Surendra Gupta is an auto rickshaw driver in Varanasi. I hired him last week to travel from Cantonment Railway Station to BHU. He was wearing torn and soiled clothes. Right from the time I sat in the auto rickshaw till I got out from it, he was expressing his deep frustration of not being able to earn enough and feed his children and wife. For the last 3 months, he said he lost the only livelihood he had. Before the lockdown, he was able to take care of his family needs and save some money. But now he cannot make both the ends meet. With the restrictions on movements, he finds more difficult to earn anything. People too do not have money to hire the rickshaws. He has not made his pass due to lack of money. I asked him if the police stop him what he will do. His reply frightened me. “I will stop the auto rickshaw, remove the petrol and set myself on fire”. Surendra Gupta is only one of the millions in India who are reduced to suicidal decisions.
Sunil Minj a tribal young man (25) was to get married on 15th April, 2020 at Vishrampur border of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. For a tribal youth, not married even at the age of 25 is very uncommon. He is working as a cook in Varanasi. After some negotiations, he found a girl and the marriage was fixed. But due to the lockdown and less due to virus his marriage could not be held. When he spoke to his family and the girl’s family the reply was, “We do not even have enough to eat and are almost starving. The marriage can be only in December if the situation changes”. There are many Sunils, Anils, Anands, who cannot get married due to the economic disaster brought about by the lockdown and shutdown.
For Savita W/O Birender Manjhi a migrant labourer, the journey back home from Haryana to Gopalpur in Sherghatti Block of Gaya District, Bihar was excruciating and unimaginable. Once the lockdown was announced she and her family had no option but to return. The factory owner was neither willing to keep them and feed them nor willing to send them. However, the contractor helped them to reach their home by a truck. She along with her children and sick husband who went all the way to Haryana to eke out a living were caught between devil and deep sea. The recent diagnosis shows that her husband is HIV +ve. This news shocked her the most. Now Savita has to take care of 6 six members of the family, she, her husband, 2 children, father and mother-in-law.
Savita’s family situation is extremely grim. They have nothing at home. Whatever they earned in Haryana was spent for the transport. Now they are borrowing money, food etc., from their neighbours and are barely surviving. Since she does not have ration card, her family does not get ration. Her father-in-law has a ration card. But he gets ration for two people only. With this ration they try to manage. Once the ration is over, they borrow from their neighbours. She is the only bread winner and is responsible to take care of the house. Even if she wants to work, no work is available. She is determined to return to Haryana once the travel restrictions are eased.
Mantu Manjhi a Musahar also hails from Sherghatti Block. Before the lockdown he also migrated to Pune to earn a living by selling tea in a tea shop. Once the lockdown was announced, he managed to come home through truck, changing in many places. Back in the village, there is no work. Even if he wants to work to earn a living, work is not available. They get ration once in 2 months. 5 kg rice and 5 kg wheat were the items provided for 2 months. There are 10 people in his family, but only four members’ names are in the ration card. Since his brothers were out of the village, only 4 names are in the ration card. He stated that the entire village cleared the water in the canal and caught snails and eat for a week. Now that is also not there.
He remarked that his father is very much mentally disturbed and he picks quarrels every time with his mother. Since his father makes noise, the hamlet is also angry with him and there is tension around. Mantu also confessed since he has no job and is very tensed as how to feed the entire family without any work and income, he beats up his younger brother often. This is the situation in all the Musahar families. Since he was out of the village, he did not get job card under NREGA. Even those who have job cards are not given work. The entire village is angry with the Mukhiya, that is, the Panchayat President. But the Mukhiya does not listen to them.
Meena Devi a Tharu of Jamhauli village in Gaunaha Block of West Champaran District of Bihar belongs to Scheduled Tribe. She with her husband was working as migrant labourers in a construction site in Gorakhpur. But due to the lockdown her family was forced to return back to her village. Whatever they earned was spent and with no work in the village, they are reduced to starvation. There is tension in her village about daily wage due to rush for transplantation of paddy, the only job available for the entire villagers. Due to more workers and less work, women are paid rupees 120 these days, which is lower than the minimum wages. To add to the owes and worries of the villagers, one person was found positive with COVID-19. This has created panic in the village.
Meena Devi got 5 kgs of rice, 2 kgs of wheat and 1 kg of daal last month from the public distribution system (PDS). Her husband used to go to the forest to cut grass to make brooms to sell in the villages. But there is no demand for broom. The Forest Department has banned the people from entering the reserve forest. Hence there is no possibility of getting income from forest products. Hence, most of the men sit around, play cards and drink local brew.
The Tharus, with Mongoloid features, are essentially an aboriginal tribe, who live in an area extending over 800 square miles known as Tharuhat (land of Tharus) and have a population of over three lakhs. They live in scattered settlements in the border areas of India adjoining Nepal.
They were not enlisted as Schedule Tribes during the census, 2001. They were enrolled earlier as BC. However, in 2003 they were enlisted as ST. Historical data bear testimony to this that fact that the Tharus were once land owning community here. But with the inflow of outsiders they lost most of their land and have become landless like many of the Tribals. Hence, they migrate to eke out a living.
Animesh Mahato is also a Tharu from Jamhauli village of Gaunaha village. He was working in Mumbai as a cook in a small hotel. He lamented of the fact that there is no work in the village or in the nearby villages. Women are engaged in paddy transplantation and men drink liquor and sit idle. Whatever they saved and the ration they received from PDS is over and they are almost on the verge of starvation. PDS gives the minimum once a month and this is not sufficient. The entire family according to him is in a state of confusion and grief. Hence, he is planning to return to Mumbai or any city where he would be able to get a job at the earliest to earn a living even of it means risking his life.
Mahendra Kujur is from Basatoli of Dumri Block of Gumla District of Jharkahand. He left behind his wife and a child with relatives and migrated to Mumbai to work as migrant labourer. He worked as a driver for a business man who had business of construction and also fishing. He was paid Rs 13,000 per month. The relationship between Mahendra and the owner was very good and only once in a year, when he goes home, he would take his wages from the malik. The rest as and when he wants to send home, he would take it from him. The malik provided board and lodging too so that he could save money. Once the lockdown started, his owner continued to provide some relief. But due to spread of the virus he and other migrants decided to return home. He and other migrants spend Rs 2 lacs to hire a bus and returned home and thus all the saving is finished. From the time he came here he has no work and no wages. Since he was out, Ration Card and Job Card were not made for him. He tried to get these cards made online but did not succeed. Due to this he did not get any ration. Though he eared well but due to the hardships he faced, he is planning to look for a job as a driver so that even with limited wages, he can take care of his family. But no one is there to hire him.
While millions of Indians were walking back home covering thousands of miles from the place they migrated to work, villagers do not want the returnee migrants to step into the village due to the fear of the virus and hence are being chased. With no work in the village, they are forced to borrow money from money lenders for high interest rate. Some of them, not knowing what to do, roam around the whole day and get into all kinds of unproductive activities, pose serious social unrest. While the poor and the marginalised are pushed to the brim of suicide or starvation deaths, the Minister of Defence of the country is heard boasting, “India is no longer a ‘weak’ country”. What the Minister of Defence, forgot to take cognizance is that India is not a weak country but over 60 per cent of its population are weakened, deceived, defeated and destroyed once for all by his party and government. Possibly it is easy to boast in a virtual rally where you are not seeing anyone [NDTV on 14th June, 2020].
Pratima Toppo hails from Karmtoli of Dumri Block of Gumla District of Jharkhand. She, her husband and a child were staying in Noida, near Delhi. Her husband was working in a small company and was paid Rs 11,000 per month. Though this is not sufficient income to live in Noida, yet it was something they could manage to live and also save. But due to the spread of virus in Noida the company was closed and her family was forced to return home to Jharkhand. They paid Rs 26,000 for an ambulance showing that her husband was sick. Thus, all their savings are gone. Now she is living with 8 member family. Luckily her in-laws have ration card and due to this they got some ration. Through Jhandhan Yojna she got Rs 3,500. Otherwise there is no income for last few months. Her family has some land but due to lack of capital they are not able to buy paddy seeds and do agriculture. Meanwhile, her husband fell ill and this has added to her owes and worries. She is mentally disturbed as to how to take care of the family.
Poor, rural and slum based Muslim community is one which faced insurmountable obstacles at this time of the covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns. On the one hand, Muslim community as a whole was blamed for the spread of the virus. This became handy to hit at the community without taking into account facts and figures. On the other hand, due to hate politics of the present regime, the Muslims were denied relief provided by the government. Even the political parties consciously avoided going to the tolas and mohalls to distribute relief. Some stayed out saying that it is dangerous to go to the Muslim area because one can be exposed to the virus. They were denied ration card, MNREGA Job Card, Jandhan Yojna Card, Ayushman Bharat Card, etc.
Bilkis Sultana is widow from Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of the Prime Minister. Her husband who was a rickshaw puller died a few years ago and from then Bilkis had to manage her family. She used to work early too as domestic help. After the death of her husband too, she is working as domestic worker. She has 4 children and with her earnings she tried to manage the expenses of the family. She used to work in 2 houses before the lockdown and was paid Rs 8,000. This was barely the minimum with which she could just take care of feeding the children and herself. There was no possibility of any saving. Once the lockdown was imposed, she was asked not to report for work with the fear of her carrying the virus. Thus, for the last 3 months she had no work and the family was forced to starvation. She has no ration card. With the help some NGO she tried to apply but due to religious bias, she was denied. Due to this, she also lost the ration supply provided by the mission. An NGO provided some relief with which the family managed to eat something for 5 days and again they were forced to borrow money from others for high interest. With the partial lifting of the lockdown, she is able to go for work and is able to get wages. But she is worried about paying back the loan she taken. Due to this she is undergoing huge mental stress.
But from all analysis of all the schemes and programs announced by the government so far and the implementation of these, it becomes crystal clear that these remain at the most good pronouncements and not programs to be implemented. Take for example, the government and its machinery continue to announce for the last 3 months, ‘Maintain Social Distancing, Stay at Home, Wear a Mask, Work from Home”. But the reality of the Dalits, Tribals and the Muslims is far from these. The lockdown and absolute quarantine presume that everyone has a proper shelter in a country which promotes social distancing and staying indoors. With 1.8 million homeless population in the country, how can this social distancing and staying at home can be adhered to.
In this pandemic caused by the Coronavirus, there is a stream of thought that is going around that for COVID-19 there is no distinction between rich and poor, no haves and no have nots, locals or migrants, workers and owners, rural and urban, men and women, everyone is hit by the pandemic. This appears to be partly true on its face value. It also seems to be true that the virus has affected everyone. However, the ability to withstand the attack of COVID-19 and the ability to overcome the distress caused by it varies from the rich to the poor, from the haves to the have nots. It is clear that people from marginalised communities are impacted disproportionately, especially the women and children from these communities.
Further, a careful analysis of the four phases of lockdown reveals that the Dalits, Tribals and the Muslims who are poor, rural and slum based are totally and fully destroyed. It is they who were the migrant labourers who lost their jobs wherever they were working; it is they who were denied both work and wages wherever they were working; it is they who were the victims of a unplanned lockdown; it is they who were forced walk hundreds and thousands of miles to die on the way due to starvation and exhaustion; it is they who had no option but to travel by tankers, trucks, buses and ambulances to reach home; it is they who had to pick up the virus in an overcrowded vehicle; it is they who are now blamed of spreading the virus; finally it is they who back at home are ending up in starvation and death since there is no work and they are not eligible to benefit from any of the schemes since they were out and they do not have documents to prove their citizenship.(Published on 06th July 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 28)