“Say That We Are Dying Of Hunger”: Voices From Labour Chowk, Noida

Posted by Abhishek Jha in Society, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA
November 30, 2016

For Youth Ki Awaaz:

“Wo to sabhi keh rahein hain achcha kiye magar marega gareeb (Everybody agrees that he (Modi) did the right thing but it is the poor who will die),” Rajan, a migrant daily-wager hailing from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, says as he sits with his friends at Noida’s Sector-58 located Labour Chowk. It is 7 a.m. in the morning, barely sunrise, but he has arrived at the chowk with some fellow workers in search of work. Rajan points to the mashed potatoes and beaten rice wrapped in a polyethene bag. ‘Keh do bhookhon mar rahe hain (Say that we are dying of hunger),’ is another angry response one gets here on asking how demonetisation is affecting the workers.

Three weeks after the Prime Minister announced that the old 500 and 1000 rupee notes will cease to be legal tender, the mood here is grim and filled with anger. With rent due soon landlords have started threatening these workers with eviction. These daily wagers work on construction sites, in factories for loading and unloading, as sweepers, with tent-services, etc. As they are employed on a daily basis, the payments are always in cash. With cash short in market and now the exchange of 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes too stopped, new problems have started to emerge towards the month’s end.

Ranjit, one such worker waiting for a contractor to hire him, says that the landlords are refusing to understand that work and hence money is hard to come by. “This is the situation here. Now if we are evicted from our rooms, what will we do? We’ll lie down here on the road. (But) on top of that, the traffic police will threaten us, the MCD guy will threaten us,” he says.

Shaukeen Ali, a contractor, who arrives to hire a worker for a construction site says that he used to hire 10 to 20 workers in a day. Now he hires only two to four people as there just isn’t enough cash to pay wages. Ranjit says that some 1000 workers now return back without finding work. Khurshid Zaidi, who sells cigarettes and paan masala off a roadside shop at the chowk says that about half of the people now return without work.

The room rent in even the small villages interspersed in the industrial city shoots up to ₹2,000 to ₹3,000. Usually, with around 20 or more days of work in a month, the workers would make ₹10-11 thousand in a month. This month, however, work has stalled in most places and they have found 10 or less days of work. For this too, some say they have had to wait from morning till afternoon or even later. Standing in a long line at the ATM or bank is, therefore, not an option. It is a day of lost work and less money in their pockets. Worse still, the cash may finish before their turn at the counter arrives.

This has also been a problem this month. A contractor hires them and makes them work through the day on the promise of paying them in 100 rupee notes. Later they are offered a 500 rupee note, and they are forced to take it and exchange this note for four hundred or less. This sort of exchange has been happening in the market at a general store or grocery store, where owners usually have a helper who is sent to get the notes exchanged at the bank. With the new announcement ending the exchange of notes at banks, even this system is not an option anymore. Now, as contractors arrive to hire workers at the Chowk, the question first negotiated is whether payment will be made in new or old notes.

Contract workers hired as helpers or cleaners, who get paid on a monthly basis in the production units of factories, are also likely to be affected when the monthly wages are paid. Vipin Malhan, President of the Noida Entrepreneurs Association, explains around 60% of the production has been shut down because 25-30% raw-material is supplied from Chawri Bazaar, Lajpat Rai market, Bhagirath Palace, Sadar Bazaar, etc, where a majority of the transactions take place in cash. The demand for finished goods too has slumped for similar reasons and created a vicious cycle.

Asked whether industries are equipped to deal with the pay day, Malhan said that it is going to be difficult as there is a 50,000 withdrawal limit in a week from current accounts for even businesses and there are about 150 to 300 workers employed in the factory. “Somebody is ill, somebody wants an advance – they all want it in cash. All these things cannot happen through the bank. If you think that within a day the whole country should change, this isn’t possible,” he told me.

Despite these hardships, some workers remain hopeful that this will hurt those who hoard illicit cash. “But this 9 p.m. thing that he (Modi) did, this was done right. Like the village pradhan, who hoards cash, for that, this is a right step,” says Mahavir Prasad, a daily-wager, who also complains that now their wages have come down from around ₹400 to ₹300-350. Some think that this might bring down inflation and are ready to suffer until December 30. Others refuse the narrative. “By the time corruption will end, half the people will die,” says Rajan.

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