Residents of the Rangpur Pahadi slum in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
On the morning of April 16th, Mukesh Kumar stepped out of his tin shanty in Gurugram amid a strict lockdown enforced by the Government in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. He returned a little later with a table fan and some ration for his family. Mukesh told his wife Poonam that he had managed to buy these after selling his mobile phone for Rs 2,500; he had, just a few months ago, bought it for Rs 12,000.
Mukesh, 30, worked as a painter under a contractor who had jobs all over the city. Till the beginning of this year, Mukesh had enough work coming his way to provide for his family and occasionally afford a luxury, like a smartphone. But, according to his family, work began to dry up from February. Just before the lockdown in March, Mukesh’s contractor ran off to his village, leaving him and other workers to fend for themselves.
At 1 PM that day, Poonam left their four children with her mother under the shade of a tree where they sat during the day to escape the stifling heat inside their shanty on that hot summer afternoon. As she opened the door, she found Mukesh hanging by a beam from the tin roof. The roof was so low that he would have barely managed to push his feet to the earthen floor.
Mukesh’s family lives, like thousands of others, in Saraswati Kunj, about a kilometre away from Gurugram’s Golf Course Road, with its swanky malls, luxurious high-rise apartments and offices of big multinational companies. As Gurugram continued to grow in the last two decades, it became more city than village. The villagers who owned lands on which the new economy was built became a part of the city; sometimes, they continued to live in pockets that were inside the city, but partly looked like villages they once were.
The new economy required new workers; the booming, unabated construction business required more and more labour. As young, salaried professionals continued to buy apartments, new demand was created for services. The new city needed drivers, maids, car cleaners and garbage collectors. So, next to the city’s new swankiness, the old formula of housing the poor in slums was adopted. Many of these were built over land owned by enterprising landlords. Putting a basic structure of four brick walls or tin roof cost very little, but it ensured a steady income every month. And the land remained as it is, ready to be acquired by a builder in a constant expansion of the city.
In Mukesh’s shanty township, where thousands of workers and labourers like him live, a tiny space costs Rs 1,500 per month. Mukesh lived in this space with his wife, four children, wife’s younger brother and her parents. Most workers here are from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Mukesh himself came as a teenager to Delhi from Bihar’s Madhepura and ultimately landed in Gurugram as new opportunities were created here.
With public transport coming to a halt in the ongoing lockdown, many workers, seeing that they could find no work and go hungry for weeks, left for their native places either on foot or on their ramshackle bicycles. “But we were too many and knew that there was no way we could reach all the way to Bihar,” says Mukesh’s young brother-in-law, Ramesh. Many of those who tried returning were sent back from various points, sometimes even getting beaten up by the police.
After the news of Mukesh’s suicide, the Gurugram administration has claimed that he suffered from depression and that food was reaching slums like the one Mukesh’s family lives in. But, on the ground, this seemed to be only partly true.
“Once a day, somebody arrives with cooked rice and a little dal. But many of us fell sick after consuming that food,” said Nihal, who lives in another shanty town next to Mukesh’s. All families here are in desperate need of dry ration that is hardly reaching them, at least none from the government, they say.
Feroze, a labourer, came to Delhi from Araria, Bihar, in 2001. Like Mukesh, he too landed up in Gurugram a few years ago. As the lockdown was enforced, Feroze says he tried escaping towards his village on a bicycle, but was turned back by the police from Badshahpur, a village on the outskirts of Gurugram. Now he is stuck; with ration dwindling fast, he does not know what to do. “Once this opens up, I am going back home and will not return,” he says.
NGO workers trying to help the poor living in slums like these say that the situation is only becoming worse. “In the last few days, we have been getting frantic calls from as far as Manesar [an industrial township outside Gurugram],” says Vijay, a volunteer with the Gurugram Nagrik Ekta Manch.
Suddenly, there is commotion. A van belonging to an NGO has arrived with ration. As men and women rush towards it, the NGO staffers urge them to form a queue. As one of them clicks pictures for publicity, two others distribute packets of dry ration to those in the queue. But it has only begun to form when the ration packets get exhausted. The staffers sit in the van and speed away. Most in the queue return empty-handed. “The desperation for food has only increased. Now relief cars are getting accosted by people who have gone hungry,” says Vijay.
One of those who have returned without getting any ration is Ayaan Biwi. Her children, she says, are stuck in Murshidabad in West Bengal with her parents and they have nothing to eat. And here too, she is going hungry. “Initially, we got a little help from our neighbours. But now even they have nothing to eat,” she says. She works as a cleaner in a private school but has not received salary from the day the schools were ordered shut. “I called my school supervisor several times for a little help, but she is not picking up my phone,” she says.
“[The Government] are extending the lockdown. We will just die of hunger,” she says. “Even if they open the rail and bus, how will we go? We do not have even a paisa left,” her neighbour says.
On April 18th, the Israel Camp, a slum township at Rangpuri Pahadi in Vasant Kunj, was declared a red zone. Two residents of the camp, who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin in mid-March, were found to be positive. Most of the 1,000 families depend on work in the middle-class Vasant Kunj colony for their sustenance.
Aslam, who is a daily wage worker from Jharkhand, lives in one room with four other labourers. They pay a rent of Rs 3,000 for it. As the lockdown began, Aslam had to stop working at a house renovation site in Vasant Kunj. “We had a few kilos of rice and flour that got exhausted quickly,” he says. Then they took 10 kg of ration from a grocery store on credit. That got over a few days ago, and now Aslam and his roommates are worried about where they will eat.
Once a day, packets of cooked meals come for distribution in the nearby school. “Some get it, but it is not enough for everyone. And it is just once a day in any case,” says Ronny, a resident who drives a school van.
A few residents alleged that the food packets sent by the government are sent to a few Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) loyalists in the camp who then only give it to people close to them. “See, this entire township is AAP’s vote bank. But some people who manage things for the party here during elections are getting favourable treatment,” says one resident, requesting not to be named.
Mukesh’s family lives, like thousands of others, in Saraswati Kunj, less than a mile away from Gurugram’s Golf Course Road, with its swanky malls, luxurious high-rise apartments and offices of big multinational companies
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The biggest grudge a majority of workers here harbour is how their employers stopped paying them from the day they were forced to discontinue work and stay at home. Sunita, whose family is from Budaun, Uttar Pradesh, works as a house help in Vasant Kunj’s C-6 sector. Her husband collects garbage for a living in the same society. “I have not received a penny since March 21st. The family I work for is not picking up my phone,” she says.
Simran, a young woman, working as a house help for a doctor’s family in Vasant Kunj’s C-9 sector, has not received any wages from March 16th onwards. “I called my employer. But she said she cannot pay for days I have not worked. It is not as if I stopped working. I was forced to,” she says.
Like the residents of Saraswati Kunj, the people in this slum are worried that the lockdown may go on for too long. Right now, they say, their landlords have out of compassion accepted the delay in rent. They worry that such compassion may run out by next month.
“Our biggest worry is that after the lockdown, we may no longer have jobs. Even our employers are worried about their future,” says Shabana who, like most, has no income coming her way since mid-March.
Some residents who have a Jan Dhan account have received an ex gratia payment of Rs 500. But in a city like Delhi, there is very little one can buy with that money. Right now, the poor of Rangpuri Pahadi, like everyone else, hope for a miracle.