What do migrant labours eat in Delhi? And why other states are a better option?

24th November 2020

24th November 2020

At any given time, there are a dozen or more house construction as well as re-construction or major repair projects underway within a few hundred metres radius of where I live, which is usually the case for most other urban locations in India too. Given that our environmental experts have quite successfully banned open fire cooking for mostly vegetarian food bottom up, whilst not really done much about reducing the number of open-air kabab and bar-be-que stall top down, it is interesting to see how the labourers survive.

In times past till not so long ago, they would take a few bricks, assemble them in a sort of hollow square formation, and use whatever wood, twigs and dry leaves were available. Cooking utensils were few, pressure cookers were not part of the ensemble, and it was rice-dal-sabzi-onion-masalsa. Tomatoes if affordable. Tea with sugar and milk was provided by the clients or contractors, again boiled to vigorous strength, till there was nothing left in the tea-dust used. 

The One Nation One Ration Card Scheme brought some relief in recent years in most States of India. But not where I live, Delhi, as yet. Do ask the migrant labour where and how their ration cards are being used and by whom?

Cook-eat-sleep-work, usually bonded or working off debt taken by the extended family in some far-away village, at the mercy of the muscle-men down-line from the contractor with the complete line of mis-governance thrown in to keep them from raising their heads. In other States, the migrant labour at the very least is able to use the benefit of the One Nation One Ration Card scheme. In a city like Delhi, which is one of the few States in India that has yet not subscribed to or joined Ration Card Portability under the One Nation One Ration Card Scheme, even this social benefit is not available to them. Of the protection afforded to migrant labour in Delhi by virtue of this Act, the less said the more truthful

So what do the labourers typically eat and drink now?

1) Since making tea on an open flame is no longer "allowed", the labourers typically walk across to a nearby tea-stall that operates on subsidised cooking gas to pick up ready-made tea provided in thin plastic pouches with some sort of a paper cup. What the hot liquid and plastic used do to each other can only be imagined.

2) For food, the morning provisions include pre-fried maida items and more starch on starch. The concept of "allowing" the labour to grow seasonal vegetables is not around anymore so whatever is affordable is used. For fruit and protein, they often depend on charity, or good luck. Or bhandaras, langars and luck.

3) I have also observed a drastic reduction in daals/lentils in their diet. This is in keeping with changing times - till maybe the '70s, daal was free with rotis. To some extent, sambar is still free in South India with a meal. But in North India, daal is now a luxury item - look at a labourer's food plate now? Heaps of refined rice, maida roti - and very little protein.

One big observation I have now is that the height and muscle tone of labourers of today at construction sites is smaller and weaker than before. And the rotation is higher. The children running around do not look as healthy as they used to.

This, then, is also one of the truths behind the house you live in. Especially in and around Delhi. How do we change this? Even roasted channa is now a luxury item, in case you had not noticed - so where do we start?

Think about it. Next time you want to do charity and distribute sweets - think about what their dietary needs. I find that small packets of plain roasted channa with some gud (jaggery) does a decent job.

Veeresh Malik was a seafarer. And a lot more besides. A decade in facial biometrics, which took him into the world of finance, gaming, preventive defence and money laundering before the subliminal mind management technology blew his brains out. His romance with the media endures since 1994, duly responded by Outlook, among others.

A survivor of two brain-strokes, triggered by a ship explosion in the 70s, Veeresh moved beyond fear decades ago. 

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