Behind the posh Delhi neighbourhood named New Friends Colony, lies Khizrabad, a narrow, congested cluster of houses occupied by thousands of workers from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. For years, these workers have stayed in Khizrabad and provided the labour and domestic services to develop and maintain the affluent locality. Since the sudden nationwide lockdown, they have been unemployed and struggling for food, despite assurances from the state and central governments. With no public transport to return home, these workers were forced to stay in conditions that are ideal to contract and spread the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, and without any assistance from the government or their elected representatives.
On 9 May, I spoke to several workers staying in Khizrabad, and learnt that over a hundred workers had been driven by desperation to try and walk home to Bihar. By the next day, that number had reached nearly two hundred. At around 1 pm on 11 May, I visited the area to meet the workers who had not yet left. At Khizrabad, a stark truth became immediately apparent—the workers living there, without food, money or assistance, and others like them, were among the worst sufferers of this poorly planned lockdown.
The area was marked by narrow lanes, broken roads and overflowing sewers. After navigating through the congested alleys, I reached an old building, situated near an open drain, that housed approximately two hundred people. It had damp walls and a dark, narrow corridor through which it was impossible for two people to cross without touching each other, making social-distancing norms particularly difficult to enforce. Some children peeped out at me from behind the curtains that covered the entrance to their homes, and others continued playing in that narrow corridor.
The building had four storeys with four or five rooms, two common toilets and one communal bathroom on each floor. Each room was approximately ten square feet in dimension, and the residents varied from families with small children, to bachelors, to senior citizens. In one of the rooms, I met a family of four people who paid a rent of Rs 2,600, excluding electricity costs. But without work, the labourers had little or no money remaining, and said the landlords were pressuring them to pay rent.
One of the four, Pramod Yadav, from Bihar’s Supaul district, who stayed in the room with his wife and their two young children, told me that the landlady had come to collect the rent earlier that day. “I have my own cart and I used to earn Rs 200–300 per day,” he said. “Now you can imagine my condition without that work since lockdown. In that if I am pressured to pay rent , how can I stay here?”