Thursday, February 25, 2010

Day Laborers in Jodhpur

I was out wandering in Jodhpur one morning. It was just past eight in the morning when I crossed Sanjin Gate and entered the old city. The big square there that was full of men, standing and waiting. There were no women only men waiting. It was easy to see that these were day laborers waiting for work, and I decided to stay and watch since I had time.

Seeing me standing there, one man came over.
“Where are you from?” he asked, making conversation. He spoke in a mix of Rajasthani and Hindi and I could only follow him partially. Another man, his hair tinged with orange due to henna, also walked over.
“You are not looking for laborers, are you?” he asked. Before I could respond, the first man said, “Maybe he too is looking for work!” and they both laughed good naturedly at the idea of me doing physical labor.

Spotting me talking to the two of them, some thought that I was looking to hire people. Many laborers rushed over. Suddenly, I was surrounded by over a dozen men, desperate for work. They hurled questions at me in Hindi, and it was a little scary.
“What kind of work do you have?”
“Tell. What is it that you want?”
“How many people do you need?”
No, I am a tourist and I am just watching, I explained. Most of the men lost interest and walked away.

Every few minutes, someone in a motorcycle would come up to the square. Men rushed towards these motorbike hirers. There would be a quick conference that lasted just a few seconds, and a few men would be selected and they’d start walking away from the square. The actual mechanics of the selection was never clear to me.

The man with the orange henna hair stayed with me. He was in his late twenties, wearing a short pant and a shirt, both of which were very dirty. He was walking around bare feet, no shoes or sandals when he worked.
“Is there work in Bombay?” he asked me. (I had told him that I had come from Mumbai.)
I told him that from what I knew, it was very difficult to get work there as well.

There were about 200 men in the square. “Will all of them get work?” I asked.
The man, surprised by my naivety looked up as if to see if I was joking. “Not even half of them will get work today.”
“What will the rest of them do?”
“They will go home. What else can they do?” It was a simple case of over-supply and thus a hirer's market. Those who hired the laborers got to pick and choose. Though I have never been a fan of labor unions, it occurred to me that a little bit of organization among the men would help them all.

I then asked the man what the daily pay was.
“200 rupees per day.”
“Has it been 200 for many years?” I was curious if laborers also got an inflation adjustment.
“No, it was increased recently. Five years ago, it was 150 Rupees. Then it became 180 and now it is 200. Sometimes, we can even get 250 a day. And this is for the common mazdoors. If you are a skilled worker, you can get 400 or more per day.”
“Is it for 8 hours of work?”
“Yes, 8 hours. We get tea at 11 o'clock, then 1 hour for lunch, a few minutes in the afternoon and work till 6pm. It is tough, but we are happy to get work.”
“Why don’t you look for regular employment? Maybe in a shop somewhere.”
“They won’t pay us well. If you don’t get at least 3000 a month, it is very difficult. Even if they pay 2800 a month, it is not enough. That’s why we look for daily work.”

“Is 200 rupees enough to get by?” I asked him a leading question.
In reply, he pointed towards a woman in a colorful dress was walking by with a big bundle of wood balanced on her head. “Even firewood costs five rupees a kilo. Just to get the stove going! And you know what the prices of dal and atta and vegetables are.”
He was silent for a few seconds. “Actually, 200 rupees can be quite enough," he said. "There are some men who are even able to save some money daily after all expenses.”

Gesturing towards the laborers in the square he said, “But most of the men here, they drink it away. Me, I have 4 children at home. So I give a little money to feed the children.” He then laughed. “The rest, I drink away.” He emphasized that by taking his thumb towards his mouth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Daily Roti Guaranteed

Traveling in Rajasthan and looking at the sights, at the good roads, all the mobile phone shops and the unending mineral water stalls, it is difficult to believe that there is very much poverty in the state.

One afternoon, we were wandering around the small town of Kolayat with its lotus-filled lake ringed by temples in the scorching sun, when I saw a big yellow sign painted on a wall.

The sign on the wall was actually an advertisement for the government’s Rural Employment Guaranteed Act - NREGA. (Note: I have since heard a lot of drawbacks about the scheme, but this post is not about that.) For anyone who's willing to do physical work, the scheme guarantees a daily wage.

The yellow sign listed out in tables, the quanta of physical work that had to be performed each day, and the pay for that amount of work.

People were required to dig the earth and create ditches. Per day, each person was required to dig a ditch 10 ft by 5 ft by 1 ft deep. For this work, they would be paid a total of 100 Rs. ($2). 30% would be deducted as tax at the source. So each person ended up earning Rs 70 for the whole day.

Women laborers were expected to do the same amount of work and they were paid the same as men. When it came to hard physical labor, there was no gender discrimination.

For us, just staying in comfortable hotels and eating three meals a day with a little bit of sightseeing itself seemed very tiring. During the day, the dry desert heat was enervating. I couldn’t even imagine the hardship of digging a ditch in this heat. And for removing 50 cubic feet of hard packed earth, they got 100 Rupees. This translates to a rate of 2 Rupees (4 cents) for each cubic foot that they cleared.

And I had been naively wondering if poverty was still around in Rajasthan.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Desert Train

In Rajasthan, we discovered that one very good way to view the desert was to take the morning train from Bikaner to Jaisalmer. From the comfort of our compartment seats, we were able to watch the train cut through the Thar desert. This is a relatively new line and was completed only a couple of years ago.

The train travels right along the desert shrubs and the sand. If you stare out long enough, you’ll see all the animals that you are likely to encounter in the desert – camels, dikdiks and all types of cattle.

There was just one drawback though. The blowing sand. No matter how much we tried, we couldn’t avoid the fine sand dust that got into our bags and clothes.

The Jaisalmer Express (Train 4704) at 7am from the Lalgarh station, which is a sister station to Bikaner. Perhaps due to a small bug in the railway reservations system, this train doesn’t show up when you search for trains departing Bikaner. You have to know enough to put in Lalgarh as the originating station, and I doubt that many try that.

Consequently, our train was practically empty. We had pretty much the whole compartment to ourselves, which is quite a luxury in a crowded country like India.