Post 61, Ludhiana

11 a.m.: I accompany Shailendra to the head office of the Punjab and Sind Bank. Shailendra wants to enquire about details of the account holder associated with the bounced cheque. The frontline clerks at the head office ask us to direct our enquiries at a branch office, so we head to the nearby Ghumar Mandi branch. There the clerks try to divert us to Majra branch, from where the cheque had been issued. Shailendra’s requests for help mellow one of the clerks who looks up the details of the account holder associated with the cheque. The clerk confirms the name and mobile number of the entrepreneur, which match the details held by Shailendra. The clerk also informs Shailendra that the account has absolutely no balance in it! Shailendra appeals to the clerk to provide the residential address of the account holder. The clerk reluctantly complies with the request. The guard provides us the directions to the said address.

12:30 p.m.: Shailendra and I book an autorickshaw to drive us towards the address. Once we reach the locality, however, we are confused since the addresses on the houses follow no discernible pattern. We ask a 25-year old man about the directions to the address.

“Whats his name?” he asks.

“Sunny,” Shailendra replies.

“How tall is he?” the man probes.

Shailendra tells him.

“Ah- you mean the dude who rides the black coloured Splendour Motorbike?”, the man springs to attention.

“Yes, yes. That guy,” Shailendra says eagerly.

The man gives us the directions. We reach the address but find the place to be deserted. An elderly woman sits at the balcony. It turns out she is Sunny’s mother. She says Sunny is not home and claims not to know where he has gone  or even what his mobile number is.

2:00 p.m.: The driver of the autorickshaw suggests that we meet the Sarpanch of the village. We head towards the Sarpanch’s residence and note the stickers of the Congress Party and Captain Amarendra Singh that adorn its gates. Someone from inside the house tells us the Sarpanch is not at home and asks us the purpose of our visit. Shailendra tells them about Sunny.

“Ah Sunny!” the person exclaims. “He has frauded the Sarpanch. What good will the Sarpanch do?”

As we turn away dejected, a passer-by asks us what the problem is. Shailendra explains in great detail, upon which the passer-by assures us that if we meet the Sarpanch, he will certainly help us.

Post 60, Beeja

1 p.m.: Shailendra visits me in my room. He tells me he returned to Beeja yesterday, after spending a few rather productive weeks in Sargana. Having completed work on the temple, Shailendra informs me that he operated a thresher for a farmer near his home, by the canal in Sargana. He worked for ten-odd days and received 25 kilos each day as wages! Before his departure, Shailendra has applied for a loan to help him purchase a tractor. If this works out and he is able to purchase one, he will lend it to local farmers during their agricultural operations.

Shailendra does not want to work in construction any more. His wife Sunita thinks it too dangerous, and would like him to take up some other employment, preferably in a factory. He has struck an acquaintance with one of Damodar’s neighbours, who is a supervisor in a factory near Delhi. The factory manufactures the packaging in which electric meters are stored when being sold. He wants to work there for at least a year so he can master some skills, he says.

“They will pay me INR 8000 per month. In addition, I will get a place to stay in the factory complex,” he adds.  

Work in Barmalipur is yet to commence, Shailendra adds. The jobs in Malerkotla have been assigned to others, leaving Shailendra without any employment at the moment. He hopes to receive a call for work from a contact in Khanna.

Shailendra expresses further worries. In the aftermath of demonetisation, when cash was scarce, he and his cousins had approached one of the many currency exchange entrepreneurs who mushroomed during that period. Queues in banks had been too long and standing in those queues would have meant the loss of at least a day’s wages. They had then deposited INR 36,000 in the old high-denomination currency notes and received from the entrepreneur two cheques of equivalent value, which they thought they could easily deposit in the bank.

However, the cheques have bounced. Shailendra hopes to confront the entrepreneur and have him return his money. But he has discovered, much to his consternation, that the entrepreneur and his enterprise have both vanished.

Post 59, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal briefs:

10:00 a.m.: Harish Rishi is on his farm, wearing a pink T-shirt and a loin cloth. He has just purchased some fertilisers which he is now applying to his maize crop. A kilo of fertilisers costs him INR 300. Harish admits that he doesn’t need a kilo for the tiny plot of land on which he is nurturing the maize crop. Shrugging his shoulders, he says:

What could I do? They do not stock smaller packets in the market!

Post 58, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal briefs:

11:00 a.m.: Harish Rishi is sitting on a cot in his courtyard, wearing a pink coloured FIFA-labelled T-shirt and a green dhoti. He informs me that Shailendra is away at the construction site of the new temple some three kilometres south, and will return once that work is completed. It seems that Shailendra is awaiting several payments from his stints in Punjab.

Harish and his wife Parvati have been rather busy tending to their maize crop. They sowed the crop later than his brother Pradeep Rishi because they didn’t have the required cash in time. Thus, while Pradeep and his wife Shanti sowed their crop early in December, Harish and Parvati sowed theirs only towards the end of December. The crop will only be ready for harvest in May.

Post 57, Ludhiana/Jammu/Araria

10:00 a.m.: Shailendra tells me on the phone that he is working at a construction site approximately three kilometres south of Sargana. He is part of a team of workers building a temple. While Shailendra does not know the name of the employer, he tells me he was ‘placed’ there by Damodar Rajak, the labour contractor who allocated him to constructing gurudwaras in Ludhiana.

Shailendra tells me that the project on which he was working in Barmalipur remains incomplete. Moreover, he has yet to be paid for 20 days of labour he had put into building the dome and the screens: the arrears to him amount to INR 32,000.

Shailendra will not stay in Sargana for long, he tells me. He plans to leave for Malerkotla after Holi, which this year is scheduled to be celebrated on March 12/ 13.

12 noon: I chat with Damodar Rajak, who is currently in Sargana. Damodar complains that demonetisation hit the construction market really hard, leaving builders with little capital with which to either purchase materials or pay their workers. All his worksites in and around Ludhiana have had to be abandoned, although he hopes to be able to bag a contract for supplying labourers to Malerkotla.

1 p.m.: Pradeep informs me that his son Sundar, who is currently in Sargana, has delayed his return to Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of returning by the end of February, as he had initially planned, he will now return after Holi in mid-March. Pradeep himself hopes to finish the work on the church within a few days and proceed to Jammu.

Post 56, Ludhiana/Jammu

12 noon: Pradeep and I chat on the phone. Pradeep tells me the weather in Jammu has improved since it has become warmer. About ten people from the vicinity of Sargana arrived yesterday to Araniya to work with Pradeep: their trip was organised by one of Pradeep’s co-workers, Akhilesh. His nephew Sundar will leave for Araniya as soon as the Saraswati Puja is over and the idols are immersed (clearly, Shailendra’s efforts to persuade his cousins and neighbours had failed, since Sundar appears to be involved in another Saraswati Puja in Sargana). His own son Rajendra, who has been in Sargana for a few months, will leave for Jammu after Holi. He is presently tending to the wheat crop on their family farm.

Post 55, Ludhiana/Araria

10 a.m.: I speak with Sikendra on the phone. He sounds somewhat dejected. He tells me it has been his deeply-held desire to organise Saraswati Puja, a devotional meet to honour Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, in his neighbourhood. The occasion is observed at the onset of spring, and the date this year was yesterday, February 1.

Shailendra’s disappointment stems from him being unable to persuade his neighbours to organise Saraswati Puja. He says he was even willing to pay half the expenditures, but his neighbours refused to contribute.

There is no work these days, Shailendra continues, referring to himself, for the first time since I have know him, as unemployed. Neither is there work in Ludhiana on the gurudwaras nor is their work on the farms in Araria, he says. Therefore, he has been spending time with his daughter, and hangs out with her and her friends in the marketplace during the day.  

He hopes to return to Ludhiana by the end of the month. Damodar Rajak, the contractor, thinks that by then the demand for the completion of the gurdwaras under construction would have picked up as people would have more cash to pay.

Post 53, Arnia, Jammu

10 a.m.: Pradeep and some 10-odd co-workers are laying bricks on the roof of the apartment next to the church and convent school under construction. The apartment will eventually house the school principal and the pastor of the church. Four of the workers are, like him, from the Rishideo community, with homes in and around Sargana. The others are Muslims from Kishengunj. I do not see the Munshi whose presence was ubiquitous in Chandhak.

His nephew Shailendra Rishi returned to Sargana on January 15.

1 p.m.: The workers break for lunch. Pradeep and the workers from Araria cook their lunch in the same building that they are constructing. The other co-workers head off to the church where one of their friends is cooking their meal.

2 p.m.: All the workers gather at the church where the thekedar and his assistant have arrived to pay them their wages. The Kishengunj workers ask their wages to be paid into bank accounts of their family members back home. Two of them then request for advances of INR 5,000 each because they want to purchase mobile phones. But the thekedar persuades them to accept INR 3,000.  

Pradeep has already taken an advance of INR 5,000 the previous week. He asks for a further advance of  INR 1,000. The thekedar offers him INR 500, which Pradeep reluctantly accepts.

2:45 p.m.: The thekedar departs, after asking everyone to increase their pace at work.

Post 50, Chandak, Poonch

4:00 p.m.: Pradeep has been working non-stop for the last two days. He went to sleep earlier this morning and has just woken up. His co-villagers are preparing chicken curry for their dinner, while Mansur and his neighbours from Forbesgunj are cooking stir fried beef. For this reason, Pradeep asks me to avoid eating dinner with Mansur. When I tell him I have no problem eating beef, Pradeep looks surprised.

Pradeep tells me that Sundar has reached home. Mansur had asked him to persuade Sundar to come to Jammu instead but Sundar had declined, indicating that he had no money left. He says they plan to spend a couple of months in Sargana, participate in the Dina Bhadri festivities, and then perhaps travel to Jammu.

7:00 p.m.: The stir beef fry is ready. Mansur wishes that Pradeep would join him too.

“He does eat beef. But perhaps he wants to avoid eating it in the presence of the youngsters from his village. They will make a big deal of him consuming beef. He obviously wants to avoid gaining all that attention.”

Post 49, Chandak, Poonch

9:00 a.m.: Pradeep informs me that his son Deepak, nephew Sundar and their neighbour Mantu are in the train from Ludhiana back home to Sargana. Work on the gurdwara they have been constructing is over. And there are no further jobs, so Damodar the contractor has advised them to return to Sargana.

The Janseva Express, which they will take for their journey home, is late by over six hours. Scheduled to depart Ludhiana at 9:00 a.m., it will now only leave at 3:30 p.m.

6:00 p.m.: Deepak calls Pradeep to inform him that their train has only just left Ludhiana station. It was late by almost nine hours!

Post 47, Chandak, Poonch

10:30 a.m.: The thekedar is sitting on a low stool outside the tenements in which the labourers live. On his right hand, Munshi Mansur stands with a large register. The thekedar informs the 30-odd assembled labourers that he only has a little amount of cash.  Pradeep and Naushad are invited to come forward first, as they are both masons. Pradeep is to be paid INR 17,359. This figure includes his daily wages @INR 470 per day for approximately 30 days as well as INR 59 per hour for approximately 55 overtime hours. He asks to take INR 359 cash and to deposit the remainder in the account held by his wife in the Sargana branch of the Central Bank of India. The thekedar notes down the bank account details on his register, paid him INR 359 in cash and asks him to sign against his name on the register. He promises to pay the remainder into his account online later that evening.

A group of workers with homes in the same Forbesgunj village as Munshi Mansur is called next. These are the brothers Manikchand and Rupchand, their cousin Budhandev and neighbour Kallu, all members of the Musahar community. They are individually to be paid INR 10,000; INR 7,000; INR 7,000; and INR 6,000. Manikchand asks for the total amount of INR 30,000 to be transferred into his sister-in-law’s bank account in the State Bank of India branch at Forbesgunj. The mason Naushad, also to be paid @INR 470  per day, also asks his dues to be deposited online into his wife’s account at the same branch of the State Bank of India in Forbesgunj.

11:30 a.m.: As the thekedar continues to settle the dues of other workers, Pradeep and Naushad leave the site for Mandi, a market town some 15 kilometers to the north-east. Pradeep has never been to Mandi and decides, along with Naushad, to take off for the day and spend it in a new place.  I accompany them.

12:30 p.m.: We arrive at Mandi. Pradeep and Naushad want to drink some chai, so we walk into the nearest kiosk. We sit down and order chai. A man sitting at the next table, who looks like he is 40-50 years old, strikes up a conversation with Pradeep and asks him where they are from. When Pradeep says he and his mate are from Bihar, the man who calls himself Hyder, asks if they are masons.

Pradeep: Yes, we are.

Hyder: What are your rates?

Pradeep: INR 700 per day for a mason and INR 550 per day for a labourer.

Hyder: But I thought masons charged about INR 600 and labourers INR 400. I need to get five rooms in my hardware godown plastered. Will you come over and take a look.

Pradeep and Naushad: Sure we will.

We finish our chai. Hyder instructs the waiter to bill our chai to him. “They are guests,” he tells the waiter, before leading us out of the kiosk towards his godown.

Post 46, Chandak, Poonch

1 p.m.: Pradeep is polishing a blackboard in one of the school rooms. Tanvir and Naushad, both from Forbesgunj, are constructing sloped covers for window frames in the same room as Pradeep. In an adjoining room, two workers, both from Kishengunj, level the floor. Munshi Mansoor is supervising their work. He informs the workers that the thekedar will return today and hopes he will pay them their wages.

6 p.m.: Pradeep, Naushad and I step out for chai. Naushad also wants to recharge his mobile. He has a Reliance sim. Upon recharge, he obtained talktime worth INR 100 on the payment of INR 76. Over chai, Pradeep tries to persuade Naushad to stay on in Jammu after the present assignment rather than returning home as he plans. Pradeep would like Naushad to return home with him in March and come back again in April.

Naushad appears to consider this suggestion.

8 p.m.: Munshi Mansur informs his workers that the thekedar did come earlier that evening. They were both drinking. However, according to the munshi, the thekedar did not pay any money to him. So the workers remain unpaid today.

Post 45, Chandak, Poonch

11 a.m.: I accompany munshi Mansoor Alam to the local branch Jammu and Kashmir Grameen Bank where he wants to withdraw INR 10,000 with which he can pay his workers their wages. But the cashier takes one look at his account details and hands back the slip.

“You withdrew INR 10,000 on the 1st, another INR 10,000 on the 2nd and INR 4,000 on the 3rd. Don’t you know you can only withdraw INR 24,000 in a week,” the cashier told Mansur tersely, referring to the regulations enforced after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation drive.

Dejected, Mansoor walks away, grumbling: “If I can’t pay the workers, they are going to be very upset at me. But you saw what happened- what can I do?”

2 p.m.: The contractor who recruited Mansoor for procuring labour is at the site: the workers refer to him as the thekedar. Pradeep whispers to Mansoor to ask the thekedar for money to pay them their wages. Mansur tentatively approaches the thekedar and requests him for a loan:

The labourers will leave for their homes next week. If we could pay them off, that would be nice. They want to buy clothes for their families. All of them are planning to leave by the 12th.

The thekedar shrugs:

Oho, the 12th is a long way off. Why are you worried? And clothes? If they come with me to the Chandak market, I can get them clothes on credit. They need not worry about anything.

Mansoor persists:

The clothes are cheaper in Jammu. If they could have the money, they can purchase it at less prices in Jammu than having to buy at exorbitant rates here.

Pradeep mutters:

Even if he does pay us, how does it help? We have bank accounts with Bank of Baroda and Central Bank of India. Neither of these have branches here. State Bank of India does, but we don’t bank with them. Shanti, my wife, tried to open an account there last month (hyperlink to Journal entry 30), but has not been successful so far.

The munshi cannot convince the thekedar to loan him any money to pay the workers their wages.

9:00 p.m.: Dinner over, Pradeep and the rest of us tune into the only radio channel available, Voice of Kashmir, at 105.8 FM. The programmes are broadcast from Rawalkot, across the Line of Control. Interspersed with discussions on the political situation in Kashmir and Pakistani film music are advertisements about English-language schools in Kashmir, whitening creams and tourist agencies offering competitive deals for pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.

Post 44, Chandak, Poonch

2 p.m.: I arrive at the construction site in Poonch, where Shailendra’s uncle Pradeep works. A school, sponsored by a Christian mission in Kerala, is under construction. Pradeep is one of seven masons working on this site, where he has been working since September. The labour contractor, Mansur Alam, has recruited an additional twenty workers, of whom are from either Kishengunj or Forbesgunj: the labourers call him munshi. Flanked on three sides by picturesque mountains, the school’s location is breath-taking: terraced farmlands in the vicinity of the school make the place even more idyllic.

The school is situated by the road connecting Chandak to Mandi in Himachal Pradesh: the entrance to the building is about 40 metres below the level of the street. The school building comprises three storeys and is surrounded by a square field. Four small brick structures at one corner of the field serve as rooms for the 28 labourers. A couple of makeshift toilets have been set up at the opposite end. Each room is equipped with five or six cots about three feet high from the floor level.

Pradeep and four other masons are plastering the walls between the classrooms on the third floor. Four younger men, quite likely less than eighteen years old, are supplying them with the concrete mixture they need.

5:00 p.m.: Pradeep and the other workers wind up their work for the day. Two of the workers take some money from Mansur and head to the market to purchase ingredients with which to cook dinner and to refill the LPG stove.

5:30 p.m.: Pradeep and a 50-year old co-worker, whom everyone calls Mullahji because of his flowing white beard, step out for chai. I accompany them. Mullahji asks Mansoor for INR 500 on his way out: Mansoor obliges. We walk for a kilometre to read Chandak market where we sit outside a kiosk. Mullahji has been here since March, even before construction on this school began. Hailing from Forbesgunj, he tells me he likes it here:

“People give us a lot of love,” he gushes. “They take care of our food. The best thing to do is to find work with people who are building their own residential homes: the daily wage rate is INR 800. I worked for two months in March and April as a mason and saved INR 40,000. Can you believe it?”

“But here on this site, the wage rate is INR 450: at the most, some people earn INR 500. Turning to Jagadish, he remarks: “When you came here, we worked on a private (residential) project, didn’t we? That was very profitable.” Jagadish assents.

As we chat, electric connections are restored. There is no electricity during most of the day.

8:00 p.m.: Pradeep and a couple of his co-workers, whose homes are in Sargana’s vicinity, cook dinner in their own room. A second group of workers, whose homes are in and around Forbesgunj, cook their own meal in another room. In a third room, Mansoor and I sip on some Kerala Whiskey that he purchased from Jammu recently. Six workers, distantly related to Mansoor and also with homes in Forbesgunj, cook some chicken curry and make some chapattis on the stove. The electricity is disconnected again, plunging the entire region into darkness.

We settle down for dinner by the candlelight and continue chatting.