Stranded people rushing to New Delhi railway station to catch their train during fourth phase of the lockdown in 2020

In Delhi’s Industrial Areas, Paltry Savings of Workers Dry Up in Lockdown

Amidst a citywide lockdown that is now in its fifth week with a positivity rate that has come down to its lowest – less than 5% – in the last 45 days in Delhi, desperation is growing now in several of the national capital’s industrial areas and pushing workers further to hunger and destitution.

With no work and their paltry savings drying up, the phrase that was all too common for the workers during last year’s nationwide shutdown, can be heard one again: “Corona se nahi marenge, pehle bhuk se hi mar jayaenge.”

Residing in South Delhi’s Shahpur Jat locality, 31-year-old Kinker Haldar told a similar thing to Newsclick over the phone on Saturday. “I have not earned a single penny since over a month and will run out of whatever savings I had in the next 2-3 days. I have no idea what to do after that,” Haldar, the sole earner in a family of four (wife, two children), said.

Miles away in Metro Vihar, a remote corner tucked in Delhi’s North West district, similar concerns have gripped Prakash Kumar, a small time salesman. Metro Vihar mainly houses workers employed in factories located in nearby Narela and Bawana,

“I had received April’s wages only for the days that I worked. It goes without saying that I would not receive anything for the month of May. Now if this is how it continues, how will my family – a wife and three children – manage?” Kumar asked. The 48-year-old was employed as a plastic kitchenware salesman in a private shop before the lockdown was imposed on April 19 by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government.

The restrictions on public movement were imposed in the face of the resurgence in COVID-19 cases that brought the healthcare facilities in the national capital on the brink of a collapse.

The Arvind Kejriwal-led government, in an order dated April 20, said that a committee of officers will be constituted to ensure welfare of daily wagers and migrant workers. Subsequently, in the first week of May, the Chief Minister announced free food supplies for all ration card holders for the next two months and a one-time financial aid for auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers. Similarly, construction workers registered with the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board (DBOCWWB) were to receive Rs. 5000 each as ex-gratia.

Recently, the AAP government also announced distribution of rations even among those without any ration card in the national capital. All of this was done in a bid to drive home the message that the vulnerable sections in the city are not left in the lurch and that the schemes from last year’s nationwide lockdown have been re-launched as Delhi found itself in a similar situation, if not worse, on all fronts amid the second wave of the pandemic.

The ground realities however, have a different tale to tell. Interviews with workers, activists and trade unionists reveal that the situation remains grim mainly because of the delay in the announcement of the schemes and then, due to the laxity in their implementation.

Take for instance Haldar’s case. The construction worker by profession remains bereft of any financial assistance since he is among the 80,000-odd workers whose applications to activate their membership with the welfare board is “currently pending”. “I have not received any amount in my account. I don’t even have my ration card here with me; it is with my parents in West Bengal,” he lamented.

Anurag Saxena, general secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), informed Newsclick that the scheme for ration distribution for non-ration card holders is yet to begin. The scheme’s implementation last year involved an “e-coupon” system. Last year, CITU had helped workers in getting themselves registered online for the same, Saxena said.

“We are receiving multiple distress calls for food this time as well. The AAP government must immediately implement it. They are already very late in even making the announcement,” he said.

Nearly 70 lakh people who didn’t posses ration cards were provided with free dry ration last year, as per Delhi Economic Survey report tabled in the legislative assembly earlier this year in March.

Bharat, a trade unionist with Bawana Industrial Mazdoor Union, claimed that even those with ration cards are facing difficulty in collecting food grains. “There have been times when the local ration shops were either closed or would claim shortage,” he alleged.

In an audit conducted by the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyaan (DRRAA) on May 20, the Delhi-based NGO also found 43 ration shops out of the 110 surveyed to be closed, while only other 44 shops to be distributing grains to ration cardholders.

Harish of Inqilabi Mazdoor Kendra (IMK), a Delhi-NCR based trade union, argued that it was the same fear of “struggling without food and income” that made many of the migrants in the city to “already leave Delhi” and go back to their villages. “In our locality, many rented rooms are lying vacant now. The workers who chose to stay back are complaining of having no money now,” he said, referring to the Shahbad Dairy area in Rohini, where the IMK office is located.

Bhupendra, 33, residing in the same locality of Shahbad Dairy, and Ramesh, 51, from West Delhi’s Sultanpuri block-D, echoes similar claims. Both talked about “no work and dwindling savings.”

A plumber by profession, Bhupendra rued that it is only the free ration he is receiving on his ration card that has kept him and his family surviving in the city so far. “There is nothing left here. Even last year, I was at home without any work for two to three months. It is the same story all over again this time around,” he said.

Similarly, Ramesh is in distress for having to sit at home since last year after losing his job at a local retail outlet. He has not been able to find any work since then and the family has been depended on the meagre earnings of Ramesh’s wife – a homeworker. For food, they have got a ration card on which free food grains were provided this month.

“It is no way near a good life. But my situation is still better than many those in my neighbourhood who are sleeping in the night without any food on their plates,” he said.

(First published in Newsclick)