India’s day laborers have been sitting idle for more than three weeks. It is slowly dawning on them that they are at the beginning of a month-long dry spell that could end in ruin.
Vinod Singh had a dream all his life. Simply having time off, sleeping in, lounging, that’s what he always wanted, says the 45-year-old. But now that Vinod has been doomed for more than three weeks, contrary to expectations, he does not like doing nothing. “You have too much time to think,” says the father of four in a video call. Now he’s wasting his days in an alley shaded by fig trees in India’s capital Delhi.
In those days of April, when the thermometer in Delhi is already climbing to 39 degrees, Vinod ponders how his wife can manage in his home village, 1000 kilometers away, during the corona lockdown. He is wondering what will be after the strict curfew is lifted. On Tuesday, the Indian government extended the lockdown for the 1.3 billion Indians to May 3, after which there were protests by migrant workers in Mumbai, who do not want to persevere but want to go home.
Vinod also worries: What should happen if work on the house he is building on is not going to start again soon? His last wage will soon be used up, although he almost only eats rice and lentils. “If I can’t get back to work soon, it will be difficult,” says Vinod.
Vinod Singh is a member of a construction team consisting of 16 men from his village in the Bihar state. Together they move through the country, staying where they can find work. Two months ago, they heard that a five-story apartment building was to be built in Delhi’s C. R. Park district. The men secured the order and first built their accommodations next to the construction site: huts nailed together from wooden slats and plastic tarpaulins, and the water hose, which they use to mix the cement, serves as a shower.
Vinod is one of 40 million migrant workers in India. The mostly male internal migrants work in the cities, but their focal point is the countless villages in India to which they send their earnings. With this life balancing act between town and country, millions create a small financial leeway for their families that distinguishes the working poor from the poorest. Vinod and his colleagues, for example, earn the equivalent of CHF 5 a day. Unlike neighbors who live only from what their field has to offer, Vinod can send his children to school and, if necessary, to the doctor.
The gold jewelry of the woman as a nest egg
The life of migrant workers has its rhythm. Three or four times a year, the men climb into a third-class section of the Indian railroad and drive home. In Vinod’s case, a trip that lasts 30 hours and costs him more than a day’s earnings. Holidays in the village are not holidays: fields want to be plowed, harvests are brought in. After a few weeks, it’s back to the cities. It is not uncommon for a child to be born nine months later.
When the government in Delhi announced a 21-day lockdown on March 24 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, millions of day laborers were faced with a difficult choice: should they persevere in cities where there was suddenly no more work for she gave and threatened hunger? Or should they make their way home to sit out the crisis in their villages? The prospect of food security, of fresh vegetables from their field, prompted millions to set off for home. Hundreds of thousands did not arrive there: they are still stuck in emergency shelters along the way.
“It was right that we stayed here,” says Vinod Singh, who is well informed about the chaos that the sudden lockdown has triggered in India. Like many of the working poor in India, Vinod has one luxury: a smartphone. He is staring at it day in and day out, watching Corona paralyze entire parts of the world. And he is slowly losing hope that he will survive the crisis without permanent damage. “I could lose everything,” says Vinod. There is only a small buffer between him and the descent: Like almost all Indians, Vinod’s wife wears gold jewelry as a nest egg that she could sell should the standstill continue. After that, they only had their country. But to sell that would be to join the host of landless have-nots who live in the slums and doesn’t know in the morning how to fill their children’s bellies in the evening. The NGO Oxfam estimates that the outbreak of Covid-19 could drive between 400 and 600 million people into deep poverty, a third of them in South Asia.
Six people live from 1 franc 20
One who is a little bit closer to this fate than Vinod is Yoginder. The young man, who, like many Indians, has no surname, is one of the large band of serviceable spirits who dwell in board shacks on the sidewalks in the better neighborhoods of Delhi and who, for tiny money, are hired by the middle class, who reside within reach. Yoginder is an ironer: the 25-year-old uses two old-fashioned irons, which are heated with coal as in grandmother’s day, to wash the laundry of the surrounding households. He receives 5 centimes per piece of clothing for this, and 12 for a bedsheet. From this, he feeds his parents, his wife and two children.
Joginder’s family does not own a country that could serve as the last financial security in difficult times. The lockdown has already brought him into real existential distress. “I’ve earned exactly 94 rupees since the curfew began,” he says. 1 franc 20 for six people: too little to live, too much to die, even in India. Yoginder had to borrow money, CHF 25 already. It will take him months, if not years, to repay that. Provided that life gets going again and he can iron again. What if the coercive measures are extended? “Then we can choose what to die from hunger or corona,” says the family man.
A professional group that will not quickly become a livelihood is Delhi’s greengrocers. With their large, hand-drawn carts, they roam the streets as usual and bring the housewives to the door, which makes it past the roadblocks to the wholesale markets: onions and garlic, beans and peas, tomatoes and potatoes. “I can’t complain, my business is running,” says Ram Bharose. However, the effects of the exceptional situation also catch up with the flying dealers. “Not all vegetables that are ripe are available. And prices are rising, “says the 40-year-old.
What concerns Bharose is the risk of infection. He has contact with dozens of people every day. He has a paper mask that he puts on. Does he think she’ll protect him from coronavirus infection? “Probably not, but what else can I do?” Isolation is a luxury that Bharose cannot afford. “I have to work, otherwise I don’t eat.”