Gwalior: Donning a dusty yellow shirt with a ripped formal paint and hanging a gamcha (towel) around his neck, Ashiq Khan, A 30-year-old daily-wager and a resident of Lashkar in Gwalior district, sat meekly on the stairs of Maharaj Bada while waiting to get hired for work.
He is one of nearly 2,000 odd labourers who assemble on the stairs of Maharaj Bada, which once witnessed the glory of the Gwalior Royal Family. It has now become a centre point for daily-wage labourers. They arrive at the steps of the town hall at the crack of dawn looking for work.
The towering banners of political parties announcing their candidates for the upcoming bypolls with an array of promises means little for thousands like Ashiq for whom the wait to get work has only grown longer. Despite the lifting of lockdown, nearly 80% of the daily-wage labourers return empty handed by mid-afternoon.
For Ashiq, it has been three days since he got his last employment. In a 10-member family, unmarried Ashiq has been asked to arrange his own daily food as the family living is in penury since the lockdown.
“Since the last three-four months, my family has stopped giving me food because I failed to support them financially during the lockdown. Now I eat in restaurants if I get hired, else I sleep empty stomach,” Ashiq said with a heavy voice.
Unlike Ashiq who is a labourer, his three elder and younger brothers either run a puncher shop or horse carts. “The family neither has the Below Poverty Line (BPL) card to avail free food grains every month, nor did it get anything from government or NGOs during the lockdown.” he said, adding, “We slept empty stomach for days.”
He claimed that despite his repeated attempts, he could not get enrolled as a worker under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) which ensures 100 days of work. He also failed to avail the Madhya Pradesh Street Vendor Scheme under which an individual gets Rs 10,000 interest-free loan to start a business post-lockdown.
“I have been working as a labourer since childhood, but I never got a labour’s card,” he laments.
The story of Sanjeev Yadav of Bhind’s Megan village is no different than Ashiq’s. He claimed that his family owned 22 bigha of farm land in the village, yet he was forced to work as a labourer.
“I live with my family in Gwalior and pay Rs 1,500 as rent every month from whatever I earn,” says Yadav.
He says he is forced to work as a labourer because his three brothers who farm the 22 bigha land have big families and “they are hardly making both ends meet because of the high inflation since the imposition of lockdown.”
Thousands of workers gather at this place from dawn to dusk, but only some lucky people get work despite the wage rates slightly declining.
“The rate of cement, soil and other construction materials have surged drastically while the demand for construction work has declined,” said 52-year-old Mahendra, a contractor.
“If we mark the construction work demand out of 100, only 25% is left right now, especially post-lockdown,” the contractor added.
No Work under MGNREGA
NewsClick spoke to more than 25-30 labourers who were looking for work in Maharaj Bada and unanimously claimed that they suffered a lot during the lockdown and hardly received any food grains from the government. “Our BPL cards have been cancelled in the last 6-7 months, and not reinstated,” claimed more than a dozen of labourers in a one voice.
When asked about the MGNREGA and the street vendor’s scheme, which was widely advertised by the state government to help the marginalised class post-lockdown, most of them said, “Red-tapism is rampant in MGNREGA and online registration for Street Vendor’s scheme had been shut very soon.”
“Those who are connected or associated with the ruling party leaders got the benefits of Street Vendor’ scheme while genuine people hardly got anything. Besides, they (middle man) took 30% of the total amount from the benefits received under the scheme,” said 48-year-old labourer Suraj Ratak.
Though the labourers seem divided when it comes to voting in the by-polls on 28 seats including three seats in Gwalior -- Gwalior, Gwalior East and Dabra -- is due on November 3.
When asked about Jyotiradiya Scindia, known as Maharaj or Shreemant in the Gwalior-Chambal region, shifting to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), they claimed that whatever the Maharaj has done is wrong and this move has tarnished his image. They also added that Scindia did whatever best suited him. Yet, “we love and adore him,” the labourers said.
Many believe that the Congress is pro-poor and farmers, while others think that whatever Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing is the best for the country. “Modi ji can’t be wrong,” said one of the labourers.
“No matter whether the BJP or the Congress is in power, no one works for the poor,” said 55-year-old Ravi.
The NewsClick team also visited Ambah block of the Morena district, which recorded the highest number of migrants--nearly 30,000--during the lockdown.
Local journalists and travel agency owners have said that Ambah, the last block of Madhya Pradesh and bordering Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, is again seeing an outmigration of labour. “The remigration is rampant here since there is no work and whatever promises the political parties made till date have proven hollow,” said local Journalist Ajay Jain.
Meanwhile, the owner of Balaji travels claimed that the nearly 18 buses headed for Delhi, Jaipur, Suraj, and Ahmedabad leave from the city every day and all the buses go tight-pack.