On platform number six of Old Delhi Railway Station on Tuesday afternoon, a lean man in his 50s stood close to a loudspeaker transmitting information about arrivals and departures to make sure that he was waiting on the right platform for his train .

“It is 10 minutes past 2 pm. The train should have come by now,” said the man fretfully, as he walked towards the edge of the platform and leaned forward to check on a locomotive that seemed to be moving towards the station.

The man, who identified himself as Moti Sahu, said he works at a sandal manufacturing unit in northwest Delhi’s Tri Nagar. He said that he was heading to his nephew’s room in Ghaziabad, which adjoins Delhi, where he would stay for a day or two before moving back to his village in Bihar’s Darbhanga district.

On Sunday morning, Sahu’s employer asked him and nearly 150 other workers to go on unpaid leave for a month. The employer expressed his inability to pay their wages at the moment, and attributed the cash crisis to the Union government’s November 8 decision to scrap Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes overnight.

“I have worked in the factory for over four years now but this has never happened before,” said Sahu. “I shall come back in January and check on my employer. He is not a bad person. What I need to take care of at this moment is the cash crunch. I manage to save Rs 4,500 every month and send that home. I failed in doing it this time.”

While his wife and younger son, who is still a teenager, live in the village, his older son works at a jeans factory in Delhi. “We are fortunate that he still has his job,” said Sahu. He then rushed off to another platform to catch his train after realising that he was waiting on the wrong one.

Compelled to go home

Like Sahu, thousands of other migrant labourers, who are paid wages by the day, have been severely hurt by the government’s overnight decision to withdraw high-value currency notes, which sucked out 86% of the cash circulating in the country. The lack of new currency to replace the withdrawn notes has meant that many employers are unable to pay their workers. This has compelled many workers to head back to their villages where they may not have to pay rent for their homes, but will nonetheless have several mouths to feed – and insufficient opportunities to earn a living.

On platform number five, 45-year-old Raju Mukhiya squatted in a corner, waiting for his train. Mukhiya too is a native of Darbhanga, Bihar, and was part of a group whose members were scattered across the platform.

“Every year we leave our village after Dussehra and work as farm labourers in Haryana, working first on clearing the rice harvest and then on sowing wheat,” he said. “For the past three years we have been working in fields in Jind [a district in Haryana] and there was never any problem, until this year when the zamindar told us that he could not afford our labour for sowing wheat as he did not have cash. He also got our train tickets done.”

Mukhiya and his friends said that their employer paid them for the rice harvest that they cleared. However, things changed around a fortnight ago when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the plan to demonetise high-value currency notes. Mukhiya said the announcement coincided with the time he and his friends were readying to be deployed in the fields to sow the wheat crop.

“It takes eight to 10 labourers to sow wheat in one acre of land,” said Mukhiya. “The total wage of Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 is distributed among them for the day. Our employer did once try to offer us old notes for our labour but we had to refuse. After all, where shall we go with those invalid notes?”

Raju Mukhiya waits for a train to Darbhanga, Bihar, at Old Delhi Railway Station.  (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey.)
Raju Mukhiya waits for a train to Darbhanga, Bihar, at Old Delhi Railway Station. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey.)

Prior to November 8, Mahesh Rai, 40, and five others were also employed with a landlord in Haryana’s Jind district. On Tuesday afternoon, they huddled near a pillar at the centre of platform number 16 at Old Delhi Railway station. The six of them were heading back home to Bihar’s Sitamarhi district.

“There was no work for the past seven days,” said Rai. “When our employer gave up owing to a cash crisis around a fortnight ago when the wheat sowing was to be done, we waited there looking for work in other fields for another week until our savings dropped down to zero.”

An unlucky season

Mohabbat, 30, a resident of Chharra Rafatpur village in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, was also on his way home. “I left home earlier this month to work at a field in Rewari [Haryana],” he said. “Call it bad luck, I could not earn a decent income this season. In fact there is no income at all for the past 10 days. Many farmers are offering old notes that have been scrapped.”

Asked about the government’s decision to take out Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes from circulation, he replied, “What is black money for a labourer who has hardly seen any money in life?”

The others refused to comment on the demonetisation decision.

On Wednesday morning, many migrant workers, mostly from Uttar Pradesh, converged at East Delhi’s Anand Vihar inter-state bus terminus too where they planned to catch buses home.

“I have to come back in another 15 days,” said Vinod Kumar, 35, who was heading to his village near Kanpur.

Kumar has been employed by a contractor to repair underground telephone wires in Faridabad, near Delhi, for the past four years.

“I have payments amounting to Rs 20,000 that I was supposed to receive this month,” said Kumar. “But the contractor is now offering me the amount in Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. When I did not accept those notes, he asked for a fortnight’s time.”

His wife and two sons live in the village, and he manages to save and send them at least Rs 8,000 a month. “But there will be a little crunch for a while,” he said as he boarded a state transport bus.

Vinod Kumar sits in a bus at Anand Vihar ISBT on Wednesday, heading towards Kanpur. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey.)
Vinod Kumar sits in a bus at Anand Vihar ISBT on Wednesday, heading towards Kanpur. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey.)

‘Never seen this before’

Another migrant worker, 40-year-old Avinash Kushwaha, sat on a bench waiting to catch a bus to Hamirpur town in central Uttar Pradesh. He is employed as a labourer at a construction site in northwest Delhi’s Shalimar Bagh for a daily wage of Rs 300 but is temporarily out of work.

Kushwaha said that he has worked as a construction labourer for nearly 22 years but has never seen a similar situation before. “I have lost jobs earlier but this time it is not so,” said Kushwaha. “The contractor does not have sufficient notes to pay our wages. He gave me money for the ticket two days ago and asked me to come back in 15 days.”

Notwithstanding the fact that he will not earn anything for over two weeks, Kushwaha was in favour of the government’s demonetisation move. “The problem which we have to face is temporary,” he said. “Once all the black money is seized by the government, we all shall get the benefits.”