In UP, daily wagers are engaged in an unequal war with lockdown and hunger

With an abrupt country-wide lockdown announced just four hours in advance, poor people, from faraway villages, are caught between Coronavirus and starvation

In UP, daily wagers are engaged in an unequal war with lockdown and hunger

Biswajeet Banerjee

Unmindful of the filth strewn around, Sonu Kumar Mishra rolls a roti as he, and three of his colleagues, get ready for dinner on the pavement in front of a shop in Azad Market in Lucknow where they earn their living. While Mishra is a mason by profession, the others are helpers. They are all residents of Bahraich, 130 km south-east of Lucknow.

“There is no work. Construction work has stopped all of a sudden. We have not got any work for the last three days. Now, we want to go back home but there is no vehicle. Buses, trucks and jeeps are off the road. We are just stranded here,” Mishra said.

In UP, daily wagers are engaged in an unequal war with lockdown and hunger

His colleague, who also goes by the name Sonu, interjects to say that they have no money either to purchase ration. “No earning means we will sleep on an empty stomach if we fail to get work or any transport to go home by tomorrow,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, promising relief to the poor. A few days back, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had launched a scheme to give Rs 1000 per month to each labourer, hawker, rickshaw puller as a compensation for loss of employment because of the lockdown.

In UP, daily wagers are engaged in an unequal war with lockdown and hunger

“I have not heard about the scheme,” Chottu Yadav said.

All the three have bank accounts in the villages. As per government announcement made by Yogi, all the labourers who are registered will get Rs 1000. Yogi had claimed that over 20 lakh poor daily wage earners would stand benefitted.

“We just want to go home. The assistance of Rs 1000 is not enough. The government should provide us transport so that we can go home safely,” Mishra said.

These are the people who come from the nearby areas of Lucknow and work at construction sites as labourers. Some of them are masons, painters, carpenters and the rest work as menial labourers. They earn anything between Rs 300 and Rs 800 per day depending on their skill. In normal days, they assemble at the Mazdoor mandi – also called mazdoor adda – where clients come to hire them.

In UP, daily wagers are engaged in an unequal war with lockdown and hunger

“The adda is not working. No one comes there. In the morning, I went there but the police shooed me away and asked me never to come there again,” Mishra said.

“Since morning we are sitting here contemplating how to go back to our villages,” he said throwing a look around the Azad Market. The area was strewn with filth and waste. One look suggests that the market people had used that cornor as dumping ground. At that very moment, a person comes and starts urinating in one corner.

Mishra looks at that man and turns his back towards him.

“We are forced to stay here. We earlier used to sleep on the road divider under the metro line but the police has asked us to vacate the area. So, we decided to come here because the police do not come here. Bagal mein kuda ghar hai na (it is a dumping ground),” Chottu said.

All of them have heard about Coronavirus but do not know what exactly it is. “Koi bimari hai (It is a disease),” one of them said. But they do not know about precautions like social distancing and continuous hand washing. They do not even have soap, not to talk about hand sanitiser.

“It may be a killer disease but how long we can survive without food? We do not have money to buy provisions and need to go back soon,” Mishra said.

Mishra and his ilk are not the only one facing the brunt of the Coronavirus pandemic. There are rickshaw pullers, e-rickshaw drivers and tempo drivers who are finding it hard to make ends meet. As the railway stations, airports, bus stands, offices and schools are closed, daily commute has come down to almost zero.

Dileep Nishad, a rickshaw puller, stayed at home since March 22. But on March 27, he came out of his house to look for some work. “The government has allowed people to come out and purchase vegetable and daily provisions. I thought I will get some ‘sawari’,” he said.

But instead, he was stopped by the police.

“Go back home,” Dinesh Pandey, inspector at Bhootnath police outpost in the Indira Nagar locality, shouted. “They do not realise that this is a crucial time. These rickshaw will carry two-three people which can be very dangerous,” he said.

Nishad pleaded, saying he had no money left and he should be allowed to ply his rickshaw. “Bus ek chakkar. (Just one round),” he requested.

Pandey looked at him and then went inside his outpost and returned with a packet which carried some rice and flour. “Take this,” the police inspector said.

As Nishad accepted that, the inspector pulled out his wallet and gave him Rs 200. “Isse bhi rakh le. But do not come out,” he said.

As Nishad pedalled away from Bhootnath Market, Pandey murmured: “They are poor. They need money. What to do? These poor people have no option.”

Elsewhere in Lucknow, people, who have money, have crowded the marketplace to purchase food items and other provisions. “I am getting some rice, flour and vegetable oil because I am not sure how long this (lockdown) will continue. The situation is bad and will turn worse in the coming days. I believe the government may even impose curfew after a few days. Therefore I am stockpiling the provisions,” Kamlesh saxena, a government employee said.

Kamlesh and others had crowded a provision store in Bhootnath market in Lucknow on Friday morning when government had allowed stores to open between 6 am and 11 am.

“I know it is risky and (one can) get infected. But I have no choice because government guidelines are not clear about door-to-door supply of provisions,” he said.

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