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'How Will Piyush Goyal Help Us?'

May 17, 2024 12:06 IST
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'We need a candidate who will do our work and fight with the authorities; someone we can hold accountable.'
'Piyush Goyal is not that candidate.'

IMAGE: A view of Ambujawadi. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

They are Muslims, but what bothers them most is not the communal campaign being led by the prime minister, but the precarious nature of the lives they lead as construction workers.

When asked what was the most pressing problem they wanted resolved by the incoming government, Halim Khan and Muzammil Shaikh, construction workers in Malad, a north west suburb of Mumbai, didn't have to think much.

"We need pension from the government," said 59-year-old Khan, a mason. "We've been climbing up scaffoldings our whole life. I often feel giddy now. We should be able to stop at the age of 55, or at the most 60."

Muzammil Shaikh has barely 15 minutes to talk to this reporter -- his half-hour lunch break is coming to an end and the contractor has already got rid of one worker since the day started. He is quick to list out what he wants: A guarantee of work accompanied by a guarantee of full and timely payment.

"We work for private contractors, sometimes on this building, sometimes on another. In between, there are long gaps when we don't have work. We must get work regularly," he says.

Shaikh reveals that when the contractor winds up one project, there's always some amount remaining to be paid to the workers. The amounts owed to him by various contractors vary from Rs 1,500 to Rs 6,000, and even Rs 13,000 for a project which wound up half-way through because of the COVID-19 lockdown. "We can't harangue the contractors because they too don't receive the full payment from the builder," he says ruefully.

Both Khan and Shaikh are the primary earners in their family. Khan supports a family of three: himself, his wife and son. The son too is in the same profession: He fixes windows.

Khan receives the 5 kg ration that Modi has been boasting about, but he asks, is that enough for a family to survive?

Khan's earnings certainly can't help his wife get a new set of teeth. Her front teeth got knocked out by a cricket bat; the batsman didn't realise she was just behind him when he raised his bat. Playing space is at a premium in Ambujwadi, the corner of Malwani, Malad, where the Khans live.

IMAGE: A man walks with a cycle laden with gas cylinders on the non-existent roads of Ambujawadi. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani


Ambujwadi must surely be among the most deprived slum settlements in Mumbai. Roads are non-existent; pipelines broken so you must walk through squelchy filth; piles of uncollected garbage dot the roads. Aslam Shaikh of the Congress is the sitting MLA; he was also guardian minister of Mumbai during the Maha Vikas Aghadi government from 2019-2022. Gopal Shetty of the BJP, the sitting MP, has been replaced by Piyush Goyal, India's commerce minister.

Yet, even in this neglected corner of Mumbai, it's been a hard struggle for the 45,000-odd residents to hold on to their homes, as housing rights activist Akhilesh Rao recalls. Their homes were demolished in 2004 when then Congress chief minister Vilasao Deshmukh wanted to turn Mumbai into Shanghai.

December 2004 saw a spate of demolitions across the city. The dishoused turned to Medha Patkar, who led them through dharnas and hunger strikes. At one point, they threatened to rebuild their homes at their protest site in Azad Maidan.

"It was a terrible time," recalls Akhilesh. "Many lost their jobs; children lost a year of schooling. Some couples broke up." Among the structures bulldozed was Akhilesh's family dairy. He was not only asked to quit his job, he suffered lung and kidney damage thanks to the open air sit-ins and hunger strikes.

That was also the time he became a leading member of Medha Patkar's Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, and along with a handful of others like him, organised the demoralised residents into rebuilding their homes.

Yet, the first thing she would ask from any government, says Shaikh's wife Sridevi, is a proper house. "We've been here 20 years; we barely have a roof over our heads," she complains.

Khan admits that people in his village in UP have received houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna. But in Ambujwadi, nobody has. And UP is no longer his home; Ambujwadi is.

For people like them, says Akhilesh, the best Lok Sabha candidate would be the one most accessible. All their struggles, be it for electricity, a bus service or water (it comes for half an hour at night), have involved pressurising local MPs and MLAs. "How will Piyush Goyal help us?" he asks.

IMAGE: A view of the conditions of the roads in Ambujawadi. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani


For Muzammil Shaikh, a visit to UP every year is a must. This year, he is not looking forward to it. "There are no train tickets; I'll have to go unreserved. These days travelling unreserved has become impossible. You asked me about Modi's achievements. Who can rival the great work Modi's done? He's sold off the railways and the airports."

There is no question in Shaikh's mind that the Congress was a better option for the poor. "They gave us a lot," he says ruefully.

Shaikh heads a family of six; his sons have studied till Class 12. One is a tailor, the other a helper in the construction industry. Both face the same job uncertainty that he does.

"Where are the jobs?" he asks. "Modi has taken away even the permanent army jobs that poor people used to get." One of his sons was about to get a confirmed job at the airport, but then the lockdown intervened and appointments stopped.

IMAGE: Akhilesh Rao, trade unionist and housing activist, left, with Halim Khan, the construction worker. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani


Both Khan and Shaikh are privileged in their field: They are enrolled in the Maharashtra Buildings and Other Construction Worker's Welfare Board. The Board was established in 1998 but came into prominence only during the lockdown, when, as Akhilesh Rao says, "We discovered while distributing rations in slums across the city that every third house had a construction worker."

Funds for the Board come from a cess levied on builders, its corpus currently is said to be around Rs 15,000 crore (Rs 150 billion). Workers enrolled in it are entitled to a lot of benefits, from scholarships for the first two children, to medical expenses for deliveries and compensation for accidents. Khan and Shaikh have received a safety kit (including a helmet and safety harness); and a household kit (including a pressure cooker, a water container and utensils).

"The Board is very happy distributing these kits, but what workers want are not utensils, but help in educating their children," says Bilal Khan of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, who along with Akhilesh Rao, formed the Kamgar Sanrakshan Sammaan Sangh after seeing how difficult it was for workers to register with the Board on their own. That gave them the locus standi to meet the Board authorities, labour contractors and the BMC, and get enrolment certificates for those who became members of their union.

The most difficult requirement for enrolment is the 90-day working certificate. Only someone who has hired the worker for 90 days in the previous year can sign this declaration. The Union managed to persuade contractors to do so, and has managed to get enrolment certificates for 2000 workers.

"The government should be doing this," grumbles Akhilesh. "At least candidates who want our votes should promise that they would do this kind of work. We need candidates with experience of resolving issues of construction workers and domestic workers, of slum dwellers who end up fighting each other over a bucket of water. Modi talks about 5 kg rations; but half our residents don't even have ration cards. The authorities keep cancelling them on various grounds."

To help fight the current heat wave, Akhilesh and his colleagues have been distributing drinking water to "naka workers" (those who gather at select street corners every morning hoping to get work for the day).

"Candidates should be visiting these naka workers," says Akhilesh angrily. "They stand for hours in the sun; if they are lucky, they get work, and then all they can afford is a wada pav for dinner. What kind of life is that?"

"We need a candidate who will do our work and fight with the authorities; someone we can hold accountable. Piyush Goyal is not that candidate," he concludes, as the others around him agree nod their heads.

The Congress candidate Bhushan Patil is an unknown face, however, he is at least a local, says Akhilesh.

IMAGE: Halim Khan, Muzammil Shaikh with his wife Sridevi. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani


What Akhilesh fears however, is that ultimately, people will vote on the basis of religion.

Malwani has been the focus of a campaign of communalisation led by BJP MLA and builder Mangal Prabhat Lodha since the last assembly elections. In his speeches in the assembly, Lodha has talked about a 'Malwani pattern' and alleged that 'illegal immigrants' are being settled in Malwani to drive Hindus away.

The suburb saw a clash on Ram Navmi last year.

This year, the occasion passed off peacefully because the court had warned the police that they would be held responsible for any breach of peace. The court was hearing a bunch of petitions including some filed by Muslim organisations in Malwani, urging action against hate speeches by BJP MLA Nitesh Rane. (He had made a speech in Malwani on March 3.)

Ultimately, thanks to the court's relentless pressure, an FIR was registered against him on April 23.


Neither Khan or Shaikh mentioned either the polarisation being attempted in Malwani over the last two years, nor the polarisation now being attempted by the prime minister's election campaign. The one factor they both independently mentioned was the COVID-19 vaccine and its after-effects, for which they blamed the PM. "He made it compulsory for all, else we would never have taken it," they said.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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JYOTI PUNWANI / In Ambujwadi, Mumbai
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