Nearly 200 young men armed with cameras and printers come to India Gate in New Delhi every morning, hoping to make a living by clicking photos of tourists

It’s noontime, baking hot, and I am passing by India Gate in New Delhi in an air-conditioned car. Thank God for it! Peeping out, I see the barricaded road leading to the early 19th Century monument — popular on tourists’ to-do list otherwise — nearly deserted. Who visits a roasting Delhi in May-June, after all?

And then I catch this sight — a bunch of eager beavers. With cameras hanging round their neck, they form an uneven line, just where the police barricade starts on the stretch of Rajpath that ends at the Gate, each flashing sample photos from albums. Pretty palpable is their hope for the odd tourist to arrive and hire their services.

No, they are neither a new phenomenon at India Gate nor have I spotted them for the first time. In fact, I remember reading a news item some time last year that the photographers of India Gate had been barred from entering the area. So they are back now!

A parallel thought also hits my head: even in the best of weather, who gets a photo clicked by them at a time when even the cheapest mobile phones have in-built cameras?

The question needs an answer, and I soon find myself amid them. They take me for that one odd tourist they have been waiting for; offer to click my photo with the edifice as the backdrop. “Rs.30, 40 or 50? See samples, photo in two minutes,” the offer is concise. “One for the memory, madam,” they try their luck.

I pose the niggling question to them. Soon names get exchanged, a conversation ensues and in that stream bobs the answer. Rather, the constant struggle, to find the answer. Impressive is their everyday fight to keep the means of livelihood ticking, even in the harshest of environments

“We are nearly 200 of us here. Every day, by 10 o’ clock, we arrive here hoping to make some money,” says Salim. No, he doesn’t own the camera, a Nikon D3000. “We are all employed by a group of people, some get a daily wage from them, some others get commission for photos clicked,” says the Sangam Vihar resident.

Summer is a terrible time for them. “In this heat, we wait the whole day. Hardly anybody comes,” states Salim’s mate Ajay. Ajay belongs to a U.P. village. “There is nothing there for me; I am somehow hanging on here. My neighbour in the rented room in Mandawali is in this job; he brought me to the employer three years ago,” he says. In tourist season, each of these men — in their 20s and 30s — earns between Rs. 5000 and 6000 per month. In summers, the amount dwindles to around Rs.4000. Pointing at another photographer, Salim says, “Vinod is married, has two children, it becomes very difficult for him at times.”

So how do they manage to deliver a photo to a tourist in two minutes? “We bring printers with us. There are about 40 portable printers at this point of time on the India Gate lawns,” pipes up photographer Sonu. No, they don’t own the printers either. Sonu points out a man standing some distance away, saying, “He is my employer. You can talk to him.”

The man — seemingly in his late 30s — identifies himself as Sandeep Rajput. “We have been in this business for the last 8-10 years. I have grown up playing at India Gate; my father, grandfather were balloon sellers here,” says Sandeep. His interest lies in outdoor photography, but he has not got a break yet. “I am carrying on here like this, can earn at the most Rs.15,000 per month,” he says.

Camera phones indeed put a spanner in his business. So does Police harassment. “We have to pay policemen every day to be here,” he says. In an attempt to join hands “to get permission from the authorities, maybe an I-D card,” 36 such ‘employers’ came together two-three years ago to form a union, he says. “It is a registered body named Photographer Welfare Association.”

Mukesh Kumar, the union president, says the biggest blow was when the Police banned their entry to the area just after the December 16 rape case. “When we came back, there were other people operating in collusion with some policemen.” They have been trying to approach Delhi Tourism, the New Delhi Municipal Council and Delhi Police, for permission to be on the lawns. “We also did dharna in front of Sonia Gandhi’s house, Sheila Dikshit’s house,” relates Mukesh.

“NDMC told us, fill forms, we will give you kiosks. It has been over a year now,” says Mukesh’s senior union colleague Sandeep. “We have never done anything illegal here. In fact, a fellow photographer, Raju, has been awarded a tamra patra by the Police Commissioner for alerting them about a bomb at India Gate some time ago,” points out Santosh, a senior union colleague.

Santosh has some fond childhood memories of India Gate. His father was also a balloon seller. “Those days, cars were allowed on this road. When it rained, we would run to one of the rooms under India Gate. Once, a bunch of us climbed till the top of the Gate,” he recalls, laughing.

NDMC has recently employed a private guard agency to help maintain security in and around India Gate. You can spot the men in uniform with sticks in hand moving about. “Their job is to chase us away, people who try and make a living by selling balloons, water bottles, a photograph for a memory. Each of these 36 union members employs at least five young men. So you can imagine how many people are depending on this means of livelihood,” says the old man. Before he walks away, he tells me something one can’t disagree with, “Those in authority should realise that the easiest thing to do is to crush those who don’t have a voice.”

Meanwhile, tomorrow is another day for Sonu, Salim and his ilk.