The Many Fears of the Precariously Employed During India's COVID-19 Lockdown

Even after the second wave, vendors in Delhi's Majnu ka Tilla earned sometimes one, sometimes two hundred rupees a day. Sometimes not even that.

It was early one rainy morning in the beginning of August 2021, when the dreaded second wave was just abating. I drove to the labour chowk near Company Bagh, in the Walled City of Old Delhi, the humble street corner where homeless casual wage seekers gather looking for work. We wanted to check if work had revived for Delhi’s casual daily wage workers. These workers are the most unprotected, even among daily wagers, because they have the backing of no union, no collective, no government, and not even a family. They are alone in the world, with zero bargaining power, and zero protection. And they are hungry.

The employers know that.

Nearly a year and a half earlier, this is where we, in the Karwan-e-Mohabbat had begun our food solidarity work. Several thousand homeless men would mill around our food vans, desperate for food. These were workers who could not even escape the cruelly locked down city by joining the epic worker exodus of millions in the blistering summer of 2020. Most were single homeless men who had cut all ties with their families. They literally had nowhere else to go.

Harsh Mander
Burning Pyres, Mass Graves and a State That Failed its People
Speaking Tiger, 2023

In the labour chowk this year, we saw now among them an even more aggravated desperation for work, any work, on any terms. Whenever a car or van would drive up to recruit workers, in no time fifty or a hundred workers would gather around them. Earlier, before the pandemic, a certain unwritten moral code prevailed among these dispossessed homeless workers. They would not undercut each other: they would not compete when employers came looking for casual workers. But jobs had become so scarce and their hunger so debilitating that this moral code of the destitute had crumbled. The employer would offer wages well below the market rate and pick some men, but others would push forward, offering to work for even less. The rule that prevailed, as one worker said to us wryly, was ‘Mehnat zyada, mazdoori kam’—meaning more hard work for less wages.

The dynamics had thus changed noticeably after the waves of lockdowns: the employer was even more powerful, and the worker even more powerless than ever before. A worker explained their predicament to us: ‘We don’t have a rupee in our pockets. We have to eat if we have to survive. We are not getting any work. So whatever work we get, on whatever terms, we go.’ He went on, ‘Today, we have reached a stage when we know that only 5% of those who pick us up for work will treat us well and pay our wages. The rest do not. We know that, but what can we do? We still have to go with whoever picks us up.’

One result of this desperation of theirs has been the steep revival of criminal and brutal bonded labour. A white-haired worker said, ‘They took me into a village in Gurgaon. A lot of the time, I was in chains. I worked for 2 months and 17 days. I returned to Delhi with no money, only with the bruises I got from the beatings. They did not pay us any wages; they said they would settle our accounts only when they chose to set us free. One worker helped me escape one night. And so it is that I am back here, with empty pockets, again looking for work, any work, anywhere.’ Many workers repeated versions of this same story. Another said, ‘I was hired for three months, but they forced me to stay with them for one year and two months. They paid me nothing. Whenever I asked them for my wages, they showed me instead their rifle. I just had to run away.’

The situation was the same in labour chowks around the country. Dipankar Ghose found a similar desperation among the 500-odd people waiting for work in Dubey ka padao, the largest labour chowk in Aligarh. ‘We sit here from 5 am to 11 am [after which] the police shoo us away. But these days, barely 20 get work in a day,’ casual worker Mohammad Shahid told him. Wages too had fallen from Rs 400-500 to Rs 100-150. The second wave was still raging then. ‘Earlier, we got jobs as labourers at construction sites. Now, rich people come in their cars and take us to lift the bodies of their family members. They are too scared to touch the bodies because of corona. But we have families to feed,’ said Shahid.

Harsh Mander.

‘Lockdown’ was the one word, Ghose reported from Aligarh, that generated more fear than Covid-19. ‘Please, don’t get another lockdown imposed. We can fight Covid, but not starvation,’ Narayan Das, a vegetable vendor begged him. Das called out to customers loudly, his mask around his chin. He was not unaware of the risks that he was taking; on the contrary, he was terrified that he could die from Covid-19. ‘But I have a wife and children at home. I have to work for them, and I fear a lockdown will destroy us. They say wear masks. Do they know how difficult it is to shout for our customers with a mask? That we stand in the heat for six hours in the day when it is 40 degrees?’

I found that the prospects for food and work were no better in Delhi’s slums. Majnu ka Tilla is a slum where we had distributed ration kits during the first lockdown. Returning there a year later, we asked slum residents if life was better. ‘Things haven’t improved from last year,’ was the recurring, disconsolate answer we got. There was no work, no water, no help. Many of them used to earn their living by selling their wares from house to house, but now the police often beat them back with their batons.

The vendors earned sometimes one, sometimes two hundred rupees a day. Sometimes not even that. When they took their wares into residential colonies, some residents would ask them to show their Aadhaar card. How do we know, went the justification they offered for doing so, that you are not from Pakistan? (It was a thin code for being Muslim.) Many were therefore lining up to get their Aadhaar cards made. But officials, they said, were frequently rude to them. And they had no papers to prove who they were, that they belonged anywhere.

A few people, they reported, came like us during the lockdowns and gave them ration kits. ‘They would say the kit was enough to last us 10 days. We would try to stretch it to 12, even 15 days. But what after that? And we needed more than just rations. Water, cooking gas, medical help. How do we get this?’ They were ashamed that for the first time, they had been reduced to sending their children to eat free charity meals at the gurudwaras.

Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s worst public health crisis in a hundred years, triggered an economic crisis comparable in scale only to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Informal workers were, of course, the worst hit. To cite just one figure from the first wave, of the 122 million who lost their jobs between April and March 2020, 75%, which accounted for 92 million jobs, were in the informal sector.

Excerpted with permission from Burning Pyres, Mass Graves and a State That Failed its People by Harsh Mander, published by Speaking Tiger.