Stories of labour hanging between hunger, hope and gloom

Shaheen Nazar
Shaheen Nazar

Santosh is a street vendor who used to sell bananas in Bhangel, a small semi-urban neighbourhood in UP’s Noida. But that was his story until the lockdown was announced on March 24. Since then he had restricted himself to his rented room because he has no work and nowhere to go. Forty days later, a new chapter opened in his life. On May 2, early in the morning, his landlord asked him to vacate the room at once. He had not paid rent for March and April because he had no money. Apparently to compensate that, the landlord seized his mobile phone which he had bought for Rs. 10,000 just before the lockdown was declared.

Suddenly, Santosh was on the road, with empty pockets and empty stomach. He did not have a full meal for the last one week. He has been dependant on food packets distributed by individuals or government. But their supply was not regular. In a hopeless situation like this, a man remembers only one thing: his home, which in this case was 150 km away in a village in Aligarh district of UP. But he had neither the money nor travel means. So he began his journey on foot.

When I spotted him on Surajpur-Kasna Road on May 2, Santosh had covered nearly 10 km. He was desperately signaling every vehicle passing by him. I gave him lift in my car, an unadvisable gesture in times of coronavirus epidemic. But sometimes situation compels you to give up precautions. Of late I have faced this unusual situation a number of times.

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My idea was he would get down at Pari Chowk, a usual destination for onward journey in Greater Noida. But a casual chat with him gave me the feeling that he was hungry. Since I was going to a community kitchen which some of my friends are running for free distribution of food packets, I decided to feed him before letting him go.

At the kitchen, before taking his first bite Santosh broke down. This was his first meal in the last 24 hours.  Next question was his journey. His village was more than 130 km from where we were sitting. Some of my friends got emotional. They started offering money. But money was not the solution. There was no transport. And no permission even if someone volunteered to drop him to his village. Despite our good intentions we could not help him any further. We left him to his fate, hoping someone would come to his rescue.

Another story of suffering

While announcing lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had appealed to employers not to sack their employees and not to stop their salaries. Apparently, some of the employers have heeded the appeal by half. I met four employees of a pipe factory in Begumpur neighbourhood of Greater Noida who have not been sacked, but not been paid either. The employees, belonging to Kishanganj in Bihar, told me they were paid one tenth of their March salary (Rs 1,000 each out of Rs 10,000 monthly). That’s all. No salary for April, so far. Factory owners of Noida have already said in television interviews that they would not pay April salary even if the government sends them to jail.

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But employees I spoke with have been asked by the manager of the factory not to go home as their services would be required once the lockdown is over.

How are they managing?

“We have spent whatever little money we had. Now every day we go out looking for food packets being distributed by members of civil society. Sometimes we get, sometimes we don’t,” they told me.

At least one of them informed that he had got money from home.


Through Paytm, he said.

One or two migrant workers at other places in Greater Noida also told me that they have got money from home. I am wondering how tough it was for the families back home to make such arrangement.

Meanwhile, I called the four factory employees on May 15, more than 10 days after I met them for the first time. Their factory had not opened. But the manager had told them to be ready as preparations were on to open the factory.

What about salary?

Not yet.

Even a threat to go home has not worked on the manager, they said.

Will they resume work? “We have no option,” they replied in unison.

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