Conversations with Cycle Rickshaw Pullers During COVID-19 Lockdown

23 March, 2020

Tahir, Babloo and Aslam pull cycle rickshaws in Jamia Nagar in Delhi. We had interesting conversations about their work, CAA and protests and recent violence in Delhi. And of course, their fears about how they will earn in times of lockdown. All three of them migrated to Delhi and have a rich history of work. Tahir is from Punrea, Bihar, Babloo from Malda, West Bengal and Aslam from Guwahati, Assam. They typically earn Rs 400-450 in a day. The lockdown which began yesterday has hit them badly. Yesterday they could not come out at all and today, all three of them have just about managed to earn around Rs 100 till 6 pm.

Babloo is in his late 30s says he came to Delhi some 8-9 yers ago and lives with four other friends who also pull rickhsaw and belong to Malda. He has been living in Jamia since then. They have a one room apartment and Jamia Vihar. The rent is Rs 3000 per month, so they all contribute Rs 600 each. They don’t have a kitchen and eat at dhabas. Babloo says that they spend around 150-200 daily for food and rent for their rickshaw, which is Rs 50 per day. For last two days the dhabas have been shut and they are surviving on chura and chana. He manages to send around Rs 5000 every month to his family back home, where his two daughters and wife live. He spends five-six months in Delhi and goes back to do farm labour rest of the year. In Malda he works at mango orchards as chowkidaar and then joins the other labour in plucking season. There he earns Rs 300 per day but is also provided two meals a day. Now with the lockdown till 31 March and the uncertain times after that, he and his friends had decided to go back home today, until they heard that all trains are shut. So they are stuck here. He seemed very worried and scared. He says the “dhaba par udhaar chal jaata tha, aur makaan malik bhi kabhi kabhi baad mein kiraya le leta tha, magar ab who kyon denge. Unko mallom hai humaara kaam khatam hai ab. He seemed helpless and distraught”.

Tahir says he is 55 yrs old and left his village in Purnea sometime around 1987. He first went to Punjab to work in agricultural field. But he soon left for Delhi. Waha bahut gaali galooj hoti thi. Kabhi Kabhi maarte peetate bhi the”. He came to Delhi and lived in Rohini for two years. He began pulling rickhaw soon after. Then Babri Masjid was demolished. There was some unrest and violence in other parts of Delhi. So he and his friend came to Jamia and started living here. Like Babloo he also goes back and spends six months in his village. He was all set to go back but is now stuck here. ‘Makka aur gehu ki katai ka time aa gaya hai.’ He hates pulling rickshaw in Delhi summers and loves to spend that time in Purnea. He says the rains in Purnea are lovely. Tahir and his two daughters live with him. He wants to get married soon. He has a son who is 12th pass. He is married with a two year old son and lives independently. He works as a daily-wager (chaprasi ) in some private firm and is paid Rs 300 per day. When he takes leave they deduct his wage. And now the he has been informed to return to job after April 15. Tahir says he will have to feed his son now. Where will he now get the money.

Aslam is a jovial and fun loving fellow. He says he is a mast maula. He came to Delhi as a toddler with his father, who was a rag picker. Father is now dead and his mother has gone blind. He has two daughters and the youngest is a son. He seems very proud of his daughters and says they are in 10 and 12 class and good in studies. They go to govt school. The son is a haraa..mi, a rascal. Aslam says he dabbles in various jobs. He is a plumber sometimes, at other time he does waste picking aur jab mood aata hai rickshaw chalata hoon. He has no connection left with his village in Assam. He says sab kaam khatam hai. In last two days he has on, earned some Rs 100. His wife works as maid in neighbourhood. But they have told her not to come until 31 march. They don’t know where how they will manage. Mahina khatam hone waala hai. Where will he get the money to pay rent.

All three of them had somewhat of an indifferent take on COVID-19. Babloo said its a conspiracy by the rich companies to sell their medicines. He says its looks like an international conspiracy and was completely dismissive about the precautions. How can i take precautions. ‘Khaane ko khaana nahi hai, nahaana to chodo, haath dhone ko paani tak nahi hai. Some what similar was the response of Tahir. But he is worried about his grandson. He says usko bachaana zaroori hai. Hum log mar bhi jayenge to kya hoga. He has approached his cousin for some udhaar, so that they don’t have to compromise on his grandson’s wellbeing in these times of crisis. He is sure his cousin will help. Aslam says he doesn’t care much about Carona. Videshi aur ameer logon ki bimaari hai. But he proudly says his daughters are well-informed and they are making sure we wash our hands regularly. He winked and said unko khush rakhne ke liye unke saamne haath dhona padta
I thought i will ask them about CAA-NRC. That got them talking and excited. Unlike COVID, they were very articulate about NRC. Babloo gave me the entire chronology of how it began in Assam and then the subsequently CAA was introduced to make it Muslim specific. Tahir said that Corona to aayega aur jayega, NRC to yahin rehene waala hai. Aslam laughed and said itne saare musalmaan hai, kahan detention centre banayenge. All three of them seemed to have some kind of an ownership of Shaheen Bagh and Jamia protest. They said they ferried large number of people to the sites of protests. They spent long hours in Shaheen bagh, they would be given free chai and khaana and they would give free rides to people on their rickshaws. Aslam girls participated in the protests and they want to study in Jamia. He says they have made some friends with the young women protestors who call on his mobile to talk to girls…..

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