Immigrant labourers pay a high price for their own poverty.
You see them everywhere on the Outer Ring Road of Delhi, on the traffic islands, under the flyovers, at the intersections; not just in twos and threes, but thirty or forty men waiting in the dusty orange sunlight for the middleman, tout or contractor who will hire them for a day's labour. Some carry a paint brush, a hammer or a trowel — the tools of their trade. Young, old, some in their early teens, others who should have retired; all are neatly dressed, although shabbily. These are workmen who believe they are worthy of their hire.
Here is labour at its most abstract, yet in all its touching and tangible humanity; migrants from an elsewhere that can no longer provide them with livelihood. From Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar; ready to offer themselves, as though they were streetwalkers, for whatever pitiful income may be on offer.
A motorcycle stops. A man whose face is concealed by the tinted glass of a helmet visor is immediately surrounded by a jostling throng, waiting to be chosen by money-power. A few go off in an SUV, to make up the complement of workers at a building site — beldar, mistri or whoever has not shown up in the morning.
These men pay a high price for their own poverty, and it is that which makes the calculus of experts and highly-paid professionals of poverty so mean and contemptible — these are the judgments of those who have everything. Poverty lines are etched deeply into the prematurely ageing faces of young men.
To them the cost of poverty lies not only in the unemployment or the under-employment which grants them only 15 days of work in a month, but also in the humiliation of standing in this human cattle-market each morning, while their strength and fitness for a day's work is someone else's decision. They also pay for the expensive separations from those they love: the isolation and indignity in sharing ill-equipped rooms with strangers, a bitter absence from children who sometimes do not see them for months at a time. Whose accounting system is going to acknowledge the high cost of survival? It cannot be counted in monetary terms, so it remains invisible.
The stories they tell — and each one has a tale of hardship, misfortune or loss — are sometimes contradictory and not always coherent. Some had land which provided them self-sufficiency in food, but were forced to the city by sickness or the desire to get for their children a better education than one in which teachers “knit, gossip and eat peanuts” rather than attend to the children nominally in their care. Few of the men have been educated beyond the 7th or 8th standard. Some are landless, others driven out by drought or flood or by the looting and cheating of the more powerful.
And once they reach Delhi, the find they have an appointment with the very elements they thought they had escaped, even though these take on the trappings of modernity — the unpaid wages, the delayed payment, the disappearing employer, the punitive policeman. At the same time, prices rise and even daily necessities recede from the grasp of their meagre and declining purchasing power. Self-deprivation and self-exploitation are the only honest means whereby something will be left over to send to the impoverished homestead. And to maintain contact with loved ones, who would have imagined that a cheap mobile phone would be an absolutely indispensable instrument? Who in the Planning Commission would regard such a luxury as part and parcel of a half-decent life for labour exiled in its own country? Even hunger is a constant companion — doing hard physical work requires more than just calories, it also needs nourishment.
It should not be thought that these unacknowledged builders and makers of Delhi are passive onlookers of their own misery. They express anger at those who designate such ungenerous poverty lines, and are well aware that this is part of a vast public relations exercise to diminish the visible numbers in poverty in the new India. Those who have it in their power to determine the fate of others should be made to live on Rs.32 a day.
As the morning wears on, the numbers waiting for work decrease. Some are hired, others have stood too long and see nothing to be gained as noon nears, and go away wondering if the Rs.250 they earned the day before will see them through another couple of days. All complain of under-employment, work that does not use their skills, and arbitrary and uncertain labour. They are unanimous in their belief that the only escape from poverty lies in the security of guaranteed work. Many have been through the rural employment scheme: in some places it malfunctions; funds are diverted or fail to reach those for whom they are intended. “NREGA is grabbed by the powerful.” “It works for a few days, then the payments are delayed or stop coming. The contractors take their share and we are left at the level of bare survival.”
Poverty is slippery and elusive; it slides through the dexterous fingers of all the manipulators of figures and wielders of statistics. Poverty is not a sum below which people “fall” into it, as though it were an unguarded village well. Poverty is shifting and cunning. It lies in wait, lurking around corners, where sickness or an accident can abruptly terminate earning power. It waits on ignorance and incapacity, it thrives on prejudice and fear.
The government, no doubt, has its reasons for a fictional poverty line. But in a world in which increasing numbers of people regard foreign travel, education in the USA or Europe for their children, and a constant stream of luxury goods as fundamental necessities, there is something deeply offensive in assessing the poverty of others in a miserly withholding of subsistence. Perhaps the greatest poverty of all in the current display of “concern” about who is poor, is the poverty of imagination and of humanity of those in power, for that is a poverty beyond both avarice and greed.
(Jeremy Seabrook is an independent researcher and writer. His recent book is People without History: India's Muslim Ghettos. Mukul Sharma is an independent scholar and journalist. His forthcoming book is Green and Saffron: Hindu Nationalism and Indian Environmental Politics.)