By Atharva Pandit:
“I came to Mumbai about three months back. My brother works here, he told me that he would find me a job. We are still trying to find one. I had one for a month, as a worker at a construction company, but then I wasn’t needed. I was given 200 rupees for the month I worked. Now I am trying to find a job. I was going to Dadar, and from there to Ghatkopar because my brother works there. He says his manager had called me. I know basic Hindi, and I don’t know anything about the First Class and Second Class thing. I just got into a compartment which had less crowd. The TC caught me. He asked me whether I was new, and I told him yes. I pleaded with him, because I didn’t know anything about this. He asked me to pay the fine. Where can I get the money? I am very poor, I only want to work…”, says Lal Singh, a migrant worker.
He reminds me of the poet, Lal Singh Dil, who would have quickly penned a poem on his namesake. But I am no poet, and all I could do was listen. Lal Singh sits on the little, uncomfortable bench with this writer and an old man. The Ticket Checker is out, perhaps trying to score some more money for himself. Before he went, however, he told me to sit aside on a bench, because I had already paid my fine, and told the other two- both migrant workers, new to Mumbai, by the looks of it- to empty their pockets. “Whatever you have,” he bellowed, “is a fine now.” After that he lapsed into obscenities for some time, muttering about the consequences, and darted out of the small, wooden and smelly room. A wooden table, a chair, two benches facing each other, a bunch of files and a bored constable stare back at us.
“You know what I do? I clean dishes for a Chinese hotel, and they pay me five rupees per utensil. And then sometimes they cut my pay because I broke some glass or dropped some plate, even when I haven’t. And then on Fridays I go to Dadar, where I clean the fan of an Irani kitchen. If its only the fan, he pays me ten, but if I sweep the floor, he pays me twenty. Today I was called at 11, but I woke up late and got into the first class by mistake. Next thing I knew that bastard was dragging me here. But not all of them are like that. I have been caught like this many times. Some are nice, sympathetic…That Irani is going to be mad at me. Last time he called me and then sent me back because he didn’t need the cleaning. The rotis that his cook fries, you know, the smoke darkens his fan, and then he needs me. He calls me, nobody else. No. Just me.”
Krishna Kumar is unhappy about sitting here, because he knows that it would probably stretch on for most of the day. My assumption that he is new to Mumbai is wrong- he has been here since before I was even born. But he has been shuttling between several other cities- Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, Mount Abu, Silvassa- for the past two decades, trying his luck as a coolie, as a rickshaw-puller, as a dishwasher, rag-picker…the list goes on. I don’t know how much of what he says is true, but he seems genuine. And he has led a colorful life, too. Now he keeps himself limited between Dadar and Vile Parle.
Lal Singh and Krishna Kumar are only two of the millions of migrant workers residing in Mumbai. In the last three years, the migrant workers residing in Mumbai have shifted more to Central Mumbai, considering the job openings there. Living in slums and hastily made shanties- sometimes not even that- the condition of the migrants in Mumbai is dangerous- and not just for social reasons, but also because they are more vulnerable to diseases. Out of every 1000 migrants coming into the city, 198 are from states outside Maharashtra.
But for what? The employment, evidently, is decreasing, and according to several data sources, nearly fifty percent of migrants reported unemployment and lack of opportunities, the reasons for which could be, but are not limited to, closure and self-employment. Moreover, the laborers have to travel for work in harrowing conditions and in an unfamiliar space. Terribly crowded local trains are, therefore, the only option available.
Mumbai hasn’t treated these people right, I think. They don’t have the money the TC demands, and they would probably have to bribe him for no apparent fault of theirs. The First Class of a Mumbai local is symbolized by some red lines painted across the compartment. But that evidently isn’t enough. The concern, however, is not that the First Class doesn’t have enough signs, but that people, new and unaware like Lal Singh, could enter a First Class because they do not know about the workings of a local train. And then they are hurled out and abused.
The TC says that “they do it all the time” and sometimes even purposefully. I ask him the solution, he shrugs and asks me to get going.
And I get going- running in my mind are the conversations I had with the two individuals, one old, experienced; the other young, yet to face the city. And the city, I think, is going to be brutal to Lal Singh. I feel for him, but I know he is not alone. Like everybody else, he will manage to survive Mumbai.
*The events related by the two migrant workers were not in the order written.