“On the main roads, we keep escaping the police,” said a fifty-something vegetable vendor who did not want to be named. “… Some [police] officers do turn out to be kind. They insist other [police] officers leave us because we are poor. But others say they will not…They mostly treat us like animals.”
On March 24, 2020, the Government of India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ordered a national lockdown, limiting movement of the entire 1.3 billion population of India. The order was given in a bid to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that, beginning from the city of Wuhan in China, has now spread across the globe. It has affected the lives of people from all walks of life in many different ways.
In the midst of lockdown, the daily-wage workers in Patna, the capital city of the state of Bihar, are just as uncertain about their conditions as others across the country. “Life is more difficult for us as we are hardly able to make any money,” added the vegetable vendor.
Kamala (name changed), 52, who works as a domestic worker in a few houses in and around Rajiv Nagar locality in Patna, said, “Another maalkin (boss) called me down and said, ‘Don’t come to work until I call you.’…” Having been discharged from five houses, Kamala now works only in two. She and her husband, who is a rickshaw-puller, are the sole bread-earners of a family of eight. Her husband now stays at home due to the lockdown. “How will I feed my children if I don’t work? Our savings can sustain us for 10-15 days. But if it (lockdown) extends, God knows how we will survive,” she added.
Savitri, 60, one of the employers of Kamala, said, “If Kamala gets infected with coronavirus and, by coming here, infects all of us, what will we do? Firing her, for now, is good for her as well as ourselves.” To a question on why she could not give Kamala paid leave, she said, “Our expenses have increased in the past few weeks because of the lockdown, and I am sure they will keep rising in the coming months. My children and husband are at home now. They use the air conditioner and the television almost all day. The electricity bill has shot up. In this condition, if I pay Kamala for nothing, how will I sustain the family?”
A daily-wage worker, Surendra, who lives in Rajendra Nagar in Patna, said, “The construction workers have suspended all the work for now. There is no possibility of getting any alternative work…A few weeks after the lockdown, DM (District Magistrate) Saheb distributed free sacks of rice, wheat, and pulses to daily-wage workers and rickshaw-pullers at Patna Junction. It is a good move but how will it help us in the long run if the situation remains the same?”
On April 1, 2020, in an interview with Republic Bharat, Patna District Magistrate, Kumar Ravi, assured that there will be no shortage of essential commodities while remembering the mantra “Stay Home, Stay Safe” to fight coronavirus. He also promised to provide ₹1000 to every ration card holder for one month amid lockdown.
While privileged people are spending ‘family time’ in their homes amid the lockdown, it has taken a toll on the lives of the poor. As the government imposes stricter lockdown measures with increasing COVID-19 cases, the situation of the daily-wage workers gets worse with each passing day.
Sanjay, 38, who rears the cattle and works as a milk vendor in Indrapuri locality, said, “Most of the customers now buy milk from dairies. They (dairies) are delivering it to their doorsteps now. We are not needed anymore. Many customers have stopped buying from us out of the fear of coronavirus. The police are not letting us move outside, especially after sunset. Still, I somehow sneak my way to the houses of a few who are buying from me for now. What other options do I have? Kisi tarah pet toh paalna hai na (I somehow have to feed the stomach).”
Note: Names of the interviewees have been changed due to privacy concerns.