Delhi, India – Thousands of unskilled manual women labourers form a major part of the work force in India. Toiling hard through the day, these women performing gruelling manual labour contribute hugely not only to the development of big cities but also to the running of their homes and support of their families. Most of them are migrants from small villages who work in big cities with aspirations such as building a house back home in their village, saving up for the marriage of daughters, which usually requires the provision of a dowry to the groom and his family, or just surviving each day by earning enough to eat. SHOWKAT SHAFI spoke to 10 women who work as construction labourers in Delhi about their lives, dreams and aspirations.
Bhagwati, 40, Banera village, Madhya Pradesh
I came to Delhi, 15 years back. I visit my village twice or thrice a year. If there is an emergency situation I visit it. I have six children and my eldest son is 15 years old. I take mithai [Indian sweets] for my relatives as I cannot afford to buy anything else because whatever I earn is spent as I have a large family. I earn anything between 200 and 250 rupees per day [between R37 and R45 per day], depending on the kind of work I get and my luck. My husband is also a construction labourer. We sometimes work together and sometimes I work at one construction site and he is at another. Even if life is tough, a big city is good to earn money. I get work and I earn money. I will work in this city as long as I can get work but after that I will go back to my village. I just work to keep my children alive because my husband spends half his earnings on liquor. Every night he consumes liquor worth 100 rupees
Mamta, 40, Etawah district, Uttar Pradesh
As a young girl I used to come here for work with my parents. My parents would save money for my marriage. After I got married, I came again but with my husband with whom I have two sons and daughters. I visit my village twice a year where I own a small piece of land. I dream of building a beautiful house in my village. I earn 200 rupees per day which is not enough, if you look at how expensive everything in this city have become.
Puja, 38, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh
I work in Delhi for eight months along with my husband, and then we spend four months back home. I have two daughters and one son. I have a small house in my village where my in-laws stay. I take back clothes for all the family members every time I go back home. I buy two saris for myself every year. I like Delhi because it has given us the opportunity to earn money. It is very important to find work to earn if one has to survive in this world. I am also saving money for my daughter’s wedding because marriages are expensive affairs and a lot of gold has to be given.
Radika, 35, Raigarh, Chhattisgarh
I have been coming to Delhi for the past 15 years with my husband and children. I have one son and two daughters. We work in Delhi for six months and then work in agricultural farms in our village for the rest of the year. If I don’t come here, then my family will starve to death as I don’t earn much in the village. Whatever is produced on our land, is consumed by us and we don’t even own a big house in the village. We have to manage with whatever money we earn in Delhi and save. I earn anything between 200 and 250 rupees a day. Some days I have been lucky and managed to get 300 rupees. I hope for a brighter future for my children.
Tara Dabi, 50, Nalanda district, Bihar
It was 30 years back that I started coming to Delhi with my husband after my marriage. I have two sons who used to work with us here. I go home twice a year and take new clothes for my grandchildren. On special festivals such as Holi, I buy one sari for myself as well. I used to get paid much less but now we earn anything between 180 rupees and 250 rupees depending upon the kind of work we do. Government construction work gives us less money – around 180 rupees – but we get it for a longer period of time, so we are content. Private contractors pay much more – around 250 rupees – but it is for a shorter period of time and it is much tougher to work with them. They cut our pay if we report to work late and often do not pay on time, unlike government work which is much more relaxed. I have worked really hard and saved money, because of which I was able to make my own house back home. It would have never been possible if I had not come to a big city for work.
Ramkali, 34, Chitrakoot, Madhya Pradesh
I have been coming to Delhi for the past 10 years. I have two sons and one daughter who stay in the village. I visit Chitrakoot four times a year and I plan to settle there permanently after I have earned enough. I earn around 200 to 250 rupees per day. I have my own two-room house in my village. I take clothes for my in-laws and children every time I go home. I even buy new sari for myself. I dream of sending my children to school and since I have saved some money, I might go back home and never return.
Mainda, 38, Chhatarpur district, Madhya Pradesh
I have been coming here for many years now with my husband. I have three sons and two daughters. We work here for six months and then go back home for six months. We own a three-room house in our village and every time I go back I take clothes for my children. I like to wear new clothes and I buy a sari for myself as well whenever I go back. There are lots of women from my village who work in Delhi and back home we work in our fields. Life in big cities is tough and I miss my village. But it’s necessary to come here to earn money.
Abat Kumari, 42, Nalanda district, Bihar
It has been 20 years since I started coming for work to this city along with my husband. I have five daughters and one son. I came here to earn money as there are no work opportunities in my village and it is difficult to survive. Two of my eldest daughters work with me here and others just accompany me to various sites as they are very young. I do not save much money but whatever I save, I take it home because I need it for the days I live in my village. I go back to my village once a year for three to four months. It was two years back that I last bought clothes for myself but I do buy it for my children. I dream of marrying my daughters with dignity.
Geeta, 40, Chhatarpur district, Madhya Pradesh
I have been working in Delhi for the past two years. I am here with my family – my husband, son and four daughters. My husband is also a labourer, whereas my son works as a driver. One of my daughters is married and the other three go to school. I go to my village twice a year but I also visit it if someone gets married or dies. I earn 220 rupees every day. Back home we own a small two-room house. If I manage to save from my earnings, I buy gold ornaments for my daughters which I will give them during their wedding. If I don’t start buying it now, I won’t be able to do it when the time comes. Whenever I visit home, I buy clothes for my in-laws in the village. I miss my village because over there people respect and care for each other. Life is tough in big cities; nobody is bothered about the poor. If someone dies on the road, nobody even bothers to take them to hospital. I am here to earn money for my daughters. I want them to study and to get them married with dignity.
Mamta, 22, Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh
My husband and I migrate to Delhi every year for six months, earn money and then go back home. I always work with my husband because this city is not safe for women and it is not safe for me to work alone over here. I never buy anything from here to take back home. I just take back all the money that I save it. In these six months, we work continuously. I work from 8am until 6pm. Income is not fixed and what we earn depends of the work we get. I earn around 200 rupees every day. There are some days that I have even managed to get 250 rupees but these are rare incidents. We have a son and daughter and own a small one-room house in the village. It is my dream to make this house big and that’s why we come to work here. Every daughter-in-law of our village accompanies her husband to work, but I have not faced any problems working in the city because my husband is around me.
– Vox pops have been edited for brevity and clarity
Showkat Shafi is a freelance news photographer and has completed assignments for Al Jazeera English and The New York Times. He was born in Kashmir. Follow him on Twitter.