At home and away…

– Niha Masih


Migration to the city is very often a choice but for many seasonal labour migrants, a necessity.

The city does pay them but also takes much away. Though the city might not always mean a better life, the opportunity and availability of work makes them come back again and again.


The trucks rumble in noisily as people come out of their dwellings with hope and anticipation. After almost two weeks of insufficient work, the cacophony of the arriving trucks is music for their ears. For Sallaram and his family it means much more than work and income. It would ensure their return to the village for a few months to attend family weddings.

Their work involves breaking boulders into stones which is used for laying railway tracks and other construction sites. Payment is made according to the number of trucks the stones fill at the end of each day.

For the last one month they had been getting very little work due to the administration crack down on illegal mining around Delhi. This had put them in a bind as they could not afford a return nor was it viable to stay on with no work around. This is the account of a small community of people, living near the Yamuna in Kalindi Kunj, New Delhi.

The dwellings of the labour migrant community with the city buildings at the back. They live in an isolated area cut off from the main city and the only way to reach the place is on foot (ablout a kilometre from the main road). Due to this most of the women and children do not leave the place to go anywhere in the city. A rough estimate of the number of circular migrants in India pegs the number to almost 100 million.

Women and children look on as the trucks with boulders arrive. In their native villages women and children would not get work or get paid very little. Economic sustenance forces them to take their families along when they migrate to another place for work. These families mainly hail from the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh.

A truck unloading the boulders which the people will break into stones. Each truck of stones earns them Rs. 500 at the end of the day. Since the entire family works together, they try and finish two such trucks between four or more members. Recently the work coming their way reduced drastically following the State Government’s clean up on illegal mining. However the last week has been better in terms of work and most of them plan to return to their villages as soon as they have saved up enough money.

Men walking towards the work area where they spend the entire day. A typical day usually begins at 7 am and ends whenever they can finish the truckload of stones. Most of the men have been coming to Delhi for more than fifteen years for different sorts or work. The unskilled labour sector has largely remained unorganised and thus most of their problems and livelihood issues remain unaddressed.

Benibai has been making the annual journey to Delhi ever since her marriage to Sallaram. Her husband owns a little agricultural land in the village but his older brothers manage it, forcing him to eke out a living elsewhere. This is a common cause for migration from rural areas where big families own land which is not enough for the entire household.

Sallaram in the middle of a hard day’s work, as children walk towards home. The work is strenuous, hard and back breaking but he smiles and says, “Mushkil hai par roti ke liye karna toh padega. Gaaon mein khali baithne se toh acha hai.” (The work is difficult but for food we have to do it. Its better than sitting idle in the village).

Kalawati taking a break from breaking stones which she has been doing since early morning. By the afternoon when she is thoroughly exhausted she likes to watch a serial or a film at her neighbour’s place who own a television set. Three families have TVs and every afternoon people gather in their huts to watch films on a DVD.

Benibai getting ready for work outside her hut where she has opened a tiny shop selling confectionary. When for two weeks the work had stymied she thought of this as a backup support. She keeps shuttling between breaking stones and handling customers. Though the money she makes through this is hardly anything it gives her a sense of satisfaction at having tried her best for her family.

Another fallback of the lean work period was the dislocation of many. Some families left for their villages on borrowed money while some left to other parts of the city to try their luck. Most of the families which stayed put acknowledged their inability for most of the other kind of work which forces them to keep waiting for this.

Rajesh, the third son of Benibai going off to the nearby afternoon school run by the Government. His younger brother Suresh too goes to the same school providing free education to needy children. From the whole community it is only these two brothers who attend the school. For most children schools remain a far off world as they constantly keep going back and forth from the city to the village, making it difficult to continue in one particular school. Also children help out parents with the work and thus are more valuable assets at home.

Mannu, the elder daughter of Benibai, washes utensils after an early morning lunch. In their last workplace at Badarpur, she too used to attend the Government school like her brothers. She had passed her class 3rd exams when the family shifted to their new work location. The school here, her father claims is too far for her to go alone as the area is very unsafe for a young girl. She chatters happily about how she got a reward of Rs. 200 under the Government’s Ladli scheme for the promotion of girl’s education. Sometimes she sneakily reads her brothers textbooks when no one is watching.

Benibai’s youngest daughter Poonam is around 6 years old though she is not sure of her exact age. She takes a minute of her work to comb Poonam’s hair after her bath. Poonam has spent most of her childhood unsupervised while her parents and siblings work. The loss of the children’s childhood is one of the aspects of life which migration has severely affected.

The much celebrated National Rural Employment Guarantee Act(NREGA) has not helped people like Sallaram and his other community members. NREGA was passed in 2005 promising a 100 day employment guarantee to unemployed people at a minimum daily wage rate of Rs. 100. though not a complete failure NREGA has somehow not managed to make as much impact as it was supposed to make. Faulty delivery mechanism and corruption are the main reasons behind this.

Piecing together a life in the city is not easy as they know it is temporary and that they are never really going to be a part of the city completely. Yet there is a permanence as work makes them come back. They are soon going to return to their village for a few months and just the prospect makes them break into a big smile.

Migrating to the city for Benibai (extreme left) and Sallaram (extreme right) has meant being contained within a certain framework and breaking out of it is not easy. They try and straddle their two diverse worlds and seem to be doing well. The dichotomy between temporary and permanent, home and away, are other issues which they deal with everyday and the answers might not always be there.


~ by Niha on April 25, 2010.

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