City Life – A Bunch of Labourers, South Delhi
Stranded at site.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Attired in a lungi and banian, he could be any Delhi man at home. But Vinod Kumar is a security guard. It is morning and he is standing atop a construction rubble in a posh south Delhi neighbourhood. Behind him stands a semi-built building.
“The construction has stopped, the work on the building is off since the lockdown began,” he says, speaking Hindi in a singsong accent.
In his forties, Mr Kumar counts himself lucky. Whereas so many of his friends in the city have lost their jobs in the lockdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, security guards like him have stayed on duty. “Everybody needs protection at all times,” he observes.
Turning back towards the unfinished building, he says that “until some weeks ago it was fully alive with the sounds of machines and mazdoor (labourers), but now….” he tapers off. After a pause, he informs that these days he is living inside the building.
And he isn’t alone. About half a dozen young men are holed up with him.
Two of them emerge out of the building, both in banian, with towels tied about their waist. A third man gets out of the toilet, which is a tin shed with a red plastic mug stuck on its door.
“They are labourers,” Mr Kumar says.
Very many construction labourers have left for their villages following a lockdown on all activities, while very many others are staying on in their cramped city dwellings without much resources. Then there are a few who have found themselves stranded in the very buildings they were helping build. A simple walk though any Delhi neighbourhood will show this to be true. This locality, for instance, has a few buildings-in-progress that seems ghostly in their emptiness. But inevitably you would notice signs of life in them—clothes strung on a wash line, the whistling of a pressure cooker, or the sight of a labourer perched on a height, quietly looking at the street below.
Labourers Razabul and Firman, are from Bihar, which is Mr Kumar’s state too. They say that the construction project’s thekedar, the contractor who gave them the work in the building, have allowed them to stay within the premises.
“Where can we go otherwise?” one of them asks.
The contractor gives them daily expenses for the food. “He also arranged for a cooler,” says Razabul. “Everyone is suffering so our suffering isn’t unique, and one feels it less due to that reason,” he notes. Before the lockdown, the young man would send about ten thousand rupees every month to his family in Bihar “but now there’s no earning.” His family, with whom he talks many times daily on mobile has taken loans from relatives and friends.
Playing with the toothbrush in his hand, Firman says that all days resemble each other “and all we do is to cook food and listen to songs on the mobile.”
The labourers now disappear inside the building. Mr Kumar, the security guard, too, excuses himself. The street is silent, save for loud English pop music coming from an adjacent bungalow.
Life locked down