New Delhi: Rajkumari Devi frowned and pursed her lips looking at the heap of potatoes in front of her. She had sat cross-legged for the last eight hours on the grey concrete floor surrounded by gunny bags at the potato shed in Azadpur mandi, a wholesale fruit and vegetable market in northern Delhi, and had several hours of work to go.
For every 50 kilos of potatoes Devi sorted with her hands as per their size, she earned Rs15. On a good day, this totaled to Rs 150 or Rs 200, a third of Delhi’s minimum wage of Rs 660 a day. That day had been exceptionally hard: it was her first day back at work after her 26-year-old son, a factory worker, had died after an accidental fall 20 days earlier.
She said her husband, who pushed a cycle cart to ferry vegetables at the mandi, was weak from repeated tuberculosis infections. After their son’s death, her husband felt too broken, she explained, but they had few savings, no time to grieve, and someone had to go on. “Traders who own the wholesale potato stock sometimes allow me to take a few pieces home, free of charge.
So, I came back to work,” said Devi, a tall woman in 50s, her shoulders bent from three decades of working at the market for meagre pay. “My family survives on these potatoes and the wheat from our ration card. We can barely afford anything else.”
For each 50 kg of potatoes the women workers at Azadpur mandi sort by hand as per their category and size, they are paid Rs 15. They said on average this totals Rs 150 or Rs 200 daily, a third of Delhi’s minimum wage of Rs 660 a day.
In the adjoining vegetable sale shed, 32-year-old Shiv Kumar Paswan – a head-loader or palledaar – had a slight build and piercing eyes. He said he had worked at the Azadpur mandi, India and Asia’s “largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market”, since he was 14 years old.
He belongs to a landless family of a Dalit caste in Harnaut, Nalanda. He lifted vegetable loads on his back and his head seven to eight months of the year, and lived in his village in Bihar the rest of the months. Paswan said even this largesse which Devi spoke of – a few grams of vegetables at the end of sorting and lifting vegetables all day – was not available to all workers.
“If you work as a ‘parchoon’, freelance – a head-loader carrying vegetables on the back and paid at piece rate or per trip you make, and if you are not a regular at any one vegetable shed or affiliated with a trader or a commission agent – you cannot expect them to let you have even a few grams of vegetables,” Paswan said. That day since early morning, he had lifted and carried on his back 30 sacks of varying weight of 20 to 90 kg each, of drumsticks, pumpkin, gourds, carrots, spinach. For this he earned barely Rs 15 to 20 per trip.
“I cannot afford to buy and eat fruits or vegetables from these scanty amounts,” he said, explaining how workers carrying and sorting food all day for the city’s residents remained underfed, and can barely afford a decent meal.
At the peak of the pandemic in 2020, tens of thousands of farmers and peasants occupied the edge of New Delhi for more than a year until the Union government was forced to repeal three new agricultural laws.
Among the laws the Modi government passed as “reforms” was one which led away from a system where farm produce is transacted at government-regulated agriculture market yards, or mandis, such as the one in Azadpur in Delhi. Modi argued that new laws to liberalise the agriculture sector would liberate the small farmers, as well as poor and low-income consumers such as Devi.
Small farmers (over 80% of India’s farmers own less than two hectares agricultural land) opposed these changes, saying it would pauperise them, and led successful protests for withdrawal of the new laws. They were backed by some of the most marginalised, including landless daily-wage workers and palledaars who lift and sort agriculture produce in government-sanctioned market yards. They contended that the “reforms” would dismantle their livelihoods, and the amendments altering the essential food markets would make them further vulnerable to extreme rise in food prices.
More than a year after the farmers’ protests forced the government to retreat, not much has changed for mandi workers, said union representatives.
“We were at the Delhi morcha for days and joined the protests. But even after the farm laws were withdrawn, we are still fighting for changes in our pay and living conditions,” said Makhan Singh, a member of the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, which aims to improve access of landless Dalits to reserved common lands in villages, and organises piece-rate workers, palledaars, in mandis.
The unions say the protests and the accompanying discussion around farm regulations opened a space and an opportunity for actual reforms in the government-sanctioned market yards, and in the conditions of the poorest mandi workers.
“The debates from the farmers’ protests must be built upon to structurally reform the system and improve the lives of these workers,” argued Prakash Kumar, of the union National Hamal Mahapanchayat (NHP).
He stated that this would be possible through a law especially focused on mandi workers that provides essential benefits such as a weekly day off, a retirement provident fund, health and insurance cover, regulated overtime pay and safe working conditions.
He added that such a law was already drafted and has been pending with the Delhi government for four years now. “The Delhi government invited public comments on the mandi workers Bill in 2019. But since then, it is in cold storage,” said Kumar.
He advocated that the Delhi government pass the law to directly assist the tens of thousands of workers who sort and manually lift agricultural produce in nine government-sanctioned farm produce markets in Delhi, ensuring food and nutrition for most of northern India.
Azadpur, India’s largest wholesale market in fruits and vegetables, was set up in 1976 and meets the food needs of Delhi’s 30 million residents as well as of several northern Indian states.
Despite their vital role in the food system, the mandi workers are in a legal vacuum. Delhi’s labour department does not fix or periodically revise minimum wages for these workers, as they are not covered in 29 “schedules of employment”, or categories of work under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Even though several workers have worked at the same mandi for decades, and in some instances even with the same agricultural trader, labour officials described them as “self employed”.
When asked about the status of social security legislation drafted for mandi workers, additional labour commissioner S.C. Yadav refused to give an in-person interview. He directed The Wire to officials in the department’s legal division.
The officials in the legal division said the draft Bill was pending because but the Union government had passed four labour codes, including Code on Social Security, in 2020. “When we sent the Bill to the law department, they said when the Centre has made a general welfare law, then why do these workers need a special law,” said the Delhi government official.
Though the Union government had passed these Codes in 2020, these are yet to be implemented and several states including Delhi are yet to frame rules to implement them. Officials had no clarity on when the Code may be enforced.
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