His mother delivered him under a plastic sheet, in a dusty makeshift tent strung on land adjacent to a construction site at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, where his parents laboured for many years. He does not know the date he came into this world. “We workers do not write our histories,” he smiles sardonically. For his school certificate, his father chose as his date of birth Independence Day. So officially, Pramod Kumar was born on August 15, 1974.
A few months later, his parents returned to their native village in Bhagalpur in Bihar. It was home for them, but as landless agricultural workers, there was rarely work. So, every few months, his father would take a fresh loan from the local moneylender and disappear to the city for several months at a stretch.
Now with three sons and one daughter, Pramod’s mother stopped travelling with his father. As his father aged, he also lost the spirit to bear the rigours of long, lonely passages to distant work sites. Instead, first Pramod’s elder brother and then Pramod dropped out of the village school and made the same journey to Delhi that their parents had so often in their lives, so that they and their families could survive.
Pramod was then 10 years old. His first job was as helper to a mason on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road. His first wages in 1984 were Rs 11 and some paise a day. Survival, once again, was stretched for him precariously under a soiled plastic sheet, where he was to live for another 10 years. The worst months, he recalls, more than even the biting cold of winter, were those of the monsoon deluge. They would have to wade for days in their hovels in slushy water, and had to mount their stove on a string cot so that they could cook. He lived among others from his village, who took care of the growing boy. He loved to study and carried his school books with him from the village.
Each year, he would return for the annual examinations, his teachers overlooking his absence from classes. Eventually, he passed his ninth class. In time, he joined an electrician as his apprentice. He learnt how to wire newly-constructed homes; the hours were long, the work dangerous for a novice, but the money was better. His wages mounted rapidly to Rs 28, and eventually to Rs 88. He was now able to set aside money to send home to his ageing parents in the village.
On one of his visits to Bhagalpur, his parents wed him to a young girl from near his village. When Pramod brought his bride to Delhi, he was unwilling to subject her to his harsh life under a tent, so he bought a piece of land from a contractor he had worked for in Patparganj in East Delhi. It was a low-lying bog clogged with slime, sewerage drained from surrounding areas, mosquitoes and dense shrubs, behind the high-rise apartment buildings where he was employed to lay the electrical lines. Pramod, his young wife and others who were illegally sold the land by the contractor toiled for months to clear and level the land. The contractor gave them bricks and tin sheets to fabricate their tiny, tenuous homes.
Eventually, 430 shanties came up. There was no water supply or drinking water. They collected plastic carriers of water from a leaking pipe two kilometres away, and the only toilet available to them was the continuously shrinking open spaces around. “Who could we complain to?” Pramod asked bitterly. “The contractor? He would have simply packed us off and then what would have become of us?”
When their first daughter was born, Pramod resolved that they could not live like this forever. A contractor recruited him for employment in Dubai, where he worked for eight years. His employer took his passport from him as soon as he arrived at the airport, and he worked almost all his waking hours. He never enjoyed his years in Dubai. “It was not like being in your own country.” But he saved enough to send money both to his parents in the village, and his wife in the slum in East Delhi. He visited his home every few years, and each time, left his wife pregnant. He has three daughters and a boy.
When he finally returned to India, he found that globalisation had driven out most of the small building contractors. Foreign companies employed only people with formal degrees, something that Pramod could never acquire despite his love of books. He, therefore, resolved that he would educate all his children in English medium schools, whatever it cost him. The fees in Bal Nikunj Public School are Rs 200 every month, but he feels that the school is better than those run by the government, “where children can barely write their names”.
I asked Pramod’s little son what he learnt in school. He thought for a while before he replied, “Achi batein!” (Good things!)
The residents of the high-rise buildings which they had toiled to build, and where their wives and sisters washed dishes and floors, decided that they no longer wanted a slum in their midst. They filed a complaint in the court against violation of ‘green belt’ regulations, and the court ruled against the slum residents without hearing them.
The night of February 23, 2006, a head constable informed them that demolitions would start the next morning. They huddled helplessly in their homes and soon after dawn, bulldozers appeared. The roads were blocked on both sides. People desperately retrieved what they could in the blur of an hour — TV sets, some boxes of clothes, loved toys — but the rest was crushed under the relentless advance of dozers.
They desolately lived under the open sky for the next two months. Some like Pramod then moved into tiny rented tenements that they could ill afford. The court that had ordered demolitions had not found it fit to instruct rehabilitation. Many demonstrations and gheraos of the officers of the Delhi Development Authority finally yielded the reluctant offer of undeveloped plots in 20-km distant Bawana, but only if they made a down-payment of Rs 5,000. Even this offer was made to only 92 of the 430 resident families deemed by the officials to be ‘eligible’. Of these, 48 families took loans from moneylenders at 10 per cent interest per month, to pay the authorities. For the rest, including Pramod, the only prospect seems homelessness.
Pramod took me to see the site where their homes had stood barely months earlier. Around the plot, a wall had been constructed. Through a small gap, he pointed out a madhumalati shrub. “That is precisely where my home stood,” he said. “I had bought the madhumalati for Rs 25. It soon grew all across the roof of our home. It gave such a beautiful fragrance at night; it was the envy of the entire colony. It was crushed under the bulldozers, but revived in the monsoon. It stands there alone. My heart breaks whenever I look at it.”
The writer is the convenor of Aman Biradari, a people’s campaign for secularism, peace and justice