Ashish Mani Tiwari | Jul 9, 2019 | 17 min read
Delhi: It was a regular day in mid-May. At about 12:30 in the afternoon, in blazing 42-degree Celsius heat, several construction labourers were left waiting on a pavement at Harola labour hub in Delhi, still in hope of finding some work for the day; this, despite the last batch of workers being picked earlier in the day around 10 am.
At Harola, workers start gathering between 6 am-6:30 am--the earlier the better--as contractors start picking the first batches of construction labourers as early as 7 am. By 10 am, the crowd starts to thin. The fortunate ones go to work, while the unlucky ones pack their bags and head back home.
“It’s a daily routine here,” said 32-year-old Ram Kripal, a daily wage labourer at Harola labour hub. At least 50-60 are left behind every hour, he claimed. Javed Ibrahim, 31, a labour contractor, said before demonetisation between 2,000-3,000 daily wage workers would find work at Harola. However, today, less than 1000 find work.
The Harola labour hub, located in Sector 5, Noida, is one of the major points from where informal sector workers in Delhi find work. The irony is not lost: while hundreds of labourers gather daily to beg for a day’s worth of work and pay amidst the dust, smoke and smog at this labour hub, the hub is surrounded by high-rise, glass-covered buildings and towers. On one side while men and women in torn, stained and mismatched shirts/pants and sarees gather to make a few hundred Rupees a day, the other end sees matching suits with shiny shoes accompanied by high-end cars and briefcases.
Daily wage workers at Harola and other labour hubs in Delhi-NCR do not come with a prefixed notion on the kind of work they wish to find. Drenched in sweat from the sweltering heat, they find jobs at brick kilns, as rag pickers, in construction sites or households, for lifting and moving among others.
This is the final of an 11-part series (you can read the first part here, second here, third here, fourth here, fifth here and sixth here, seventh here, eighth here, ninth here and tenth here), reported from nationwide labour hubs--places where unskilled and semi-skilled workers gather to seek daily-wage or contract jobs--to track employment in India’s informal sector. This sector, which absorbs the country’s mass of illiterate, semi-educated and qualified-but-jobless people, employs 92% of India’s workforce, according to a 2016 International Labour Organization study that used government data.
By delving into the lives and hopes of informal workers, this series provides a reported perspective to ongoing national controversies over job losses after demonetisation and a transition to the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime. The number of jobs declined by a third over four years to 2018, according to a survey by the All India Manufacturers’ Organisation, which polled 34,700 of its 300,000 member-units. In 2018 alone, 11 million jobs were lost, mostly in the unorganised rural sector, according to data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a consultancy.
Thirty-nine-year-old Raju Prajapati, wearing an unbuttoned half-shirt and clumsily folded pants, reminisces his “happy” days living with his father, mother and wife in Gokalpuri, North-East Delhi. Due to a lack of interest in education, Prajapati dropped out after Class 9 and dabbled in odd jobs till he started going to Harola and Burari labour hubs to find daily wage construction work. He found almost 25 days of work a month with a monthly income of around Rs 12,000 and led a steady life with the ability to afford basic amenities and ration.
On November 8, 2016, when the Modi-led government rendered Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes as invalid, everything changed. Prajapati said it took him six months after demonetisation to find a job. It was only in June 2017 when he found some work at a construction site near Noida’s Sector 64.
“Demonetisation was a black day for us. Only we (the family) know the struggle we faced to survive through those days,” said Ganesh Prajapati, 67, also a construction labourer like his son Raju. He earlier earned Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000, but after demonetisation, his monthly income has dropped to around Rs 8,000.
Raju Prajapati left his family home in Gokalpuri in July 2017 and moved to the interiors of Harola village, while his wife moved back to her parents’ house. He manages to visit his family and wife only once a month, despite living in the same NCR region. Now, he lives about 1 km from the labour hub, sharing a rented room with a fellow daily wage labourer. The room is poorly maintained and seems to emit a slightly foul smell. Unfortunately, since Prajapati struggles to pay his monthly rent of Rs 1,100 on time, the landlord dismisses any complaints about his tenants’ living conditions. Prajapati has to travel 1.5 km to get drinking water every day.
Before demonetisation, Prajapati could save up to Rs 3,000 a month. Now, he struggles to earn Rs 6,000-Rs 7,000 per month. He finds only about 16 days of work a month now, at Rs 450 a day.
Prajapati’s story is one of many across the labour hubs in Delhi-NCR.
Different labour hubs, same woes
Chandni Chowk is one of the busiest market areas in Delhi. According to a Business Standard report, in 2014, it saw an average footfall of 500,000 people daily, with small-scale industrial units and wholesale markets collectively showing a turnover of a few hundred crores. The report further states that post demonetisation, this fell to a staggering loss of around 70%.
Most of these small-scale industries and markets comprise informal sector workers. The ones who lost their jobs or had to shut down their businesses were then forced to crowd labour hubs in the city, increasing the already large number of labourers there. “There is a sense of insecurity and concern among labourers as daily wage work is reducing day-by-day here and across other labour hubs like Burari and Mahipalpur,” said Zakir Malik, 29, a daily wage labourer at Chawri Bazar, one of the largest labour hubs in Delhi, part of the Chandni Chowk area.
The Mahipalpur labour hub, located in South Delhi, welcomes you with narrow roads leaden with heavy traffic, broken footpaths and dejected expressions. After demonetisation, the crowds thinned at the Mahipalpur labour hub as workers either moved back to their native regions or migrated to areas like Noida where construction work can be found comparatively easily. Today, the labour hub is used primarily as a parking point by rickshaw pullers, while Noida has become the most sought-after place for unorganised sector workers in Delhi NCR, a few labourers said.
Subhash Chand Mishra, 46, is a former labour contractor. He said, before demonetisation, he could easily recruit several groups of construction labourers for work in small-scale industries. “Frankly, labour contracting job was really fine in Delhi NCR, but since demonetisation, labourers and labour contractors both are ruined. There were three major labour hubs in Delhi: Mahipalpur, Chawri Bazaar and Burari; but currently, all of these serve as rickshaw pullers’ stand.”
Today, at the Mahipalpur labour hub, it is “rare” to find labourers between 7 am and 10 am, Mishra said--“Now everyone looks towards Noida.”
Originally from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, Mishra has a Bachelor of Arts. After graduation, he started a small grocery shop and closed it later for better work. He moved to Delhi in 2007 where he started working as a labour contractor. He would hire large groups of informal sector workers for odd jobs at Okhla industrial area. Before demonetisation hit, Mishra drew a comfortable salary of around Rs 30,000-Rs 40,000 a month and lived in a flat in Adarsh Nagar, North Delhi, with his wife and two kids.
Now, Mishra lives in a single room near Sangam Vihar in South Delhi. He left the informal sector business and has taken up work as an Uber driver, earning approximately 40,000 a month. Mishra’s family has moved back to Lucknow since the standard of living in Delhi is higher.
Sonu Kumar, 30, is a rickshaw puller from Bettiah in Bihar. He finds this job easier than waiting for work at a labour hub. “We survive on loading and unloading, which is a constant process.” He claimed that rickshaw pullers live a better, more “independent” life than daily wage labourers since they are constantly under a labour contractor’s thumb.
When asked about their basic demands, labourers across the hubs spoke about wanting properly constructed waiting sheds, drinking water facilities and a labour union for unorganised sector workers. A standard minimum wage must be set across Delhi, said Prajapati, since some workers get paid Rs 650 a day, while others get Rs 350-Rs 400 a day. Currently, in Delhi, the minimum wage is Rs 399 for unskilled labour and Rs 485 for skilled labour.
Explaining this particular phenomenon, Atul Vishnoi, 41, a labour contractor from Jaipur, said, “Earlier, there was a monopoly of labour contractors on payment of wages that's why wages were different at some places of Delhi NCR. Now, labourers have become more vocal towards their minimum wage and also there is a scarcity of labour due to two main reasons, first demonetisation and second, many of them have migrated. We have to give them as per what they want,” he said.
With almost 1.3 million unemployed people in 2016, Delhi witnessed a mammoth 6% increase, states the Economic Survey of Delhi 2017-18.
J John a social activist and member of the Centre for Education and Communication, said that even before demonetisation, job opportunities were limited for labourers in Delhi. “There is an impression within people that Delhi has got several opportunities for labourers. However, that’s not the actual scenario. Before demonetisation, it was average and post demonetisation it has become worse.”
Citing an example, John said Sangam Vihar garment factories, famous for readymade garments and considered Asia’s largest unauthorised colony, suffered a lot after demonetisation where hundreds lost their jobs or had to shut down their businesses. Sangam Vihar is home to 10-12 lakh residents which are mainly into garment factories and daily wage labour works, many of them migrants and from economically weaker sections of the society. An actual estimate of jobs lost is difficult, since there is no concrete data available, opined John.
A look at CMIE’s unemployment data on Delhi reveals interesting information. In 2016, Delhi had an average unemployment rate of 10.31%, with the highest going up to 17.3% in May 2016. Unemployment was at its lowest between June 2017 and April 2018, at an average of 3.6%, going as low as 1.6% in February 2018. In May 2018, the unemployment rate rose drastically to 8.8% and is only increasing since then. In the first four months of 2019, the unemployment rate has been at an average of 11.32%.
Utkarsha Bhardwaj, a Delhi-based social impact consultant, opined that a rise in unemployment subsequently takes place over periodic intervals. “While the unemployment data itself is concerning and requires further analysis, it is important to highlight that there is a need for an independent and globally aligned system for capturing real-time unemployment data.”
“Therefore, while the skills mission launched by the Delhi state government and PMKVY launched by the Union government are notable attempts to address some of the prevalent issues, they need to focus on the existing employment exchange and develop them as a one-stop platform for not just gathering and maintaining real-time data on skills, employment, and available opportunities in the market, but also collaborate with academia and industries to present viable job options for those seeking employment,” he explained.
Parvati Kumari, 29, is a brick kiln worker. She travels 8 km daily from Mayur Vihar phase-III to Harola labour hub. She opined that “nothing has changed” for labourers in Delhi NCR in the last five years. “We used to work for getting one proper meal a day and we are still struggling for it.” She travels by bus every day, paying Rs 10 for a one-way journey in a Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus. There is no guarantee of finding a day’s worth of work, she said.
Originally from Buxar in Bihar, Parvati is a Class 10 dropout and moved to Delhi seven years ago after getting married. She lives with her child and husband, who is a cab driver, in Delhi. Before demonetisation, she would earn Rs 300 a day, making Rs 8,000 monthly. Today, she finds about two weeks of work a month, making approximately Rs Rs 7000 a month.
After effects of demonetisation on MSMEs in Delhi NCR
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) released a handbook in March 2019 on ease of business across Indian state. Based on the rankings over the last three years, Delhi slipped the most: It was placed 15 in 2015 and 23 in 2017. Andhra Pradesh is at the top of ease of doing business, while Delhi’s neighbouring state Haryana is at third position.
Suman Chawla, proprietor for V&M exports that manufacturers leather goods, opined, “Very high cost of industrial land makes it impossible for aspiring young entrepreneurs to make the initial investment and stay viable in Delhi NCR’s MSME market.”
According to Pankaj Bajaj, president of Confederate of Real Estate Developers’ Association of India in Delhi NCR, they predict a 15%-20% hike in the price of land shortly. However, there’s a gap between the demand and supply of skilled workers.
The National Skill Development Mission was launched in July 2015 with the aim to act as a multi-agency policy between the National Skill Development Agency, the National Skill Development Corporation and the Directorate General of Training. However, general voices at the labour hubs said they are neither aware nor have registered under such a scheme.
The Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana, launched in 2016--a programme under the National Skill Development Mission--promised free training in soft skills, entrepreneurship and financial and digital literacy to those who are school/college dropouts or unemployed, roughly about 10 million Indians by 2020, with a designated budget of 12,000 crores. However, according to a report by Al Jazeera, barely one-third of its target was achieved by January 2019.
Unemployment woes in Delhi’s trading and industrial markets
Mayapuri phase-II in West Delhi is one of the largest iron trading hubs in India for small traders, micro and small enterprises, including scrap dealers, vehicle workshops among others where both unskilled and skilled workers come to find work. While demonetisation led to the closure of several small-scale industries and left informal sector workers unemployed, GST also played a significant role in adding to the financial stress.
Jatin Sharma, 52, a small-scale iron trader, said, “The filing system of GST is very complicated, it has functionalities such as drop-down menus, invoice upload, upload of purchase and many more. All these activities kill time and money of small traders. We can not afford professionals to look after all these things.”
Dinesh Makol, 46, executive committee member of Mayapuri Industrial Welfare Association, explained that several small-scale industry owners in New Delhi had risked all their capital and personal savings to run their businesses. However, demonetisation and GST “wrecked” their lives and hundreds of jobs were lost. In Mayapuri, maximum MSME owners work and trade with cast and pig iron, but due to demonetisation distribution came to a standstill.
Ganesh Tanwar, 29, a vendor at Mayapuri, shared, “The mechanism of trade and supply of Mayapuri Industrial area was completely interrupted after demonetisation. Buyers (MSME owners) wanted to purchase iron (the vital element for any foundry, workshop & scrap dealers) in the old currency (Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes) and suppliers (traders) did not accept the old currency so the whole trade cycle came to a halt.”
“A big scarcity of iron was created in Mayapuri for months and all units had stopped working for a while,” Tanwar added.
Makol himself runs a small cast iron manufacturing unit here. After demonetisation, traders suffered heavily, since most of their transactions are made in cash, he said, adding that GST increased payable taxes from 2% to 18%. Most traders and manufacturers were unable to cope with this increase and were forced to either shut down their businesses or cut costs severely. “I know several manufacturers in Delhi who vanished after GST implementation,” Makol said.
Rishabh Shah, 37, is another small-time iron trader in Mayapuri. “We all traders and manufacturers in Delhi suffered a lot after demonetisation. Our market was closed for almost three months and labourers moved back to their native places, as no demand of manpower existed at that point,” he said.
Along with demonetisation and GST, the Delhi sealing drive created distress for daily wage labourers and traders, said Brajesh Goyal, Aam Aadmi Party’s trade wing convenor.
In 2006, the Supreme Court of India set up a monitoring committee to identify and shut down unauthorised commercial establishments and units functioning in Delhi’s residential colonies.
According to an Indian Express report, at least 10,533 commercial units, including establishments like shops, restaurants, bars and bakeries were sealed in the city till January 31, 2017, for alleged violation of norms, including usage of residential premises for commercial purposes.
Again, in 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered the shutdown of unauthorised industrial units in East Delhi to curb pollution. Based on this, the Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation identified 51,837 units that needed to be relocated or closed. The vulnerable group, the informal sector workers, were hit the hardest with their primary source of livelihood snatched away. While working at the industrial units put them at risk of being exposed to toxic air pollutants, they at least had a stable month-to-month income.
Mayapuri was one of the most affected by the sealing drive and several times over the last year, traders have taken to the streets in protest. At a press conference in April 2019, Goyal assured traders that Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has planned to move the Supreme Court against their sealing order.
In the years since demonetisation, labourers in Mayapuri can be seen spending their days playing cards, waiting for factory owners to hire them.
Lack of awareness about welfare schemes
During the February 2019 interim budget, the Union government introduced a pension scheme for unorganised sector workers called the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maandhan. Under this scheme, unorganised sector workers who earn a monthly income of less than Rs 15,000 a month are eligible for a monthly pension of Rs 3,000 after turning 60. This includes street vendors, head loaders, brick kiln workers, landless labourers, domestic workers among others. Individuals between the age group of 18-40 years can register under this scheme. According to their website, since the launch of the scheme, 5966 workers have been registered in Delhi as of May 26. The highest number of enrollments are from Haryana, followed by Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha.
When asked whether they were aware of the existence of such a scheme, several labourers across various age groups declined, stating that they had never heard of it. Suresh Koli, 52, a skilled daily wage labourer, said, “I have no idea about the scheme. All I know is that I need to fight a battle every day to have a meal at night.”
This sentiment was echoed across the labour hubs. “Schemes are only for authorities, not for the working class. We have to earn a daily wage at any cost,” is the general consensus.
In a bid to woo Delhi’s labourers, AAP formed eight different labour organisations in January 2019 to seek votes from the unorganised sector and strengthen their foothold in the grassroots.
These labour organisations include workers from different sectors including Delhi Jal Board, Delhi Transport Corporation, wholesale markets, construction workers, health, railways and electricity boards. Conversely, while speaking to several labourers in Delhi near Ajmeri Gate, Sangam Vihar and others, a majority had no idea about the existence of these AAP-led. Arun Jha, 43, a construction worker at Mahipalpur labour hub, said, “I have been working as a labourer in Delhi since 2005. I have not heard about any labour organisation and there is nothing like any labour organisation for the informal sector.” Discussing AAP’s decision to form eight grassroots organisations for the working class, he said, “It’s just for elections, nothing else.”
Prajapati, when asked about his expectations from the newly-formed government, said, “We are in search of acche din.”
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