Backbone of grandeur, Durga Puja pandal workers rue exclusion and exploitation in Delhi

- October 1, 2022
| By : Ahona Sengupta |

The glitz and glamour of Durga Puja has returned after two years of muted celebrations, but pandal makers find themselves alone in an ‘alien land’, cut off from their families back in West Bengal, neglected by organisers

Pandal workers at work inside Kali Bari in CR Park. (All photos: Ahona Sengupta)

Behind the swanky pandal at Kali Bari in South Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, which is the hub of Durga Puja celebrations in the capital, pandal makers sleep inside tattered tents in the den of mosquitoes.

After two years of muted celebrations, the gala of Durga Puja has graced the capital with its usual festive cheer as chic pandals come up overnight in various corners of Delhi.

But as the city reverberates with festive sounds, those who add ornamentation to the celebration – the pandal makers – often find themselves alone, cut off from their families back in West Bengal, outsiders in a “foreign land” and “neglected by organisers”.

Deprived of dignity

Forty-seven-year-old Bablu Haldar has been making pandals for over three decades – at Kali Bari, this is his 15th year. He leads a team of 17 workers. “Every year, we are called by the organisers to build the pandal for Ma Durga a month ahead of the Puja. We stay until it’s over to wrap things up and finally leave after Laxmi Puja,” Bablu says.

He is just one of the artists from different parts of West Bengal who are invited to Delhi to build pandals.

Also read: ‘Dhaakis’ fill the air with festive beats
Bablu has been visiting Delhi for pandal-making for the past 25 years and has worked with different organisers at CR Park, but under the same thekedar (contractor). He feels things have changed for the worse in Delhi.

“Earlier, apart from the bhog (food offered to the Goddess during rituals), we were offered all the meals that the Puja Committee made for organisers. Besides, the Committee gifted two new saris and a fotua (a type of kurta) to each of us pandal makers, but today they don’t even offer us tea. So much has changed over the years,” he says.

“When they need us, they call and speak to us so nicely to get their work done. But once we arrive here, we are spoken to rather disrespectfully. They expect us to work 17-18 hours, but won’t even ask if we need something or how we are managing in the rain inside our tents,” Bablu rues.

“They barely treat us as humans,” Bijoy Sarkar, 45, chimes in. “Even when it was raining heavily for four days, we were expected to finish the pandal work before Mahalaya and they spoke rudely to us,” he adds.

Bablu (R) and Bijoy (C)

In the run-up to Mahalaya, Delhi saw incessant rainfall but work in the pandals continued. “Our target was to at least complete the interior work. If we got drenched in the rain, then no one would have come to even check on us,” Bijoy says.

Neglected ‘guests’

While pandal workers spend 17 hours working on every minute detail to build a “beautiful home” for the Goddess and her family to spend for five days, they often fall “terribly sick” during this time as mosquito-borne diseases spike after the retreating monsoon leaves puddles of water in Delhi.

“When my men fall sick stricken with dengue for days, these Committee people don’t even bother to check on us. In fact, they get rather upset because with less labourers the work gets delayed,” Bablu says.

As soon as they arrive, pandal-workers build tents for themselves where they live throughout their stay. These tents are built at the back of the temple, which is overgrown with tall grass and is surrounded by puddles of water, which are also potential breeding grounds for mosquitos.

“You see, we build these makeshift huts with tarpaulin as soon as we reach here. This is for us to stay. Even those who work in adjacent pandals stay with us here,” Bablu says.

Bablu continues, “We don’t belong here,so technically we are guests, who create the foundation for their celebration, and live here for a few days. But here labourers are not treated with any respect. Even during festivals!”

Most of the men who work in Bablu’s team have learnt to work in West Bengal – their home. Almost all of them hail from different villages in Diamond Harbour.

“It’s only during Durga Puja we come to Delhi, rest of the year while some of us work in Kolkata, some travel to various other states to build pandals,” says Binod Haldar, a 25-year-old worker at the Mela Ground Puja pandal.

Work in progress at the Mela ground pandal

“In my initial days, I worked in Kolkata pandals, but the work culture is so different from Delhi’s. There our work is held in high regard and we are usually treated with adulation,” says Bablu.

“We were never excluded in the celebration back in Bengal, but here they only mean work. Leave aside saris and food, we are not even offered mosquito-repellent coils,” he adds.

No decent raise

On one hand, the cost of living is skyrocketing with each passing year; on the other, there has been hardly any raise for those building the pandals. Despite the festival returning with usual glory after two years of menacing lockdown, there has been no concomitant rise in compensation to workers.

“We had expected at least a 25% hike this time. However, we have only got Rs 500 above the Rs 10,000 that we have been receiving for the past two years. Most of us have a family of 4-5 members and during our biggest festival, we expect to earn some money, but our pleas fall flat in the Committee’s ears,” says Bijoy.

While their travel expenses are taken care of by the contractor, the rest of the daily expenditure is born by them.
“You know how expensive food is and we are fish eaters. During festivals, we want to eat good food, but it is so costly. A fish meal easily costs us Rs 150, unlike Rs 30 in Kolkata or other parts of West Bengal,” says Bablu.

“So, we buy one fish meal per two people and divide the pieces so that everyone can have at least some of it,” Binod interjects.

Babura ekhane na kichu shone, na bojhe (Here the Babus neither listen or understand anything),” Bablu says.

“Plus, there is this added cost of medicines when we are hit by all this dengue/malaria. But we are really grateful to Dr Dhar who lives here in CR Park. He charges us bare minimum for our treatment,” he adds.

Hardly any revelry

Away from their families, with no new clothes to wear or decent food to eat, Durga Puja venues become merely a workplace for pandal workers, without any spirit of inclusion in the celebration.

“There is no spark here. I must admit that long ago, it was not like this. But today, we are largely confined to these tents and only get the bhog every day. No new clothes are given to us nor a packet of sweets offered. Not even on Vijayadashami! My family, back in Bengal, is always in disbelief when they hear this,” Bablu says.

Workers giving the final touch to the pandals on Panchami

“Therefore, we look forward to Kali Puja and during that time we ensure that we are with our families, celebrating with full spirit,” he adds.

“You see, eve though there is a little more money compared to Bengal, there is no respect for labour here. The concept is that they since they are paying us, we must behave according to their whims and follow their orders. In return, all we receive is exclusion, exploitation, disdain and disrespect. That’s pretty much our lives here,” Bijoy concludes.

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