Delhi, capital of India- home to thousands of skilled and unskilled labourers, who migrate there every year in search of work and a basic income that has failed them in their villages. As most of them get employed in the ever growing infrastructure program drive the country is going through, this group of such hard working citizens, some of whom have been living there for generations, have found themselves tangled in a particularly odd situation at the heart of the capital.

Nayi Basti, Chandni Chowk and Kalindi Kunj are three areas in New Delhi and the NCR region where you will get to see unregistered construction workers who use horses as labour, to carry material and pull carts. In the age of machinery the mere presence of horses in the form of goods transporters in construction sites paint a starkly different picture. That however is the story of life; to survive one has to fit into the economic scheme of things or get wiped out. The harsh reality.

The concept, novel in a metro city because of almost no pollution emission and energy consumption, is not without its own perils. The problem started when the government at the centre decided to crack down, and to some extent rightly so, on the use of animals as labour. This not only cut them out of Government projects but now also keeps them at odds with the law. Most of these workers hail from villages in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

The first person I befriended in a rather hostile situation at the Basti was Md. Shamim Khan, who is also known in the neighbourhood as Masterji, owing to his previous profession as a tailor. After considerable persuasion, he was kind enough to introduce me to other members of the profession.

The others were Md. Aqib, with whom I wandered the Dhobi Ghats of Okhla, Md. Sultan Khan, who is the fastest horse rider I know and Md. Sharif, the leader of the pack. Md. Shamim has three daughters and two sons. His elder son studies in a Government school in Noor Nagar. The younger is still too young. None of his daughters go to school. The elder son will leave school to join work in a year. This resonates with almost every family of such workers across the capital.

Young boys begin helping their fathers and uncles by the time they are 10 years old. By 14, they start working full time.

Young boys begin helping their fathers and uncles by the time they are 10 years old. By 14, they start working full time.

 

Md. Aqib Khan at a constrcution site in Gaffar Manzil. The horses are made to carry anything from bricks to sand to heavy electronic goods.

Md. Aqib Khan at a constrcution site in Gaffar Manzil. The horses are made to carry anything from bricks to sand to heavy electronic goods.

 

Badal, Sultan Khan's horse being led through the narrow lanes of Temur nagar, by his son

Badal, Sultan Khan’s horse being led through the narrow lanes of Temur nagar, by his son

By 2 in the afternoon most workers are done with their work after which they gather at a hinterland behind Nayi Basti to play cards, drink or do drugs.

By 2 in the afternoon most workers are done with their work after which they gather at a hinterland behind Nayi Basti to play cards, drink or do drugs.

 

The horses are fed twice a day. There is no system of vaccinating them which leads to them catching diseases and becoming too weak to work or dying at a young age

The horses are fed twice a day. There is no system of vaccinating them which leads to them catching diseases and becoming too weak to work or dying at a young age

 

The hinterland, a place notorious for its numerous murder cases, consists of a broken down factory and a vacant plot full of shrubs and bushes going down to the river Yamuna.

The hinterland, a place notorious for its numerous murder cases, consists of a broken down factory and a vacant plot full of shrubs and bushes going down to the river Yamuna.

 

Md. Aqib Khan and Md. Rahim after a day's work at the old factory, Nayi Basti

Md. Aqib Khan and Md. Rahim after a day’s work at the old factory, Nayi Basti

 

Md. Shamim's house in Nayi basti. ' I want to send Zeeshan to an English medium school. I don't want this life for him.

Md. Shamim’s house in Nayi basti.  “I want to send Zeeshan to an English medium school. I don’t want this life for him.”

 

Md. Rahim Khan has spent his whole life as a horseman in Nayi Basti. He now makes horse saddles for a living.

Md. Rahim Khan has spent his whole life as a horseman in Nayi Basti. He now makes horse saddles for a living.

 

"After my father is done with the horse, I sometimes take it out for a ride to impress the girls"- Arif, Sultan Khan's younger son studying in the 6th standard.

“After my father is done with the horse, I sometimes take it out for a ride to impress the girls”- Arif, Sultan Khan’s younger son studying in the 6th standard.

 

Although living in the centre of the country, they are bereft of all development schemes being planned at the left, right and centre. This photo essay was an attempt to look closely at the lives of both these horsemen and their horses which have never experienced the freedom of running across green fields.

 

DEBALIN ROY
(The Author is an independent journalist, currently pursuing his masters from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Follow Debalin here)