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Photo Essay | Up in the air

Higher wages and surety of work have workers taking on the mantle of ‘desi’ Spider-Men
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First Published: Fri, Jan 18 2013. 06 07 PM IST
A window cleaner in Delhi takes a break, relaxing in his harness and letting his hands and feet hang completely free. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
A window cleaner in Delhi takes a break, relaxing in his harness and letting his hands and feet hang completely free. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Updated: Fri, Jan 18 2013. 06 10 PM IST
Billboards get pasted, bridges get painted and windows are washed far overhead by a giant army of men who are largely invisible to the rest of us. But for migrant labourers, high-rise buildings are a new focus for profit.
Usually, a labourer’s job pays little, but people who come to the city looking for jobs when work in the fields is over have little choice. Working on an 18ft-high cellphone tower or cleaning windows on the 16th floor may be dangerous, but it can lead to a doubling of income.
Kundan Saha, 31, moved from Samastipur in Bihar to Delhi over a decade ago, and works as a window cleaner. He used to work as a “spider-man” cleaner, suspended from a rope harness from the roof, but lately he’s been working as a “lift” cleaner, with a trolley on the side of the building.
“Lift zyaada aasaan nahin hai, jab seekh lete ho toh dono kaam ek hi hai (The lift system isn’t easier; once you’ve learnt the work, both are the same),” he says, explaining that even the rope harness is carefully secured, though it looks more risky.

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      For window cleaners, it’s regular money. On an average, they earn Rs.600-800 daily. Saha says he makes around Rs.10,000 each month, and doesn’t have to look for jobs every day.
      Nitesh S., the proprietor of Rockonn Hygieclean Service, a Gurgaon-based cleaning service, says there is a big demand for professional window-cleaning services, particularly among companies with high-rise buildings in Gurgaon. Since these firms require proper paperwork, most window-cleaning companies look for full-time workers they can train. Nitesh says they have around 50 full-time employees, and he hires more people if required.
      But even for people looking for more transitory employment, like carpentry, masonry, bricklaying or general labour, Delhi’s high-rises are full of opportunity.
      Faishal, 22, or perhaps 23—he isn’t sure—is a painter who has been working in Delhi for seven-eight years. Faishal, who shares a room with two other men near Malviya Nagar in south Delhi, left his village near Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh for Delhi when he was 15. He had been to the small town of Bijnor before, where he had worked as a painter. After he moved to Delhi, he slept on the station till a contractor hired him to paint buildings. He’s been doing such jobs ever since, sometimes working indoors to paint the walls of a house, sometimes suspended in a creaky harness from the side of a flyover to beautify it.
      There is training of sorts. Faishal says, “Sab bata dete hain, sahi tareeke dikhate hai, poorane log naye log ke saath rakhte hain (They tell us what to do, teach us the tricks. The older people teach new people what to do).” Training takes a few hours and they’re supervised for a few days.
      Ask him if he feels scared dangling so far above a busy road, and he says, with a touch of bravado, “Jab karte hain toh dar nahin hota hai (When we are doing the work, we are not scared)”. Press him about why he doesn’t find safer work though, and he admits, “Baaki kaam mein profit nahin hai. Pet toh bharna hai (The rest of the work is not as profitable. We have to fill our stomachs).” The Rs.600 Faishal earns for a day’s work is nearly double of what he’d get in a labourer’s job at a construction site on the ground.
      Moreover, says Faishal, work in high-rises is easy to come by. Which is why Mohan Shukla, a 30-year-old embroiderer whose family has lived in what is now Noida Sector 52 for as long as he can remember, is working as a carpenter on a construction site. Building the frames and bannisters requires him to work on top of the building, often hanging over the side on floors where the walls are only partly complete.
      Shukla is popular—you can’t talk to him without being interrupted by the people passing by pausing to wish him. He worked in a factory in Surat for eight years, but that meant seeing his family for only a few months in a year. When his son was born, three years ago, Shukla decided he needed to stay in Delhi, but the only jobs available were in the booming construction industry—and that meant working in high-rise buildings.
      So for the moment there is work. But this could begin changing, perhaps sooner than anyone imagines. For instance, Delhi-based Milagrow Human Tech, which makes tablets, computers and robots, launched a window-cleaning robot in June. Rajeev Karwal, founder and CEO of Milagrow says, “Customers in India are very tech savvy and are ready to adopt the latest technology like never before.”
      Till they do, the high-rises will continue to have their invisible workers.
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      First Published: Fri, Jan 18 2013. 06 07 PM IST
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