Should I eat soil? Voices of the drought-hit from under a Delhi flyover

More than 400 people reach the Sarai Kale Khan flyover every day, driven from their villages in Bundelkhand by two back-to-back droughts


Two daily trains bring the drought-hit from Bundelkhand to Delhi’s Sarai Kale Khan every day. Most families wait for days for work that is hard to come by. Photo: Sayantan Bera/ Mint
Two daily trains bring the drought-hit from Bundelkhand to Delhi’s Sarai Kale Khan every day. Most families wait for days for work that is hard to come by. Photo: Sayantan Bera/ Mint

New Delhi: Dasarath Ahirwar is hopeful he will find work.

Earlier this week, he joined dozens of other migrants under a flyover at Sarai Kale Khan in a busy intersection on the edge of east Delhi.

With him are his wife, two daughters aged two and five, and ten-year-old son.

Ahirwar had caught the overcrowded Sampark Kranti Express from his village in Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh. There was just enough space for the four of them to huddle inside the packed compartment.

Like many others under the flyover, Ahirwar is a first-time migrant to this teeming city, a fugitive from drought and hunger. The flyover is conveniently located, next to a busy inter-state bus terminus and a short walk from the Nizamuddin railway station.

Under Delhi’s relentless summer sun, the family simply joined others waiting under the shade of the flyover, all waiting for work.

It’s been five days under the flyover for Ahirwar, without any sign of work.

Drought Express

And yet they keep coming, their numbers swelling every day—migrants driven out of their villages by India’s second drought in two years.

A landless labourer from drought-hit Madhya Pradesh, Ahirwar was left with Rs.300 after paying for train tickets. “That got over in the last few days to arrange for food. Now there is no money to buy a ticket back home or for food,” he said.

As the conversation continues, some men intervene to ask if this writer is a contractor looking to hire daily wagers. By afternoon, hopes of finding work fade and the looming burden of feeding a family for another day makes the group a little restless.

Every morning two trains arrive in Delhi from Bundelkhand, a drought-prone region spread across 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, bringing hundreds in search of work.

The daily trains—Mahakoshal and Uttar Pradesh Sampark Kranti—could well be called India’s Drought Express.

Dasarath Ahirwar, a first-time migrant from Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, has been waiting for five days for a labour contractor. Back home, he says, the employment guarantee scheme has failed to provide work and wages are delayed. Photo: Sayantan Bera/ Mint
Dasarath Ahirwar, a first-time migrant from Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, has been waiting for five days for a labour contractor. Back home, he says, the employment guarantee scheme has failed to provide work and wages are delayed. Photo: Sayantan Bera/ Mint

Ahirwar says the numbers are swelling every day—more than 400 people reach Sarai Kale Khan every morning. Those who are lucky and have contacts in the city—maybe someone from the village working at a building site in Noida or Gurgaon—move on from the transit point under the flyover.

Others like Ahirwar wait under the flyover—a transit labour camp for all practical purposes.

Bundelkhand to Delhi

After two years of deficit rains, India has seen two back-to-back droughts, hitting the farm economy, turning famers destitute. Less known is the fact that Bundelkhand has seen 13 droughts in the past 15 years—and news that the south-west monsoon will be bountiful in 2016 has not yet reached the fleeing families.

As a Mint report last month showed , hunger is rampant and work under the employment guarantee scheme is hard to come by. Stray cattle foraging the arid landscape or carcasses on parched lake-beds are a common sight.

The afternoons in Sarai Kale Khan are sluggish. With temperatures touching 45 degrees Celsius, the shade from the flyover give some respite from the searing heat.

Many doze off as children run around makeshift chulhas—coal ovens—where the women cook lunch. They fetch drinking water from the railway station. Women defecate only after sundown, behind the shrubs and bushes abutting Delhi’s busiest road, the Ring Road. There is no water for a bath.

15-year-old Amit, from Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh, worked with his father for a month at a work site in Ashok Vihar but was paid for only 20 days of work. Photo: Sayantan Bera/ Mint
15-year-old Amit, from Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh, worked with his father for a month at a work site in Ashok Vihar but was paid for only 20 days of work. Photo: Sayantan Bera/ Mint

But, here under the flyover, there are friendships to be struck. Ahirwar has made friends with 15-year-old Amit from Mahoba district in Uttar Pradesh.

Going by the standards of the refuge in Sarai Kale Khan, Amit is a veteran. He came here with his family three months ago. He goes to building sites with them for a week or ten days when they get work, and then returns to the transit camp to wait for work again.

“The last time we worked for a month in Ashok Vihar but got paid for 20 days,” he said.

Amit’s father Malkan gives a cogent explanation. There is a surplus of people looking for work. Entire villages in Bundelkhand have emptied out to escape hunger and there is an acute shortage of work in Delhi. “So labour contractors are fleecing us. Most cannot even find work. Those who do are not getting paid.”

Anger and shame

As evening falls, the families melt away. They pick up their plastic sacks and walk up to the inter-state bus terminus, where they will spend the night. But some stay back and sleep at the busy intersection. They return to reclaim their spot under the flyover by six in the morning.

29-year-old Ramgopal, from Jhansi district in Uttar Pradesh, spent his sixth night with his family at the Sarai Kale Khan intersection on Wednesday. Photo: Sayantan Bera/ Mint
29-year-old Ramgopal, from Jhansi district in Uttar Pradesh, spent his sixth night with his family at the Sarai Kale Khan intersection on Wednesday. Photo: Sayantan Bera/ Mint

In between their long wait for work and sleepless nights—most fear they will lose their belongings to thieves or juvenile drug addicts—there is anger.

“If the government gave us our (subsidized) food rations or some work (through the employment guarantee scheme) we would not be roaming in Delhi like beggars,” said Rakesh from Tikamgarh in Madhya Pradesh.

In a flash of anger, he curses governments at the state and centre, accusing them of looking the other way and going back on the promised achhe din.

“I have an acre of land in my village, but what am I supposed to do? Eat the soil?” he asks.

There is shame, too. A farmer owning five acres of land who has just arrived on Wednesday evening from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh refuses to give his name or let himself photographed. “A photo in the papers will give my family a bad name. Farmers like us have never been to Delhi to work as daily labourers,” he said.

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