Problems of working class colonies in Delhi get very little attention in the city’s media, but as recent visits to three such colonies revealed, these can be very serious.
What is common to all these three colonies is that the earnings of most households do not allow them to have any savings as with great difficulty they can only manage the essential expenses. Hence any period of extended unemployment caused by illness, injury (including occupational injury which can be frequent), lockdown or pollution-related work closure can lead to hunger and/or indebtedness (also reverse migration to villages in the case of those workers who still have this option).
Construction and related workers (like plumbers, painters etc.) are very common here, and are often referred to as beldari workers. The daily wage for them is likely to be between Rs. 300 to Rs. 500, and employment is likely to be available in a normal month for 10 to 15 days. So the monthly earning for one worker is likely to be between Rs. 5000 to 7000 in a normal month. Petty contractors may earn higher. A two worker (typically husband and wife) family can earn Rs. 12,000 or so, but at the cost of neglect of children. Or else wife may opt for domestic worker jobs in which there can be option of returning earlier but then this also means lesser earning. On the other hand there are also domestic workers (women) who leave in morning and return when it is getting dark, giving all their day to toil in 4 or 5 homes to earn Rs. 9000 to 10,000 in a month. In exceptional situations some may earn more.
Even industrial workers do not earn more than this. A typical worker doing ‘company’ work, to use the word frequently used by people, can hope to earn only around Rs. 6000 to Rs. 7000 or so, although the working hours may be more. Company people also insist often on employing only the younger workers.
From these earnings must be deducted the transport costs and other occupational expenses, including expenses incurred when they go looking for work without earning anything.
People here while speaking about their low and stagnant wages would often break their conversation to talk about the increasing price of vegetables and other daily needs. The public distribution system is often a big help for people, but people add that the ration lasts only for about 15 days and for remaining days wheat must also be purchased at market rates. If a family for some reason does not have a ration card, then survival becomes difficult. Often those families which live on rent are the ones who do not have ration cards. Having to pay rent and not having a ration card are the two worst things that can happen to you if you are struggling to survive these days here, people say. The precarious economics simply breaks down.
Despite the severe problems created by low and stagnant wages, when one talks about the top priorities people speak about other needs. People in Shahbad dairy A Block mentioned better toilets, drainage system and better safety. They said earlier water was a big problem but a few months back this has problem been sorted out. In Bawana JJ colony H Block they mentioned drinking water, sewer system, drains, toilets, safety and some check on open consumption of intoxicants (liquor and smack) as their biggest needs. In Sector 27 (Rohini) resettlement colony, people said that sewer exists but has not been activated and the old pipeline of water below this needs repairs, or else drinking water can be affected by sewage when the sewer line is put to use. Basically people need a new water pipeline as the old one is unlikely to be of much use for long. Here also safety is a big priority for people.
In fact people in all three colonies make a strong plea for improving safety, particularly safety of women. In worrying conditions people tend to be very tense regarding about safety of daughters in particular, one factor pushing for their early withdrawal from education. A woman took me aside as if to tell something in great confidence. What she had to say was that she is very deeply worried about her unmarried daughter and if somehow pension dues can be arranged, she can arrange an early marriage.
Several women workers return from work when it is already dark. So there should be proper street lighting and safety from bus-stop to settlement. The bus stop should be properly built like a shelter with proper lighting. At present during rains people get drenched just while waiting for bus. Bus service is free for women, something which is very welcome but sometimes drivers don’t stop the bus for them, some women complained.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.