Delhi Last year’s stubbed toes in Delhi over India’s first shot at hosting the Commonwealth Games are still in the news in the wake of continued outrage at the national embarrassment caused by the widespread corruption that revealed shoddy construction and desultory preparations. The headlines were full of charges and counter charges as the special report on accountability has been made public. For the 45,000 families estimated to have been displaced by the Games, the memories are also still vivid and the experience still a daily grind. With the ACORN Delhi organizing team, I visited the ITO community across from the now vacant athlete dormitory (waiting for condo sales!).
ACORN India with partners is operating a homeless tent across the highway from the dorms where up to 60 or more are staying nightly, still unable to find replacement housing. This is one of 84 such homeless tents pitched about Delhi and provided by the Delhi Municipal Corporation. Looking over the edge of the expressway from the front of the tent I could see recycling sorting going on all around complete with weighing areas and bundling, all crammed next to rows of bicycle rickshaws which are once again the livelihoods of many of these ACORN members. Looking through a stack of membership applications and ACORN membership cards which also serve as Ids for many of these workers, the occupations were common: rickshaw puller, domestic workers, hawkers, and waste pickers predominated.
Walking through the neighborhood nearby was a little like walking through a recycling center with walls, much like our work in Dharavi in Mumbai. Doors were open that revealed ceiling high stacks of paper goods ready for recycling and then bundling. On the streets young workers hardly in their teens used threadbare tarps to catch papers being pushed off of trucks and then readied for sorting, bailing, and weighing for the brokers. In India there is no way to separate residence from livelihood for the poor, and every step through these crowed streets with life and work spewing out everywhere, reconfirmed that reality block by block.
Dharmendra Kumar, ACORN International’s Delhi director, explained to me that we had operated the tent here for four months and despite the fact that the DMC had only provided one month’s payment with three still owing for the work, we were trying to get them to agree to maintain the shelter for a full year or more, simply because it was so desperately needed. I won’t be surprised to see it again in six months when I return, just like the empty Games housing that will still be hoping for sales, and the demands for accountability for the Games that will still in all likelihood be full of more contention than convictions. The bitter residue of the Commonwealth Games still seems short on lessons learned even as the calendar more quickly turns.
Delhi The chai whalla was doing well because the meeting was starting slowly as drivers finished their last “school” runs and began drifting into the recruitment meeting in this section of East Delhi. It was a good spot across the thoroughfare from the licensing building where we had blocked traffic recently in protest of the slow work in getting licenses to our pullers. New flyovers for the expressway loomed over the area juxtaposing green fields with the stench of animals and squatter housing along the alleyway.
The meeting was moving along when there was a burst of discussion, almost seeming like arguing back and forth in Hindi, after Dharmendra had asked a question. He told me quickly that the drivers were debating wages: what they made versus a living wage. The debate raged another 5 minutes, until Dharmendra turned his head to me and said that they had agreed that 10000 rupees per month would be an excellent target goal for a living wage. At 43 rupees to the dollar, that’s a little more than $235 USD per month of work or something close to $8 USD per day. Hardly a princely sum, but it goes without saying it’s a long way from where the men stood now. Currently the men average about 150 rupees a day (about $3 USD per day) for a total of 4500 rupees per month.
Part of the reason for the back-and-forth had been the comparisons between the drivers on the daily sum that each had to pay the owner of the bicycle rickshaw. For most that was around 200 rupees. These were sharecroppers of the streets, taxi drivers on rubber and spoke.
The other part of the conversation that was most animated focused on the frequency of the police beatings and daily cane swipes the drivers were enduring as the countdown to the Commonwealth Games moved forward in earnest. Lacking a license was part of the problem, though most of their fares were concentrated in the short runs in the community to school or work or to carry goods or to get from the Metro somewhere else. The rest was that they could not always avoid crossing the major streets and intersections, and this was hell to pay. Cops were trying to move the traffic and saw the rickshaws as an impediment, and a caning was somehow the cure.
The licenses are the hardest to understand because they are now caught in the Indian bureaucratic slowdown. The court victory that lifted the ceiling on the number of licenses was secure, but now there were commissions and studies and anything the municipal corporation could devise to keep from actually issuing licenses to the drivers. It matters because for every day without a license the owners, and therefore the drivers, are paying daily bribes to the police from what they reported. Often about another 40 rupees per day.
There was no problem after an hour for these 25 new drivers to all agree to be at the meeting the following week to take the next steps in joining the organization and then making plans for organizing everyone in this area. The sun was a red outline in the haze of smoke, dust, and dusk as I moved through the traffic to the southern part of the city where I was staying.