Saraswati Das (65) an elderly lady at Santipur railway gate no 10 slum, lives alone and has survived two-three meals daily by picking rotten potatoes from the roadside and eating it with plain rice during the lockdown.
“I used to work as a domestic worker to earn a living before the lockdown which has completely stopped after the spread of the virus. I do not have a ration card, so I am unable to receive ration. My sons and their families do not support me either. I have a Modi account (Jan Dhan bank account) where I received Rs 500 for a month,” added Das.
She also complained about the shortage of water supply in her area, the only option was to collect water from nearby localities which has been a tedious task, especially at her age because she was overflowed with abusive words by the neighbours. Before lockdown, they also used to fetch water from the Brahmaputra river relatively closer to their area, but during lockdown armed forces deployed in the streets wouldn’t allow them to collect water from the river.
During the lockdown, ‘stay home, stay safe’ became the new ‘mantra’ to tackle the virus. However, the slums of Guwahati hardly have any adequate space for people to live in, they use their house only to shelter at night after working all day long. Thus, it became difficult for four-five members of the family to stay in a 10 by 10 feet room for days and maintaining physical distance became a myth.
Two days into the lockdown, we were flooded with calls from people of communities we work with requesting for ration supplies. “Didi, we are left with only 1-2 kg rice which will suffice to a day or two, after that what? Didi, we are only left with dal and rice, no vegetables! Didi, we have collected Taro (Kosu in Assamese) or banana flower (koldil/kolful in Assamese) which are easily available roadside, for lunch but nothing left for dinner”. Some also said that they have been skipping meals at night for days and consuming one-time meals.
Another concern was that of livelihood security, if their jobs would resume or their contract would renew (mainly for the construction workers). The domestic workers with whom we work have all been left out of job, they were paid full wage for the month of March and asked not to come.
Although the Food Corporation of India (FCI) claims to have supplied about 3.51 lakh tonne of food grains for distribution to the poor via ration shops in the region under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana and National Food Security (NFSA) – the main concern remains of the low income groups living in the region without a ration card and with no other source of income!
The PDS have started to deliver supplies to ration card holders with limited products such as rice, sugar, dal, etc. which are not sufficient either. And most of the domestic workers do not have a ration card because of no fixed address and place of residence. They are not benefiting from the economic package and many among them are street vendors, rickshaw pullers, unregistered construction workers, domestic workers, bus/auto, rickshaw drivers, waste recyclers etc. Some are migrant workers from different states and districts and are now facing severe economic crises.
When the whole country is accepting the lockdown due to COVID-19 and starting the New Normal of working from home, we have noticed the daily wage earners have been forced to shift to other livelihood options. Most of the domestic workers are forced to either sell vegetables or work as helper in construction sites, wherein again they are faced with discrimination of power and money. Most of the drivers, rickshaw pullers, construction workers, hotel boys, etc. have also turned to selling vegetables, fruits and poultry, which were in demand as essential products during lockdown.
Shahjahan Hussain (name changed) aged 38, a carpenter who used to earn at least Rs 350 a day at construction sites is now selling vegetables in the Bhootnath area of Guwahati. He is unable to sustain a meal for his family in the city and has sent his elder daughter to the village who cries every night over call longing for her parents. Hussain said that the pandemic and subsequent lockdown was a nightmare to them and they are still struggling to accept its repercussions. “After construction work stopped, selling vegetables was the only option available. As it required little investment, I started the business by taking a loan from an SHG and bought vegetables from Machkhowa market,” Hussain, who hails from Chaygaon of Kamrup district, added.
Many like Hussain have changed their mode of livelihood overnight to meet their hunger and essential needs.
Since 2018, the state of Assam has been at the centre of national discourse, mainly due to the furore over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Simultaneously, the state was also not spared from disasters such as floods and erosion, and state-driven forced eviction drives which led to loss of lives, habitat and livelihoods. And then the pandemic which doubled the loss of economic activities, loss of wages and crisis pertained among the people.
Assam is hard hit by devastating floods every year. This year being among the worst, as per the latest reports. The flood situation in Assam worsened after days of heavy rainfall. About 109 people have died in flood related incidents and above 16 lakhs are affected at a time when we are already bearing the burden of a pandemic. The informal settlements in Guwahati have been highly affected by the recent flood situation affecting both property and lives. People have moved to the high raised railway tracks which are relatively closer to their houses and are spending their nights under temporary tarpaulin shelters at Babu Basti, Guwahati. Additionally, the informal settlements in Guwahati established on railway land, private land, wetlands and hills, have increased to 163 (according to recent PMAY survey), but lack regulations, notifications from the Government, proper lease or pattas, and are deprived of the flagships schemes like PMAY, SBM, NULM, etc. which puts them under continuous threat of evictions. The lockdown due to the pandemic has only doubled their burden of survival.
Though different individuals/groups/organizations have done exemplary work trying to reach communities and low-income groups in Guwahati but with limited stocks. “Fatigued eyes of men, women and children, standing in long queues for hours to secure three to five kgs of rice, dal and other goods exposed the failure to uphold constitutional rights of all”, added Pooja Nirala, Convenor of Padatik Nari Samaj, a feminist led voluntary organization.
Though the state and country are preparing to unlock and resume its economic life, most of the workers have not retained their jobs due to the fear of contracting the virus. Though Assam is preparing for Unlock, more than 87000 COVID cases have been reported till date and is increasing at an alarming rate with every passing day, and has left many workers in perplexity of resuming or not resuming their work.
As Das rightly exclaims: “Maa! lockdown is not favorable for people like us.”