By Pushkal Shivam:
This is Part 4 of a 7 part series.
The problem with trying to act ‘poor’ is that no one believes you. So when I asked a fruit seller for exactly three bananas, he paused to look at me from head to toe. I couldn’t have spent more than Rs. 12. Anything more than that would have eaten into my meal of the day. The cycle of breakfast, lunch and dinner has deteriorated into a linear spell of starvation. But what is exception to me might just be a norm in the life of the destitute.
I woke up in the morning feeling incredibly light in my stomach. For a moment, I thought I would soon be levitating. The heaviness in my head immediately negated the thought. But I am yet to determine whether my lethargy is a consequence of hunger or a congenital ability.
On my way back after having a frugal meal at a nondescript eatery, I meet Giridhari at a construction site. He is a 20-year old migrant labourer brought to Chennai from Bihar by his contractor. Before I entered the scene at the dimly lit construction site strewn with debris, the workers were finishing the last few tasks of the day with bollywood numbers blaring out from the background. My intrusion into the scene halted activity.
Giridhari’s day starts at 6 in the morning and goes on till 11 at night. He rarely gets a day off. His work involves unceasing physical rigour and pays him Rs. 200-250 at the end of the day, out of which he spends Rs. 100 and saves the rest to send home. He belongs to a family of ten people which is based in Katihar, Bihar and is one of several migrant labourers whose lives have been rendered invisible by their movement away from home. For, they cannot get Ration Cards or any other identification which would entitle them to benefits offered by a welfare program.
I accompany Giridhari to his room in a shanty which he shares with ten people. On our way, when I ask him about his education, he says in an abashed tone, “I have studied only till 8th class”. He quips about Rs. 32-a-day assessment, “Even a kid won’t accept it”. He adds, though, that cooking one’s meal is cheaper than eating outside.
“I have no identity”, says 22-year old Jyotish Mandal, another migrant worker and Giridhari’s roommate. Even before I ask him whether he knows about BPL he says, “Do you know about APL/BPL? One family has 4-5 BPL card holders where as other needy ones have none.” He complains that the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer. “Poverty keeps looming over those who are already poor.” Can Mandal maintain a family of five on Rs. 4800 a month in an urban area? “It’s not possible. The rent of a room alone is Rs. 1200”, he says.
The lives of Giridhari and Mandal are bereft of any hope. Aware of their lack of education, they just hope to face their miseries happily. That’s how the cookie crumbles for them and several millions of the urban poor. It’s an ignominy that those who construct swanky skyscrapers live in shambolic shanties without basic amenities.
At the end of the Day 4, my exposure to the miseries of the urban poor further accentuates the importance of the privileges that I have in my life.