City Life – Back of Labourers, Entire Delhi Region
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Parked outside a narrow lane in Gurgaon’s Bhim Garh Kheri in the Greater Delhi Region, the handcart is stacked with bricks. Two labourers are carrying these to a house being built up the street. One of the men packs 18 bricks on his back and walks towards the construction site. The bricks aren’t tied together. The stack rests on a scrap of strong jute fabric, which seems to have once been part of a gunny sack. The man’s back is bent forward.
He returns a few minutes later.
Labourer Kishore, 22, says that “in the village, I would have worked as a mazdoor (labourer) on big people’s fields, earning about ₹200 daily. Here I earn ₹600.”
Kishore lives with a dozen other labourers, all from the same district in Bihar.
Doesn’t it hurt to carry bricks on one’s back?
He shakes his head.
No back pain?
Kishore shakes his head.
Does any colleague suffer from pain?
“Sometimes the shoulders hurt, or the legs or feet, and then we (self) massage with pure mustard oil.”
Kishore says there’s no old person in his group. “Everyone is in their 20s or 30s.”
Labourers who, like Kishore, carry bricks on their backs, are spread across the Delhi region. Their work lies outside the confines of more formal construction projects, high-rises for instance, where the hired labourers are given safety gears. A group of such labourers lives behind the Delite Cinema, in central Delhi — one of them is a grey-haired man in his 50s. During a recent interaction, he was reluctant to give his name but described himself and his co-workers as “thele wale”, implying that they operate by transferring construction material (bricks/cement sacks) on their handcart, with usually the last portion of the transportation unfolding on their back. The grey-haired labourer disclosed that every labourer—middle-aged or young—suffers from body pain, which gets more discomforting during the winter months. If it pains too much, they take paracetamol, he said.
The young Kishore returns to the cart, his bare back straight. He ponders for a long time when asked where the labourers go when they grow old and their bodies can no longer withstand extreme stress. “They go back home.” He thinks again for some time before adding: “By then their sons have grown up in the villages… they come to the city to work as labourers, and earn for the family.”
The grey-haired labourer in Delhi had said the same thing.
Kishore now picks up a water bottle from the cart. The bottle is wrapped in a green gamcha. While drinking, some water flows out of Kishore’s mouth, rushing down to his sweating neck. He goes back to packing bricks on his back.