(From left) Munna Qureshi, Naseem Malik, Mohammed Rashid Ansari, neighbours at Khajoori Khas, lay gas, water and sewerage lines. Qureshi is also partner at Delhi-based Rockwell Enterprises. Pics/Nishad Alam
Munna Qureshi is not a rat-hole miner. "I've never been one," he says. He explains that what he and his colleagues actually do is trenchless pipe laying: digging tunnels to lay pipes below and beyond obstacles. Gas pipes. Water pipes. Sewer pipes. "We dig a hole 14 to 15 feet into the earth," he explains. "And then keep pushing the pipe through." Using gascutters, electric drills, manual digging tools and trolleys for carrying away the debris, they use the rat-hole miner's technique to push and cut through soil, rock and - as in the case of the rescue of 41 workers trapped after the Silkyara Bend-Barkot tunnel collapsed in Uttarakhand's Uttarkashi district - steel rods.
It may not be rat-hole mining, but it is still dangerous work with the pay (roughly R500 a day) never matching up to what the job demands. In 2018, Qureshi stopped doing jobs for others, instead opening his own company for such contracts - Rockwell Enterprises - with Vakeel Hasan. He would earn up to R30,000 a month, but, in 2021, during the pandemic, he had to go back to working for others. Then, on the night of November 21, Qureshi received a call from Hasan, saying that a client they had worked for in Uttarakhand was asking if a team for the rescue could be put together. They did.
Thirty-three-year-old Qureshi is, in fact, that unique spawn of the Indian economy whom both libertarians and socialists tend to overlook, but who tends to get a lot done. He is a struggling entrepreneur who has arisen from the unorganised sector.
We are chatting at his uncle's home in Khajoori Khas, a census town on the fringes of Delhi state. His uncle, 85-year-old Kamruddin Qureshi, lies on a large wooden bed with a carved headstand which takes up more than half the room. Munna, two of his teammates for this rescue, and some others, sit at the edge of this bed. The house is in an alley that is a part of a maze of lanes where visitors can easily get lost, where cars are few and two-wheelers and carts many, where growth (in contrast to Delhi's planned colonies and markets) has been random and where the delicious aroma of freshly grilled kebabs blends with the stench of open gutters. Munna and his colleagues have facilitated closed and efficient sewerage for many, but not been able to do this for themselves.
"I was so happy. The whole of Khajoori was happy," Kamruddin says of the rescue efforts of last week. "The people greeted him and his co-workers like heroes. They carried them on their shoulders." The whole of Khajoori seems to be in the room when we visit. There are older neighbours commenting on the interview as it progresses, and children, like Munna's nine-year-old grand-nephew, shift from one part of the room to the other in excitement. It's been 48 hours since the rescue. But Munna and his team mates have had little sleep. They have been attending to reporters and congratulating relatives, neighbours and friends as well as newfound wellwishers. The two teammates sitting next to him are Mohammed Rashid Ansari, 36, and Naseem Malik, 35. Like Qureshi, they live in Khajoori Khas, where they have grown up. Their temperaments differ (unlike Qureshi, watchful and confident, Ansari is shy and Malik is curious) but the three seem to share an easy bond and understanding of one another that can only arise when you have lived and worked together for long, sometimes in dire circumstances. Currently they're working together at a site in Mukundpur, a 20-minute drive away.
Six of the team of 12 who worked the âmiracle' belong to Khajoori Khas. Another six, from Bulandshahr, were called in to the rescue later, says Qureshi. The people in the house, and those standing in the alley outside, radiate a sense of community. Qureshi slips out to chat with some people at a tea stall, then back in, then out again, with ease, as if the whole area is his house. And in many ways it is. His father, who came here 40 years ago from Soron in Uttar Pradesh's Kasganj district, passed away when Qureshi was seven. His family and neighbours raised him. He even has a "munhboli" (adopted) ammi and abu (mother and father) who live a 15 minute-drive away. Most of his blood relatives occupy the same lane or adjacent ones. Each lane is referred to as "Galli number" so and so, and Qureshi, Ansari and Malik speak about each âgalli' as if it represents lineage.
When Qureshi was 11, he began working because he wanted to earn money. Starting with buying and selling recycled goods, at the age of 19, he had a godown of his own. Then he abandoned this business to set up a factory for women's underwear when he was 22, because, "I was now married and this kind of work was looked down upon." When that didn't work, he got into trenchless pipe laying, in Mumbai first with Gypsum (a leader in the sector), then in Delhi and other parts of India, and then on his own, with Rockwell.
He wants a resurrected Rockwell to now do this work all over India. Qureshi recalls what happened when he and his team finally broke through to the 41 workers trapped in the tunnel: "They gave me a chocolate to eat and asked me what I wanted in return, in gratitude. Did I want them to lay down their lives for me? Did I want to be treated like a god? I told them: I just want your love. Let's get out of here now."
When we ask him if there were any rescued workers he got particularly close to, he says, "I'm close to the whole of Bharat." The rescued workers were from across India. Qureshi repeats this line a few times during our interactions, like it is an idea he has recently grown close to.
Qureshi's wife passed away when COVID- 19 swept the world. The only immediate family he has left is his three daughters. "Whenever I'm underground, tunnelling hard," he says. "The thought that's uppermost in my mind is that of providing for my children." The man has given interviews saying he wouldn't want his daughters to be in the same line of work as him. That he would rather that they be "doctors" or "engineers". As some members of his family enter the room for a group photograph, we ask him whether this will change if he succeeds in building a vast business. He takes a deep breath and says, "Right now, I'm just very happy. I'm getting so many calls. I'm overwhelmed. I'll wait to think about things in a few days."
He does add, as we leave, that he hopes that, maybe, someone will give him and his team the contract for setting up sewerage pipes for Khajoori Khas.