It’s 8 am on a weekday and 60 men are milling about in a motley group on a pavement near the Tardeo flyover in Mumbai Central.
Dressed in frayed pants and faded shirts, they sip on tiny cups of tea and eat idlis bought from a streetside hawker as their eyes scan the faces of approaching pedestrians.
Among the waiting men is 25-year-old Sunil Chauhan, a painter and contract labourer who is also a ‘naka worker’ — a term used for a skilled or semi-skilled labourer who solicits work by meeting private contractors at nakas or road junctions in the city.
At Tardeo naka, where Chauhan has waited nearly every morning for the past 12 years, you can find workers of all kinds — carpenters and plumbers, electricians and masons. Between 7.30 and 10 am, more than 500 naka workers arrive here each day, negotiate with contractors, sign on for assignments and set off to job sites across the city.
“Being a naka worker is all about good networking. Only if you build strong relationships with a set of contractors will you stay alive in this business,” says Chauhan, a Class 8 dropout from a village in Maharajganj, Uttar Pradesh.
Twelve years ago, as a lanky adolescent, Chauhan left his parents, home and acre of unyielding wheat fields and moved to Mumbai, where a distant relative lived in Tardeo’s Tulsiwadi slum.
A painter and naka worker, he taught Chauhan the tricks of the trade and helped him find work and accommodation — a 150-sq-ft room in Tulsiwadi that he shares with 11 other naka workers, most of them painters.
Chauhan’s day begins at 5 am, when he and his roommates take turns to use the bathroom in one corner of their room. Simultaneously, in a group effort, they cook and pack tiffins of dal, rice and sabzi. At 7.45 am, the group heads to the naka, a 15-minute walk away, where they breakfast. And wait.
Contractors have no fixed time or day for turning up at the naka, but on average, each worker gets 22 days of work a month, at the rate of Rs. 300 per eight-hour shift.
On most days, Chauhan doesn’t wait long at the naka. He has links with at least 10 contractors and there is a lot of painting work to be had in the new offices and residential apartments being built in the area.
Chauhan usually works 11 hours a day, taking home about Rs. 9,000 a month. After paying his share of the room rent (Rs 700) and sending money home to his aging parents, he is left with about Rs. 3,000 for his personal expenses, including food.
“Sometimes I also get to travel on work — to projects in Nashik, Jalgaon, Akola and Nagpur,” says Chauhan, who is given on-site accommodation on such assignments. “One of my friends once had the opportunity to paint in Delhi, but I’ve had no such luck so far.”
Tardeo naka is like a second home now. “I come here even on days when I already have an assignment, because sometimes you meet a new contractor who can give you jobs in the future,” says Chauhan, who is currently part of a team painting a Mahalaxmi office.
His only days off, he adds, are those when he cannot find work — and his annual break, when Chauhan returns for a few weeks to his village, where his wife of less than a year also lives.
“It would be nice to start living with my wife,” he says, frowning. “But given the way I live, there is no way I could ask her to come to Mumbai.”
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)