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 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.

Post 25, Sargana

Zaheeb Ajmal reports:

10 a.m.: Harish Rishi and I sit in the courtyard that he shares with his brothers, sipping chai.  He is anxious about the debt of INR 50,000 he has incurred over the marriage of his elder daughter earlier this year. One of his creditors is Damodar Rajak, with whom he has mortgaged his land for two years in return for INR 20,000.

“Work in Punjab is god-sent for us. Here in Sargana, there is hardly any work. Where there is work, there are no payments. Where there are payments, there is no dignity. At least in Punjab, they recognise our worth as human beings,” he says.

“There was a time,” Harish elaborates on his last remark, “when we could not even cremate our dead properly. We would have to quietly bury the dead by the river. Now, we can properly cremate the body. However, we still do not have a common cremation ground in the village.”

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Post 18, Ludhiana / Bija / Sargana

Credit: Ankur Jaiswal

Credit: Ankur Jaiswal

8:00 a.m.: Shailendra calls to tell me that his uncle (Sundar’s father) died last night. Tragedy struck their family in such quick succession (Sundar’s mother died just over a month ago) that they are all dazed. Sundar and his brother Shyamsundar are leaving for Sargana later today. Ram Kishore will accompany them to Ludhiana railway station.  

11:00 a.m.: I meet Ram Kishore, Sundar and Shyamsundar at the Ludhiana railway station. Sundar and Shyamsundar would have left last night but Damodar dissuaded them. He kept saying there was no point returning: they would not be able to bring back their father from the dead. He was also very reluctant to pay their dues, citing the lack of funds available to him. Damodar eventually paid a mere INR 1000 to Shyamsundar, promising to pay the rest by the fifth of the following month.

3:00 p.m.: Sundar and Shyamsundar continue to wait for the train: it is expected to be over eight hours late. Sundar is convinced that his parents have been the victims of foul play. Their father laboured on the field of a local farmer. Sundar suspects that the farmer has killed his parents, possibly by unleashing black magic.

6:00 p.m.: Ram Kishore and I bid farewell to Sundar and Shyamsundar and return to Balmaripur. Shailendra is finishing up the day’s work on the dome and stepping down from the scaffolds. Damodar sits inside one of the half-constructed rooms, watching a religious movie on his mobile phone. Shailendra leaves for Bija to fetch an additional labourer to help him with his work.

10:30 p.m.: Sundar calls to tell me their train has finally arrived- over thirteen hours behind schedule.  They have boarded and are waiting to depart.

Post 4

10 a.m.: I follow Shailendra to his sunflower fields. The skies are overcast. Beyond the canal, next to the blackberry tree, lie his 0.2 acres of sunflower fields. The family cultivates the crop using their own labour- Shailendra’s parents, elder brother and sister-in-law, wife, children and nieces and nephews. But when the crop will be harvested in a few days, they will have to hire labour. Most labourers tend to be their neighbours, usually people without any land. They are all from the same Rishideo (Musahar) community as Shailendra. Their wages are paid in cash: INR 100 per day. After the harvest, the seeds will have to be threshed: the family will have to rent a threshing machine for which they must pay INR 150. If they wanted to pay in kind, they would have to pay one-tenth of all the seeds or one bag for every ten bags of seeds.