The national capital region (NCR) of Delhi which includes Gurugram (also spelt Gurgaon), is among the most preferred destinations for migrants. Across the country, the March 2020 lockdown had a disproportionate impact on these workers. Landlords evicted them, employers abandoned them and many had no option but to walk home – hundreds of kilometres. From their children having to drop out of school and college, to shifting to cheaper accommodation to save money and not being able to see their loved ones for over a year, migrant lives went into freefall.
Students of The Shri Ram School, Aravali campus, interviewed migrants who work in Gurugram as construction workers and domestic workers. This was part of their Class 11 Economics project for the year 2019-2020. They spoke to migrants who had returned from their villages as well as to those who stayed on in the city – both desperate for wages to support their families back home in villages across Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
‘Where is the work in the village?’ asks Ajooba, a domestic worker from Bara Shoulmari Pratham Kanda in West Bengal. As her family’s only earning member, she struggles to pay rent, her daughter’s school fees and more.
‘It took six days to walk home’ follows the story of construction site workers, Santosh Kumar and his wife Champa who had to walk back to Deori Ghat in Uttar Pradesh when the lockdown was announced in March 2020.
‘My aim is to earn so that I can educate my children’, says Susheela Tirki, a farmer and domestic worker from Akasi village in Jharkhand. She speaks of the hard work farming demands; and the struggle to provide online education to her three children.
‘The [city] feels like home’ is the story of Mansingh Pal, a security guard, from Sirmaur village in Uttar Pradesh. He has brought his son to work here as well, and despite losing Rs. 10,000 to online fraudsters, he is still hopeful about life in the metro.
‘Where is the work in the village?’
My name is Ajooba and I am 44 years old. I am from Koch Bihar district in West Bengal. Women don’t get jobs in my village Bara Shoulmari. Where is the work in the village? Even my husband, Samshul, could not earn much there.
I have six children and the one bigha [roughly half an acre of land] we owned in the village was not enough to support us. We came to Gurgaon [Gurugram] nearly 18 years ago in search of jobs. I started working as a cook and cleaner in people’s houses. In the last few years, working in five houses I made 25,000 rupees a month. Samshul earned 15,000 rupees a month working as a driver for a family.
When we arrived from the village, the eight of us lived in one room in a slum in east Gurgaon’s Saraswati Kunj area. The rent was around 800 rupees per month. Later we moved into government-built housing for a monthly rent of 10,000 rupees. It was a one-bedroom flat with a kitchen, running water and a proper toilet.
My 54-year-old husband lost his job when the lockdown happened. It was very tough on me as the family’s only earning member. I could only manage to work in one house and it became a struggle to pay rent. Nobody was willing to give my husband a loan during this time. I used up my savings of nearly 1.5 lakh rupees to get through this time. But it was not enough and so we had to shift back to the slums where rents are cheaper – 4,000 rupees a month.
My youngest daughter is a Class 7 student at a madarsa in my village. I cannot afford to pay her fees anymore.
Before the lockdown, we would go home once a year, but it’s been almost two years since we last visited our village. I miss my home. There is no other place like it.
‘Everyone [in my family] is here, only my daughter is in the village. We definitely miss our home. Even though we get to earn more here, home is home.’
Student reporters: Abhyudaya Singh, Aria Trakroo, Diya Srivastava, Jai Sharma, Maahi Bhutani and Veer Dhillon
‘It took six days to walk home’
When the first lockdown was announced, people here in Gurgaon [Gurugram] would throw stones at us if we tried to leave our rooms.
So we decided to leave the city and walk back home. There were many challenges we faced: In the first two days, our footwear began to tear. Our feet became blistered and swollen. The swelling would take at least 10 days to come down, and it was difficult to keep walking.
My name is Santosh Kumar and I am 28 years old. My wife Champa, 26, and I work at construction sites in Gurgaon. Last year, we walked from there to our village, Deori Ghat, in Mauranipur tehsil of Jhansi district, Uttar Pradesh.
From Gurgaon, we walked till Faridabad and then on to Agra. Lathis [sticks wielded by policemen] rained down on us. We had no food and we slept on the footpath. Sometimes, the police would show mercy and give us two-rupee packets of Parle G biscuits. It took us six days [of walking] like this to reach home.
When we reached, the villagers did not let us enter. Doctors from our tehsil – 15 kilometres away – came and checked us. They told us that we had to be in our homes for 15 days. So we stayed indoors, not even being able to see our two boys – Rudra Pratap, 11, and Yuvraj, 7 – who live with my parents in Deori Ghat. Earlier, I used to go back to my village every six months for ten days. We own ten acres of land there on which we grow wheat, channa, peanuts, and moong and urad dal depending on the season. We sell our harvest at the mandi and make about 50,000 rupees for six months of work.
My father pays 100 rupees an hour to a person who owns a water pump, to buy water for our crops. This is done at night as electricity is supplied to our village only at night – we get it at 12 a.m. It’s different from the way the city works.
If our crops have pests in them, we end up using all of our money to buy pesticides. The government does not help. I have a Kisan Credit Card but when I asked for a loan of two lakh rupees, I only got one lakh. So I had to borrow the rest from the people in the village.
As farmers, we have many debts to repay so we can’t stay home for long. We return to the city to work as soon as we can. Our debt increases when weddings happen.
My father gets 2,000 rupees as pension every six months. My wife and I make 500 rupees a day doing mazdoori ka kaam (daily wage work) in Gurgaon. Now with Covid and the lockdowns, we sometimes go days without a single hour of work. Some thekedaars (supervisors) even eat up the money without paying us. Once my wife and I did two days of work. When I went back for our wages, the thekedaar had disappeared. At least earlier, we would get paid. Now even that is difficult.
Half of our wages go towards the rent for our room and food, and we send the other half to our home in the village. Before the lockdown, my children were studying in a government school 16 kilometres away from our house. Now they get tuition from an educated girl in the village.
My wife and I miss our village a lot. I miss spending time at the nadi (river). Here, everywhere you look, there are buildings. In my village, there are a lot of open areas. I like that, but I have no option but to be here. I use someone or the other’s phone to video call my children at least once or twice a day, only then do I sleep.
‘There were blisters on my feet. I had to rest for ten days because of the swelling. It was very difficult. What can I say? We are treated one way in the city and another in the village.’
Student reporters: Purnajyoti Guha Thakurta, Shubhi Tewari, Maahira Jain, Yash Khare, Tvisha Arora and Zoya Duggal
‘My aim is to earn so that I can educate my children’
I came here in 2015 with a relative who got me this job as domestic help at a home in Gurgaon. My name is Susheela Tirki and I am 47 years old.
I live in a room with an attached bathroom at my current workplace in north Gurgaon. I wash the dishes, sweep the floor, dust the shelves, put the clothes out to dry and cook meals every day. I earn 10,000 rupees a month working full-time in this house.
My husband Yakub Tirki, 59, lives in our village, Akasi in Dumri block of Jharkhand’s Gumla district. He is a daily wage labourer and earns around 2,000 rupees a month. Life in the village is hard and wage work is tough. There are not many opportunities for work or education in the village.
Before the lockdown, our three children were studying and living in different hostels. My income would go towards their hostel, college fees and travel. Shabnam, 25, was doing her M.A. at a college in Gumla town; Sagar, 20, was in Class 12 at a local school and Anjali, 18, was a Class 11 student in Ranchi city.
I used to visit home for a month every year in May. That’s when I got to see my children as they would also be home from school.
My aim is to earn so that I can educate my children. Only with a proper education can they get a good job, provide for their family and earn a living.
They returned home after last year’s lockdown and could not continue their studies. We don’t have any facilities for online education in the village. Now they work on our five acres of land, along with my husband’s younger brother. We grow wheat, dhan (rice), bajra, onions, potatoes, radish, tomatoes, green chilis, brinjal, coriander and more. We keep half the harvest for our own consumption and we use the rest as seeds for the next year. We don’t buy seeds. We dry, sort and put the seeds we saved in different sacks. We then carefully place these on a raised wooden or stone slab to keep them from getting damp.
The pests come out once the ropni (sowing) is done in August and September, and so we put [pesticide] on the rice. We put medicine [pesticide] on tomatoes and cauliflower. We also use manure that comes from our cows and buffaloes.
Sometimes after the harvest, we sell what we don’t need at home. We go to the bazaar – 12 kilometres away – by foot or tonga (horse driven carriage) and sell our produce at low rates.
When the lockdown happened, the government distributed free rice to the village – 15 kgs of rice twice a month. We managed with whatever there was at home and this rice. I didn’t get my salary, but I still managed to send money (online) to my children.
In the village, I work from the moment I get up, resting only for an hour or so in the afternoon. I cook, clean and fetch wood from the hills that are about two to three kilometres away from our home, and I also work on the land, sowing and weeding.
I liked spending time with my children in the village. It gets very hot during May so we usually just stay home together.
‘One can’t earn much in the villages, there are more opportunities to earn in the cities. That’s why I have come here [to Gurugram]. Life in the village is hard, and wage work is tough.’
Student reporters: Kashif Chopra, Vasvi Bhardwaj, Nimratraj Nayar and Arnav Goel
‘The [city] feels like home’
When I was twelve or thirteen, a bus almost crashed into my cycle while I was going to school. I jumped off my cycle just in time.
My name is Mansingh Pal and I am 46 years old. I was born in Sirmaur village, in Jaitpur block in Mahoba district, Uttar Pradesh. As a student, it would take me nearly an hour to cycle to my government school in Tikamgarh zilla, Madhya Pradesh.
I do not remember much of my school life, just that my teachers were very good. My favorite subject was history. Sometimes I had to skip school because I had to take the cows and buffaloes grazing. The next day, I would get scolded and punished by my masterji (the teacher).
In 1990, when I was in Class 10, my eldest brother took his life after a fight in the family. After that I quit school to help my family on our land.
We own 8 killa (roughly one acre) of land. When my two brothers and I got married and started living separately, the land was divided among the three of us.
My wife Kailash Rani and our children – Sangeeta, 24, Dharmendra, 20, Kuldeep, 18 and Suman, 18 – work on the farm, back home. We grow wheat, channa, peas, urad dal, til, jowar and mustard. My children don’t go to school because my wife needs their support on the farm.
I spend approximately 30,000 to 40,000 rupees on seeds and 15,000 to 20,000 rupees on fertilisers and pesticides. In a good year I can earn 10,000 rupees as profit. During a bad year we keep the harvest for our own consumption.
I migrated to Gurgaon for work because agriculture was not enough to support my family. Some of my family members were already working here as security guards. They introduced me to a man named Mahavir Yadav, who my colleagues and I call a ‘security maalik’. Mahavir got me a job as a security guard at a housing complex in south Gurgaon. He gives us [guards] our monthly salary and shifts us from one place to another.
I remember feeling odd during my first six months in Gurgaon. I was not used to working 12-hour shifts and felt tired and bored in the beginning. After finishing my duties, I now spend time playing games on my mobile phone or talking to family members and colleagues.
At my first job in Gurgaon I made 3,350 rupees a month. Now I make 12,000 rupees a month. I stay with my nephew, Rajiv, in a locality called Kanhai Gaon in south Gurgaon. We split the rent, which is between 2,500 and 3,000 rupees. I spend 3,000 to 5,000 rupees a month on food. I am unable to save much money.
In 2018, nearly 10,000 rupees were stolen from my bank account. That year my son, Dharmendra had come to work with me in Gurgaon and I had made him open a bank account. Dharmendra had dropped out of school because he was not interested in studying further, so I asked him to join me. A few days after I had gotten my son’s account opened, I got a call from a man who told me that to activate my son’s account, I would have to give him my ATM pin number. I gave him my pin number and the OTP (one time password) that I received on my phone. Later I found out through an SMS from my bank that all the money from my bank account had been withdrawn. I tried calling the person who had asked for my ATM pin number, but that phone was switched off. I did not inform the police because I thought I would have to pay them a bribe to do my work.
I usually board the Delhi to Kulpahar train at the Nizamuddin station to go back home twice a year, for 15 days each. Once during May and June, then in December.
I miss my family, but I do not have the choice of going back home for now.
‘Once 10,000 rupees was stolen from my bank account. When I realised that my money had been stolen, I tried calling them again but their number was switched off.’
Student reporters: Arsh Bhatia, Anant Verma, Amitansh Lal, Ahan Vermani and Arav Vermani
About the reporters
Students of The Shri Ram School, Aravali campus, interviewed migrants working in the construction industry and as domestic labourers in Gurugram, Haryana. This was part of their Class 11 Economics project for the year 2019-2020, designed along with PARI Education.
About the illustrator
Antara Raman is an illustrator and web page designer with a keen interest in social processes and religious history. A graduate of Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, she believes that the world of storytelling and illustration are symbiotic.
Read more from this series,
Profiles of migrants: Journeys of hope – Part I
Profiles of migrants: Journeys of hope – Part II
Profiles of migrants: Journeys of hope – Part III
Profiles of migrants: Journeys of hope – Part IV
Profiles of migrants: Journeys of hope – Part V
Profiles of migrants: Journeys of hope – Part VI