Migrants who stayed back helping shape Delhi’s biggest Covid-19 facility
Attempting to catch a quick nap amid a hectic schedule, Ishtiyak Ali is perched atop a large seven-ton air-conditioner, about 25 feet above the ground, at the Radha Soami Satsang Beas in south Delhi’s Chhatarpur, which is being prepared to serve as a 10,000-bed temporary Covid-19 hospital.
His break will not last long. Hired by a private firm to set up air-conditioners at this facility, 26-year-old Ali will be back to work in less than 30 minutes.
“I have been working my regular shift from 8am to 6pm as well as overtime until 1am. It will help complete the work quicker and I’ll receive some extra overtime pay,” Ali, a native of Mau district in Uttar Pradesh, says.
Unlike many migrants who left for their hometowns during the lockdown, Ali and scores like him chose to stay back in the city. They see the work at the facility as an opportunity to earn after a prolonged period of unemployment as well as a chance to contribute to the country during a pandemic.
MORE THAN 900 WORKERS
BM Mishra, district magistrate of the south district, said about over 900 workers from different departments and organisations have been working in shifts since June 14 to prepare the facility wherein 2,000 beds have already been readied to take in Covid-19 patients.
“These include about 250 people fixing air-conditioners, 100 making the beds, 200 handling the electricity works, 100 from MTNL and another 125 from SDMC and NDMC,” Mishra said, while overseeing the work on a hot and humid Monday afternoon.
Several of these departments have outsourced the work to small firms who have hired either daily wage labourers or skilled workers. Apart from these, there are about 700 ‘sewadars’ (volunteers) from the satsang.
But these workers were difficult to find. Sandeep Panwar, whose firm is one among several installing 18,000 tons of air-conditioners here, says that the unavailability of labourers has forced him to task his employees to find them.
“Most of the workers you see around are new labourers. My employees are visiting labour chowks across the city to scout for them,” Panwar said.
And when these workers see the nature of the job, some of them leave, Panwar said. “It is a tough task to load the heavy ACs on the iron frames. Not everyone is willing to do this task in this heat.”
EXTRA PAY IN TOUGH TIMES
Vikas Kumar, a 40-year-old labourer who took up this job, acknowledged that it is a laborious task, but he needed the money. “I was unemployed for a lengthy period during the lockdown. Now if I am getting paid ₹500 for a regular shift, I’ll take up any work for my family,” Kumar said immediately after loading an AC.
An overtime allowance of ₹200-₹300 is also what has kept Kumar and his colleagues working hard over here.
Nandini Maharaj, the assistant collector of the south district, says that work on the ground began on June 14, the same day that she and the other officers began conceptualising the task.
“We have been working here till 2am and so have many labourers. It wouldn’t have been possible to finish such a task if not for the contribution of these workers. We have ensured that they have a decent place to stay and timely meals,” Maharaj said.
On Monday afternoon, some workers went about fixing cardboard beds, others loaded large and heavy air-conditioners on iron pole frames while some others flattened the mud floors even as a few took quick breaks.
Nearby, a group of 50 workers used cardboard sheets to set up beds. Over the last seven days, they readied 5,000 beds, Rajesh Ranjan, the project head of Sleepwell, a private firm that has donated 10,000 bedding sets to this facility, said.
‘CONTRIBUTING IN A PANDEMIC’
Rajan Bargujar, one of the workers here, said he and most of his colleagues had been unemployed for three months. “We have being given minimum wage and promised a bonus, but it is the sense of working for the country that will keep us working here despite the threat of infection,” Bargujar said.
Vijay Kumar Yadav, an electrician who is visually challenged in one eye, chose not to go back to his village in Bihar hoping he would find work when the lockdown was lifted. He said that after being disappointed in the initial days when lockdown restrictions were lifted, he found work at this facility that is paying him a little more than what he earned earlier.
“I made about ₹600 a day earlier. For this work, I am getting paid ₹900. It is as if someone has lent me a helping hand,” Yadav, who is done fixing charging points under each of the 2,000 ready beds, said.
But more than the money, Yadav says he has been enjoying the satisfaction of “serving the country”.
“I have worked for over two decades, but work has never this voluminous and hectic. It feels like work is going on at a war footing and I am fighting a battle for my country,” says 42-year-old Yadav.
Yadav knows that soon patients infected with Covid-19 will begin occupying the 2,000 ready beds, but he and his colleagues say they aren’t concerned, even though they must continue readying other sections at the same facility. “I am in no hurry to leave from here. What would happen if doctors began leaving this place if I got infected and hospitalised,” says Yadav’s colleague Sanjay Tiwari.
But the fear of having to work near patients is also what is keeping some workers toiling harder than usual.
One among them is Mohammad Ahmed, a labourer hired to level the mud floor—which will eventually be covered with vinyl sheets.
“My colleagues and I are working harder to finish the work in the next couple of days. It won’t be safe once patients start coming in,” Ahmed, who belongs to Saharsa in Bihar, but didn’t find an opportunity to return to his village, says.