Santoshi arrived in Delhi in 1995 with her husband and three little children. Holding on to their precious bundles of clothes and a few utensils, she joined 50 other labourers—from various villages of West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and her own state of Bihar—at a construction site in Connaught Place. These strangers would form a small community, just for a few months, as they lived cheek by jowl and worked together at the site.
The first few days, Santoshi admits, were tough. The floor was wet and strewn with machines, cement, sand and gravel. This was expected to be their home during the time they worked on the site. Following an unspoken code, the labourers who had families laid claim to different corners of the site, shielding their privacy by putting up plastic sheets. Marking their own territory, Santoshi’s family tied a sheet across a corner. Santoshi had never been away from Bihar before, and on arriving at the site, the loss of her own house finally hit her.
Santoshi, who is now 35, was merely 13 years old when she got married and left her village, Dalsinghsarai, in Bihar, for Rosara. Her husband, Kalkabsa, older by two years, worked there as a labourer on construction sites. This, for all practical purposes, was a step up from the life of his father, who’d tilled land for others. Two months into the marriage, Santoshi joined her husband at the construction site for a daily wage of Rs 4. And in five quick years, she bore him three children, two boys and a girl. Pride written on her face, Santoshi recalls that she carried as much as 50 kg on her head even while entering the seventh month of her pregnancies.
With an expanding family, though, their work no longer paid enough. A relative who had moved to Delhi some months earlier suggested that they join him at the Connaught Place construction site. They would be paid Rs 7 daily, he promised. Santoshi and her family moved immediately.
Santoshi says the only way she got around living in this makeshift manner was to work hard and keep herself busy. She had, till then, been used to the security of locked doors. Sleeping in an open construction shell made her feel vulnerable. “I would lie at night and cry till I fell asleep. I was scared an intruder would walk in and harm us. I would wake up at the slightest of sounds,” she says. Most nights, her husband would pacify her to sleep, even as mosquitoes sung songs in their ears.
There was also the issue of raising three children on dangerous construction sites. “While working, I would tie my children’s legs with a rope attached to a hook. If I heard them cry, I would feed them some milk and return to work. It was tough bringing them up like this. But I had no option. If I did not continue to work, how would I feed them? If I’d had better luck with finances, the situation would have been different.”
When her children grew up a little, she would allow them to play around the site while she worked. But she warned them to watch out for each other. She remembers her own days as a child in her village: playing, running around with her friends with no care in the world. Santoshi regrets that she could not provide that same space for her children. “I never wished the same life for them, so I never let them work on the sites as children. When they neared marriageable age, I sent them back to the village,” she says.
Santoshi has lived in and built 17 houses since then. It takes a cycle of a year to complete each house. Over this period, she eagerly waits for her annual visit to the village, to celebrate Baisakhi and Makar Sakranti with her family. Before her return, she buys clothes, cosmetics and sweets to take home to her grandchildren. “The village is filled with a festive air at this time of the year. Baisakhi also marks the marriage season in the village. That is when I got married too. Normally, one or two people from every family lives in the city. This is when everyone returns, making the festivals a doubly joyous occasion,” she says.
At the site in south Delhi’s Greater Kailash-I that Santoshi is currently working on, building a three-storey house, she now earns a daily wage of Rs 180, while her husband earns Rs 200. A spade sinks into the sand, over and over, until it fills her steel contain
er to the brim. With a definitive lift, Santoshi positions it on her head and carries it to where the men are preparing mortar. Three other women quickly follow, unloading their containers. The women act like feeders to a group of men preparing material for construction, supplying them with bricks, cement, sand and gravel. They then carry the mortar to the masons, who are busily laying brick on brick, sandwiching them with cement. A total of 12 women and 40 men work on this site. Approximately 15 million women are involved in the country’s construction sector. Women do most of the manual labour, falling into the lowest traps of the work hierarchy.
The contractor pays them at the end of 40 days. Santoshi says that when the need arises, they borrow little sums of Rs 10 or Rs 20 from him. The contractor makes a note of this and cuts it from their salary. Over a month, the couple save an amount ranging from Rs 2,000 to Rs3,000, which they send to their younger son.
Five years ago, Santoshi and her husband invested their life’s savings in an eight bigha (10,888 sq ft) plot of land in their village. The land, in her husband’s name, is their only investment for their old age. Raju, their 19-year-old son, has built a two-room mud house on this plot, and grows wheat and pulses on the extended patch, just enough to feed his family.
When Santoshi returns to the village, she lives in this house. It’s the only time of the year when she gets to rest. Her daughter-in-law cooks and cares for her, and she heads back to Delhi rejuvenated, for another year of relentless labour, still looking out for their grown-up children.
Their 22-year-old daughter, Kasturi, is married to a farmer in a village close by. Santoshi still remembers what an ordeal the wedding was, one that wiped out her savings and left her with a loan to repay. “The boy’s family had demanded Rs 20,000 as dowry. Besides that, every mother wants to send off her daughter with the basic amenities of home. So I bought utensils, clothes and food to send along with her. I could not afford all of this with my savings, so I borrowed money from a neighbour in the village. It took me six years to return the money,” she says.
That was not all that gave her sleepless nights. Her elder son, Bijesh, now 20, suffered from polio when he was two and lost a leg. He is now entirely dependent on his parents, helping around on the construction sites they work at. She worries what life will have in store for him after she dies.
At 35, Santoshi’s life has seen no change for the better. She lives with her elder son and husband in a road-facing room on a construction site. One part of the room is theirs, while the other half stores raw materials. This time she has not tied a plastic sheet, for want of ventilation.
Music wafts in the air; labourers are listening to a Bollywood number in the next room. The floor is wet, but covered with white cement sacks, on which they sleep. A single bulb dimly lights the room and their humble assets; a small gas stove, an earthen pot, plastic bottles, a bucket, a broom, utensils and remains of the last meal lie scattered along the wall. Their clothes hang loosely on pegs around the room. When the house is near completion, they will shift to the parking area with the other labourers. “I try to forget that this is not my house, but the unsettled conditions I live in remind me of the move that will come soon,” she says.
She has mixed feelings about this relentless shifting of houses. “At the completion of a house, I feel satisfied. I feel like my hard work has been successful, somebody is going to make this their home. But shifting and settling into another unfamiliar site, in an unfamiliar area, with unfamiliar people is never a good feeling,” she says.
There is a routine, though, to this unsettled life. Combining domestic responsibilities and work, Santoshi starts her day at five each morning. She hastily prepares a meal for three, the normal fare of roti and dal. Then she bathes and starts work on the site by eight. In the one-hour break at 1 pm, she juggles her time between catching some rest and cooking lunch. Finally at 7.30 pm, she prepares dinner, eats and retires with her family. While lying in bed, she chats with her husband and son till they all fall asleep. The one blessing in her life, Santoshi says, is that she has a decent husband. In hard times, she says, her family is her only comfort.
In the hierarchy of India’s construction sector, there is no ladder to climb for women. They are not given any training to upgrade their skills to become, say, masons and earn a better living. They are designated load bearers, and that is what they continue to do. Even though the women must juggle running a household, motherhood and working on the site, they are paid less than the men. And the hard work finally takes a toll on their health.
As days and years pass by, Santoshi continues her thankless job of building comfortable homes for other families. She fights the little tyrannies of her own life, never certain of what the future holds for her. But she still dreams. “I do not wish to own the kind of big houses I build. I would feel too scared living in one. A small concrete house will do for a small person like me,” she smiles.
Some day, Santoshi wishes she can return to her village and live in her house, with her son.