The manual labourers of Old Delhi, one of the biggest blocks of unorganised labour in India, are united in their roots, and in the reasons that continue to bring them to the city.
You don’t know which one of them you want to flee first — the all-encompassing chaos, or the air thick with specks of dry chilli working on your eyes and nose.
Really, when your basic comfort level is hit can you truly connect to a place. To decide whether to like it or not. To think how it is to be here all the time, day-in, day-out.
Caught in the chilli-ed air of Old Delhi’s muddled Khari Baoli — that strip of a street which holds the tag of being the largest wholesale market in Asia — one is bound to think this thought. How is it to be in the midst of this constant clog-and-flow of people and push carts that is Khari Baoli? Or Purani Dilli as a whole? Of occupied space — every bit of it nearly — contrasting so sharply with the open sky above which has such bounteous space?
Chaos and clog aside, food and havelis and all the leftovers of Mughal and Raj days aside, an important feature of Purani Dilli is movement. Of both people and products. Constantly.
The prime drivers of this constant movement that is the Walled City are its labourers. Hordes of them. In hundreds? In thousands may be? Well, no one seems to have the exact figure, but certainly they comprise one of the biggest blocks of unorganised labour in India.
Cloth or metal, spices or stationery, everything that you find in the narrow lanes of Purani Dilli, has continued to reach its designated lane without fail by treading on the heads and shoulders of the countless unnamed that form the strong manual labour force that literally moves business in the area. If in day time, they are moving parcels within Old Delhi, come night they load or unload wares from the numerous trucks that take over the alleyways of the area, to take to the godowns the fresh stuff that has arrived, or send out wares across the city and beyond.
To put a finger on who these nameless labourers are — a symbol of such raw physicality that you can’t seem to miss when in Old Delhi — your first stop has to be Khari Baoli. The main road is predictably clogged by a stream of labourers with parcels of varying sizes, either on their head or piled up on pushcarts. Waiting for some space to open up so that they can move ahead, many are seen slinking off to quickly pick up a cup of tea being sold along the footpath. Some others are nosily catching up with their families, on cell phones. Most of them have been in the queue “for about four hours.”
You initiate a banter amidst the hullabaloo. With one, with two, and then with some more of these men. The conversation with the first of the lot, Ghasiram, creates the canvas. “I am from Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan. Almost all the labourers that you will find in Khari Baoli are from that State. One brings the other, it is almost home now,” he says.
Ghasiram has been working in Khari Baoli for the last eight years. “There are so many here who have been working for the last 15-16 years,” he fills in. He was brought to Old Delhi by his uncle who is no more. So was another labourer, Sant Ram, from Sikar. Lack of land to till, the hardships involved in indulging in agriculture in an arid State seem to be the prime reasons that have kept alive this stream of labourers to the National Capital from Rajasthan for years together.
Where do they live? “In a rented room just behind Khari Baoli. We are 10 of us,” says Sant Ram. Ten in one room? “No, five at a time. While five of us work during the day, the other five work during the night.” The room has only five beds.
Ghasiram, though, sleeps in the godown itself. He is attached to a cooking oil shop with a salary of Rs. 7500 per month. “But I am thinking of quitting it. Those unattached to a shop earn more,” he says. For moving every parcel, big or small, light or heavy, from one place to another, they get Rs.10. “Those unattached to a shop at times earn Rs. 500 a day,” says Ghasiram.
Moving ahead, you catch up with more labourers. In Kucha Rehman, in Kucha Natwan, across Chandni Chowk. They are from Bihar, yet another State that provides most manual labour to Old Delhi. A young labourer, Narendra Manohar, bricks the story. “There are definite territories for the labourers here. We can’t work in Khari Baoli. Only Rajasthanis do. We work elsewhere in Old Delhi.” Now five years old in the area, he proudly adds, “Now I know almost every lane here.”
“Most Bihari labourers live in Seelampur area,” he adds.
Keshav Kumar, a sari seller at Kucha Natwan, adds to the narrative. “This is the time of the year we feel the scarcity of labourers here. They leave for Bihar just before Holi and return only after two months because this is not just the harvest season for some crops but also the wedding season where they get work.” Being the election year, “many more are going. They prefer to keep their vote there for all the Government benefits.”
The reasons for arriving to the Old Delhi Railway Station, and thereafter to the streets of Walled City seeking work, are similar for Manohar and fellow labourers from Bihar with those from Rajasthan. Landless labourers. And nothing much around to eke out a decent living.
What about education? Almost all the labourers you chat with first give you that confused look at this point and thereafter laugh it off. “I never went to school. My sons also never did. Till we have the strength, we work here, send money home. I have two sons, one of them will certainly come here when I won’t be able to do this anymore,” a middle-aged Durgesh Bagri from Hanuman Nagar district of Rajasthan completes the picture of continuity of manual labourers to the old city for you.