New Internationalist

Stayin’ alive in Delhi

April 1980
Photo: Peter Stalker
Sitabai and her daughter Kamala squat outside their make-shift home in the shadows of a Delhi skyscraper. Photo: Peter Stalker

I’ve heard there’ll be a job tomorrow - a construction site on the other side of Delhi. Munilal gets up from the tiny patch of ground between his two tents. Somehow he doesn’t look strong enough to be carrying bricks up and down ladders - a frail five-foot two with spindly legs that touch at the knees.

He ties up his ‘dhoti’, the cloth that serves as trousers, and wanders over to the nearby street lamp carrying a reel of unfinished rope. He stretches the rope around the lamppost then sits down on the pavement. Gripping the reel between his feet he pulls the rope taut and starts twisting it at the end. ‘It’s for drawing water from the well, he explains, ‘for when we go back to the village.’

Munilal, his wife and six children will go back to the village soon, in March, for the harvest But for the moment they are in their ‘house’ in Delhi. It is little more than a couple of tents ingeniously strung together with sacking and cardboard and anything else that comes to hand.

Their home for the past three years or so is one of a hundred or so ‘jhuggies’ crammed together on a piece of spare land five minutes from the centre of the city. The site is unauthorised. ‘If we get moved,’ says Sitabai, ‘there will be somewhere else.’ So far they have been lucky and the makeshift campsite is starting to have a permanent look about it. The green, orange and white of the Indian flag flutters above some of the tents, a remnant of the recent election. Where there are mud houses they have been plastered with posters for Mrs. Gandhi’s Congress Party. Towering over them all is the new twelve-storey skyscraper of the Food Corporation of India, the government body responsible for shifting millions of tons of grain around the country.

Munilal’s food production is more modest. ‘I only have about half an acre of land back in my village - Chattapur in Uttar Pradesh. You can’t do much with it. It’s not enough to live on so I have to come here to Delhi to find work. I do whatever I can but it usually means labouring on the building sites.’

He earns 30 cents a day working from dawn till dusk clambering along the precarious wooden scaffolding. That’s if he manages to find work, If the job slows down for any reason - a shortage of materials say - he gets laid off and has to look elsewhere. ‘And if I get injured’, he complains, ‘I get nothing at al I.

Suddenly the children have spotted a tourist who has strayed off the beaten track. With a dozen or so others they converge and threaten to knock him over shouting ‘Hello, hello, one rupee, one rupee.’ Sitabai screams at them although it’s not clear whether she is telling them to release him or hang on to him.

They don’t in any case have much luck and return crestfallen. Like the city’s permanent dwellers they have learned that you need money to survive on the streets. A rupee picked up here or there can make all the difference in a day.

Back in the village they would be able to help by weeding or looking for firewood,’ she explains, ‘But here there’s not much else that they can do. If there was a free school nearby maybe I would send them.’ The eldest boy, 14-year old Mohan, however, does also earn about 20 cents a day working as a shoe-shine boy.

She picks idly through seven-year old Desraj’s hair, looking for lice and finding quite a few. ‘It’s difficult to keep them clean’, she says. ‘Soap is so expensive and you have to carry the water.’ The water comes from a pump on a street corner nearby - once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

In a couple of weeks the children and their few possessions will be piled onto a train for the six-hundred mile journey back to the village.

Munilal’s brother has been looking after his land and now they are going back for the harvest. ‘There are about 500 people living there. Of those probably 100 don’t have any land or enough to live on. So they go off to other places looking for work.’

Sitabai gathers together the dishes from the meal they have just finished. ‘Of course I have land in my own village. I had it before I was married to old Budda here’ - she waves rather dismissively at her husband over by the lamppost, ‘But there is no one to work it for me so what can I do?’

Her eleven-year old daughter Kamala has no such wealth to bring to her marriage. But remarkably enough this slight little girl is already married. ‘The wedding was three years ago to a man in the village. Now that she has reached puberty we are going to hand her over to her husband.

Kamala pays little attention and starts to rub away with mud and water at the cooking pans. Is she nervous about leaving her family and going to live with her husband? ‘No, why should I be?’ she asks. If anything she seems to be looking forward to going back to the village.

For Kamala this will probably be the last time in Delhi, the last time that she boards a train back to Chattapur. But for the rest of the family the cycle goes on.

You just have to listen out,’ says Munilal twisting his rope, ‘the work comes by word of mouth. Tomorrow I know there will be a job.’

Peter Stalker

This feature was published in the April 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 086

New Internationalist Magazine issue 086
Issue 086

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