month. Like most of his roommates, Tahir too, starves himself to save money to send back home. Even then, it doesn’t suffice to cover all the household expenses; the family ends up taking wheat on credit, and survives on rotis with onion and chutney for most of its meals.
Not one of the ten men at the chowk have gotten work since the time I have come here. As I move on to the Hauz Qazi Lane nearby, the men stay there, dejected.
Tahir’s room, which is shared by 7 other labourers from his village.
As rickshaws and scooters whizz past me in the busy Hauz Qazi lane, my attention is immediately directed to the thellawalas, ie the men who carry hardware materials in their thelas.
60-year-old Balakram Rajasthani is sitting outside a hardware store on his thella, and smoking a beedi. He moved to Delhi from Diggi in Tonk, Rajasthan, two years before he married “meri Rekha” – his wife – at 22.
Since they’ve been married, Rekha has never once been to Delhi, and Balakram knows he can’t get her here, for it won’t be safe. For the last 40 years, he has been sleeping on his thella, be it the harsh Delhi winters or the scorching summers.
The couple has no kids, and Balakram says his wife feels very lonely all alone in the village.
Today, his wallet has only Rs 20, with which he will have dinner. On asking him if he has had lunch, he tells me he skipped the meal, as he usually does, so he can send some money back home to his Rekha. He really misses her, he says. It has been 18 months since he last met her.
As I walk a little further into the lane, I see a group of men carrying heavy loads on their heads. Locally called the jhalliwallas, they tell me their name loosely translates as the coolies of Chawri Bazar.
The men usually hail from Jharkhand, Bihar, and sometimes even Nepal.
The many hardware stores in the area often have deliveries from noon to evening, but since most of the godowns are in the narrow lanes where the tempo-rickshaws can’t enter, it’s the jhalliwallas who keep the place running.
As soon as a tempo-rickshaw stops on the main Hauz Qazi lane, eight-ten jhalliwalas run towards it for work. Brijmohan is one of them.
25-year-old Brijmohan is a short man wearing a round-hat of sorts, stitched out of an empty cement bag, on his head. This not only helps him in carrying the heavy load, but also protects his head from possible injuries.
Brijmohan hails from Motihari in Bihar and earns about Rs 600-700 on good days, transporting heavy machinery parts on his head. He loads up about 20-25 pieces of flange (a metal projecting disc-shaped collar or rim on an object for locating or strengthening it or for attaching it to another object), each weighing close to a kilogram, and starts rushing past the crowds into the narrow lanes.
As he unloads at the maalik’s godown, he gets a token in return. This token will fetch him Rs 14 at the end of the day. As soon as he drops the flanges, he rushes back to the parked tempo-rickshaw to take another load of flanges to the godown. There are many flanges to carry – almost 2,000 kg in total.
Different tokens fetch the workers a different amount of money varying between Rs.8 to Rs.20/token.
At the end of the workday, Brijmohan goes to sleep in the one room which he has rented with three other jhalliwalas for Rs 4,000 per month.
32-year-old Vishwanath also works as a jhalliwala.
Vishwanath first moved to the city 11 years ago, leaving behind his wife and four kids back in the village. Vishwanath is tall and strong, and can easily carry 30 flanges on each of his trips to the godown. This fetches him about Rs 600 each day.
As evening approaches and work for the day is almost done; jhalliwalas exchange tokens amongst themselves, watch videos on cellphones, or have their second cup of tea of the day.
40-year-old Upender Thapa says he started working as a jhalliwala in Chawri when he came to Delhi some 20 years ago, after running away from his home in Nepal.
Now married with three kids, Thapa says he misses his family.
Ab agar parivar ki hi yaad aati raheygi toh kaam nahi hogi… aur parivar ko kaise palenge… phone hai roz baat ho jati hai … kabhi bache video call bhi ker dete hai to dekh leta hoon sabko.” (If I miss my family too much, I won’t be able to work. And if I am not able to work, how will I feed my family? I speak to them every day. Sometimes, my kids video call me, so I get to see my family too)Upender Thapa, jhalliwala from Nepal.
Payments are usually done post 7 pm, only after the stores and godowns are shut.
The owners give money to their supervisors who pay the labourers.
Sundays are an off day for the jhalliwalas, which they spend walking around the streets of Old Delhi. They don’t sleep in, Vishwa tells me, for if they sleep the whole day, their bodies will start aching, and they would not be able to earn a living.