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There was not a single speck of doubt in his mind. He looked sideways and then clutched his son, close to his heart. “It is the time to escape.”
“So you are Jayaprakash, haan?”
“Listen carefully. You will get a daily wage of Rs. 165 throughout this project. You are required to work for a 10 hour shift. When there is more pressure, you may have to put in more hours. There will be no compensation for the same. I believe Mani Ram has told you about the commission and all.”
“So you are alone or with your family.”
“Sahib, my wife and son are also accompanying me.”
“So what about your wife? Won’t she be working.”
“No, Sahib. She is not keeping well.”
“Ok. Ok. You can put up in one of the vacant kholi there. Any questions?”
“Sahib, is there any provision for education of our children.”
“Not yet but I believe some local NGO will soon start conducting some classes. Chalo now hurry up. Put your thumb impression here.”
“Sahib, can I have the pen. I’ll sign instead.”
“Oh, signature! Fine. Have it.”
Jayaprakash was just another migrant labourer from the state of Bihar toiling in the sun and mud of the Punjab plains. Born under the shadow of Emergency, he had been fondly named after the great socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan who led a student’s movement in his home state. His father, a marginal farmer had always dreamt of his son becoming as famous as JP but their circumstances never allowed their dreams to get better of their fate.
The seeds of Green Revolution bore fruit in the states of Punjab and Haryana while their state remained in darkness. Lured by the prosperity in this region, Jayaprakash too emigrated with a bunch of his friends at a young age of 15. For some years he kept moving from one village to another working on the fields of others, earning enough for his own subsistence and managing to send some money back home for his ailing father, ageing mother and younger siblings.
Soon, Punjab also saw a boom in real estate with new housing societies and malls being set up. It promised more money and Jayaprakash decided to break his agrarian roots.
Meanwhile he got married to Vimala, a coy girl from his village. Having remained away from his family for too long, the very idea of having a family filled him with hope. God blessed them with a son in the fourth year of their marriage. He had planned it that way to accumulate enough resources for proper rearing of his child. They named him Rahul.
Working in the dust and sand, Vimala developed some serious allergies and had an attack of asthma. It wasn’t possible for her to work at construction sites. This added additional pressure on his resources. However, he was determined to provide his son what his father could not afford when he was young. This was only possible if he could dedicate all his resources to just Rahul and his ailing wife. So, he underwent vasectomy.
His son had now turned six and Jayaprakash was on a lookout for some work near the capital city which could ensure better medical and educational facilities for his family. It was around this time that he heard about a Metro project coming up in Chandigarh. Getting work at a government project always ensured mandated minimum wages and lesser exploitation.
However, Mani Ram, the middle man made it clear to him that he’ll have to part away with nearly 20% of his daily wage to enlist his name amongst the workers. Moreover, he had to work for more hours than the stipulated time of 8 hours as by doing this, the contractor could enrol fake workers while getting the extra work done by the existing ones. However, it was a good bargain and Jayaprakash along with his family, moved to the City Beautiful.
“Papa, this fountain is so beautiful.”
“You sit here and enjoy beta. I’ll get bhel puri for you.”
It was Saturday evening and Jayaprakash had brought his son to the Sector 17 Plaza, the heart of the city. Presently, he was working at the hub station of the Chandigarh Metro which was being constructed nearby. They had been in the city for over six months and by now Rahul had joined a make-shift school being run by a local NGO for the worker’s children. College-going students used to teach the children in evenings and weekends and by now Rahul was able to rattle A to Z in one go. Today Rahul had come first in his class test and as promised, his father had brought him to the Saturday Carnival in the Plaza.
“Hey, Rahul don’t lean over the railing that much. See what I have got for you.”
“Ice cream and popcorn! Wow, I love you papa.”
It had cost him nearly third of his daily wage but he wasn’t complaining. Afterall, even they had the right to enjoy the luxuries of the richest city of India.
“Vimala, I’ll get a little late today. We might have to work through the night because this is the busiest area of the city and work needs to be completed before the morning traffic starts.”
“Take care of yourself. Don’t over exert, haan.”
“Yeah, I’ll take care. You too take your medicines on time and make sure Rahul doesn’t loiter around with the neighbouring kids. He should study for his test.”
Vimala was recovering well. The Government Hospital was in close proximity and she was undergoing a regular treatment. Their decision to shift to the capital city was bearing fruits.
It was around two at night when Vimala heard some frantic knocks at the jittery door. She sprung up and hurried to open it.
“Vimala, there has been an accident at the construction site. The crane operator felt asleep and the chain snapped, throwing the heavy girder on the labourers working there.”
“Oh, my God. Where is Rahul’s father? He is safe na?”
“Come on. Hurry up. That’s why I’ve come here. Even he got injured in the accident. We have to go to the hospital.”
Leaving Rahul in custody of her neighbour, Vimala rushed to the hospital with his husband’s co-worker.
The accident proved fatal for five workers while Jayaprakash escaped the death. However, he could not escape misfortune as his leg got amputated. All of a sudden all his dreams came crashing down. From being the breadwinner of the family, he was reduced to a dependant. Vimala had to take up his role despite her own ailments.
Government had announced Rs. 1,00,000 for the gravely injured and Rs. 5,00,000 for the kins of those who expired. Without a leg and nagging pain in the back, even Jayaprakash felt like a corpse but he could only get a fifth of the amount. However, even that money was hard to come. The Metro Corporation told him to approach the Secretariat who in turn sent him back from where he had started. Despite his dozens of visits to both the departments, he could not get his compensation.
All his savings were dwindling fast. Even Vimala could not go to work daily due to her own health problems which had once again become acute. It was not even possible to move back to the village without getting the compensation. With the help of the local trade union, he was able to extract Rs. 20000 from the Metro Corporation after obliging some officials. Now atleast he could send Vimala and Rahul back to the village with this money, without any concern of his brothers or their wife’s treating them as a burden. He decided to stay back and wait for the pending amount.
But before he could arrange for their travel, Vimala had another asthma attack.
She couldn’t even breathe her last.
She couldn’t even breathe her last.
Jayaprakash was devasted. It felt as if someone had also severed his other limbs. He was left alone to care for their young son.
What could he do?
It was First of May and the first section of Metro was ready. It was being inaugurated by the Punjab Governor who also acted as city’s Chief Administrator. Various dignitaries were to travel in the first run of the train from Sector 17 Hub Station to the metro station located at Chandigarh Railway Station on the outskirts of the city. However, one compartment was to be occupied by some selected labourers who had made this day possible. Even Jayaprakash was selected for it.
He was confident that he could meet the Governer at the inauguration and tell him about his plight. He wanted to get his compensation as soon as possible and move back to his village where he could start some small business and ensure that Rahul doesn’t get into any bad company. He was still too young but keeping a tap on him was becoming difficult in the absence of Vimala.
“Today is a momentous day in the history of this city. The city of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s dreams, has added another feather to its cap. To keep this city cleaner and greener, we now have our own Metro Rail network which will definitely help in decreasing the carbon footprint of the city.”
Everyone applauded as the Chief Administrator continued with his inaugural speech.
“Today also happens to be the Labour Day. We are proud of hundreds of workers who assembled from various parts of this region and made it possible for the city to achieve this feat in record time. Some of them are here with us who will accompany us in the inaugural run of the Metro train. However, I am really sorry that I’ll have to take your leave due to some emergency.”
Jayaprakash wanted to meet the Governer earnestly. He saw it as his last chance to get his due. He limped through the crowd but was stopped midway by the security personnel.
“Please, let me go.”
“Arre are you mad or what? Don’t you see, he is leaving now. Go from here.”
Jayaprakash walked back dejected hanging on to his clutches. His son was waiting for him near the railing looking at the expanse of the underground station with amazed eyes. Soon, they were told to move towards the platform. They saw the escalator for the first time. Too afraid to step onto it, they proceeded towards the staircase. However, an official seeing Jayaprakash’s condition, told him to use the elevator.
As he along with his son, reached the platform, they were separated from their group. He looked at the beautiful interiors of the station and admired them for the first time since he had arrived. All this was the result of hardwork, the sweat and the blood of thousands of men like him. However, their fate was written; to build such marvels and then proceed to the next destination. They were not supposed to reside in the sprawling buildings they built or travel on the massive bridges they constructed. They were wanderers, moving from one place to another, selling their labour, getting exploited in return and accepting their fait accompli.
He wanted to escape from this vicious circle. He couldn’t allow his son to become slave to this fate.
He quickly hurried towards the end of the platform. Elevator, being present a little away from where all the hullaballoo was, no one noticed them. He descended onto the track along with Rahul.
“Papa, where are we going?”
“Beta, wait. I want to show you this tunnel. From within the train, we won’t be able to see it.”
He limped across the tunnel along with his son. Rahul was pleased that his father had planned this surprise detour for him. As they reached the other end of the tunnel from where the train was supposed to experience its first rays of sun, Jayaprakash moved off the track onto the narrow platform. There he waited anxiously. There was not a single speck of doubt in his mind. He knew what he was doing was best for him and his son.
He could hear the noise of the approaching train. He looked sideways and then into the innocent eyes of his son. He clutched him close to his heart, blocking his vision and getting the warmth of parenthood for one last time.
“Beta, it is the time to escape.”