“We all are very troubled because of the lockdown. The government has closed everything to save everyone from the virus, to contain its spread and to treat those who are COVID-positive, it’s a good thing, in a way. But they didn’t think about us who live in the bastis. We beg and fill our stomachs, we go for daily labour, or wash dishes in the nearby houses and we cook our evening meal with whatever we have earned in the day. Those of us who go out to pick scrap, go in the hope that it’ll be enough to secure some rotis for the day, but even finding this is not in our fortune right now. The government has locked our sole ways of earning and surviving – for daily meals, for bringing things for our children. How do we fulfil our basic personal needs when there’s not a paisa in our pockets?”
This is an everyday struggle of the people and in these distressing times, when everyone is in need and trying to deal with the difficulty of surviving, the anger of the adults comes out on the children. Women shared how they are trying to manage the economic situation as well as the emotional turmoil that this has caused when there’s nothing to eat; children cry out of hunger and basic needs like tea or milk are difficult to fulfil.
“When the child is hungry and repeatedly asks for 5 rupees for samosa, one loses their calm upon being asked again and again. Where should I give money from? We are not going for work, we have no money..” Some people leave in the morning to beg, be it to be able to meet small needs like 5 rupees for a packet of biscuits or some milk for making tea in the morning.
In an effort to understand how people are fulfilling their needs in the bastis, some experiences were documented when people shared how they are coping (or trying to cope). Parts of that have been reproduced below.
Radha (28 years old)
My husband used to go for majdoori. Sometimes he would get work, and sometimes he would come empty-handed from the pittha (labour point) I used to work in a big house nearby, most of our expenses would be covered by that (as his earnings were uncertain). I wouldn’t be worried if he wouldn’t get work; out of 4 days, he would be able to get work on one day at least. But in this lockdown, we have become slaves to our hunger. Just ten days back, there was nothing to eat at home and Kalli had given some ration from Sangathan’s side. The children were excited, saying, “Ma, you make food quickly.” I thought I will quickly make something before the children come back from playing, but when I tried, there was no flame. I tried shifting the cylinder, tilted it, tried to make it work, but it was over. I almost began to cry thinking what I would do now. Then I decided to walk to my madam’s house, thinking that she would surely give me something to eat. In the burning heat of the day, I walked with my children and reached her house. But as soon as she saw me, she got angry and started shouting at us, “You people don’t understand you have to stay at home. Why have you come here? I can’t help you right now, when things open up, I will see.” I was dumbfounded, I kept staring at her. What kind of a human is she? The person whose house I help keep clean, is asking me to go home, to stay at home, instead of helping me. If I had something then why would I have walked in the heat with my children to ask her for help. I thought that these rich people can’t even begin to guess how we survive. I wasn’t even asking for money, and these rich people can’t even spare a roti for someone. My helplessness, my eyes, they were all trying to tell her my situation, but she didn’t pause to listen, she went inside her house after her rant while I kept standing there. My hands and legs were shaking. I went near a mandir to pray, but that mandir too was empty. There was no one there to give anything. As I walked back home with my children, I kept thinking, is this humanity? I started fighting with my husband when I reached home. He told me that when he was out looking for wood, the police caught him and made him run back home. Despite this, we had to cook. So he went out again and got two thick pieces of wood from somewhere. I made a stone-chulha and somehow, crying, made food for everyone. I kept thinking, what days are we witnessing? We have never had to stay hungry like this? When there was nothing, we would beg and eat, but now we are ‘dying for a roti. Seeing my children hungry, I couldn’t hold myself together.
Even now, as I recount this, I feel overwhelmed. I am praying that this lockdown gets over quickly otherwise we, poor, will die of hunger one of these days or go mad.
Other members of the community shared, “Radha was born here, has gotten married here, and has 4 children. She hasn’t begged even one day, she has always earned her food. This lockdown has pushed even her into begging.”
Jyoti (40 years old)
“Since the lockdown has started, our lives have gone for a toss. Our situation has gone from bad to worse. Mornings don’t feel like morning. What is morning without tea? The ration we are getting through the Sangathan is pulling us through, it is very helpful right now. We still have to beg for something, and sometimes I go in the morning to beg, in the hope that since children are along, we might get milk, biscuits, bread, something, anything.
It’s been many days since I have used toothpaste to clean my teeth. Who will we go ask for manjan now? So, we are using the used raakh (ashes). The government tells us to use soaps to wash our hands, everywhere their vehicle comes and announces on the loudspeaker to use soaps and wash hands. Where should we get soaps from? Do we have money stored that we can go and buy soaps? But if we want to be safe from the virus, we have to (stay safe). So we all, children and old people alike, use raakh to clean our teeth and even wash our hands after latrine. To take a bath, we put water over ourselves and then wash our clothes with water. Cleaning is important. (takes a fistful of Kalli Didi’s saree who was lying down nearby) Here, Kalli bathes everyday. And she also washes her saree everyday in that water, look how hard it is! But the dirt doesn’t go, it stays as it is. Dirt will go when we use soda, soaps etc. We can use raakh to clean our teeth, hands, utensils but we can’t wash clothes with it. If we could, we would have done that.
When ration comes from the sangathan, we bathe very nicely because everyone gets one soap but how long can we make a soap last? Ash stays with us as a friend. When we have wood, we use it to cook our food, and once burnt, then also it is of use to us. It is never seen as waste to be discarded.”
“My children break the soap into pieces and each of them hides their piece in a secret spot, whether it lasts for 3 days or 5 days. When they come from outside, they wash their hands with it and they don’t share their soap with me also. So I use the mixture of ash and surf that I use to wash dishes to wash my hands too. When the sangathan’s stock comes, we try to ensure everyone gets one soap each. People are happy to get it, for some days they will wear clean clothes.
We miss our life before the lockdown, all the things we could eat. Chicken feet, chicken skin, goat intestines, we are unable to eat the things that we could get earlier so easily for cheap. Now we don’t know how to buy it. Even if some shops are selling them, where do we have the money to buy it or the possibility of going anywhere to bring it. We are tired of eating the same food everyday. Even when someone brings cooked food, they bring rice. We used to be able to ask for milk, bread for the children from passers-by but that too is not coming through now. Sometimes, we feel dizzy from the weakness and the heat. If the lockdown opens, we would go anywhere in the world and earn however or beg.”
Kalli works as a sweeper and cleaner at a meat shop. Since the lockdown, she has been at home and tries to help other needy people nearby. She has four children. Her husband used to do majdoori before the lockdown. The older people in the basti used to go out to beg earlier, which would help in purchasing the household’s food. Now, everyone looks lost and upset. Hours spent waiting at the mandir yield nothing, and they come back every evening empty handed, defeated.
Three or four of the families in her neighbourhood are Nepali; they don’t have a ration card and not even an aadhaar card. Many such people have been left without options, so Kalli has been trying to help out as much as she can. When the lockdown was first announced, Kalli gathered a few people and went to the local Legislator, PC Sharma’s house, in the hope that by going there they would be heard. Astutely, she shares that one wouldn’t get anything immediately when you go to such people’s places. First, some of his assistants came and gave them 8 packets of some bit of subzi and 4 pooris each, and tried to shoo them away. “When I heard the way they were speaking, I was very angry. I said we will leave only after meeting Sharmaji, and that they can keep their food packets and practice their charity on someone else.” says Kalli. They sat there until Sharmaji arrived, and asked him to help them out with rations. “It was good we waited,” says Kalli, “We were given 20 packets of 1 kg atta each. The 8 of us who were there kept a packet each, the rest I distributed to the others in the basti.”
“The lockdown just isn’t ending – I keep hoping that it will end soon, but it doesn’t. I received 20 kg rice from the government ration shop. There are some Nepali families near my house, they are also struggling. They are staying in our country, it is our responsibility to take care of them and ensure their well-being. So I gave them 5 kg of rice each from my stock, and told them to use the money that they would have otherwise spent on rice to get salt and spices instead.”
[Where the state seems to have forgotten all about humanity, individuals are stepping up to shoulder the responsibility of helping those in need].
Kalli is a member of the Shahri Mazdoor Sangathan [an urban labourers collective]. When rations arrive, along with other members of the collective, she distributes the supplies amongst those in need.
When families receive these supplies, they are relieved; on those days families can cook what they want to eat, and children are also happy – though it may only last for a few days, at least they will be eating their own cooked food. The experience of distribution, week after week, has helped Kalli and her colleagues to understand how they should plan to make sure everyone stays fed.
“Now when we distribute, we try to be aware of the number of members in a household – those with more people to feed should get a little more. Though people may not be from our community, we help them as well. Just because we have received something doesn’t mean we’ll use it all for ourselves. At a time like this, we must look after everyone. The dry supplies are not enough though, so we talk to the groups providing cooked food as well – we have informed them about the need in 24 blocks in this area that need support. During the day, I distribute that food. A disease should not mean that people die of hunger. As a collective, it is our job to support everyone. That is why I keep trying to organize resources for all the people around me at least..”
“Some of us go to beg as well. We had decided beforehand that none of the children will go to beg this time – we tell them to play in the basti while we are out. When we are out begging, we make two circles – a large one where we sit with some distance between all of us, and a smaller one inside made up of our bowls. We know that going out to beg is potentially life threatening at this time – if one of us got the disease, it would be a huge problem. While we all know each other, and each other’s routines – but what about the person who comes to give us something? This is a major reason we have told the children not to come along – if we die it’s OK, but none of us can bear the thought of our children dying. Whenever someone offers us something, we tell them to just place it in the bowl. We are taking the precautions we can to protect ourselves from this illness. The police are one more headache. They shout at us ‘don’t go outside, stay at home’. They don’t care if we are starving, as long as we sit at home. Be it this disease or anything else, it is the poor who is destined to suffer the most.”
“On days we are able to get some money to get milk and bread, the children start dancing and cheering as if we’ve got goat intestines to eat that day. We tell all the children to play at a distance from each other, but of course they all play in groups. But they have all understood the importance of washing hands – whether with soap or ash, so whenever they return home they wash their hands first. Now, all their clothes are torn – we used to get them second-hand clothes from the city bazaar, but what do we do now? People in the big houses used to give us some clothes earlier, but now they slam their gates in our face – as if the mere sight of us will infect them. Earlier they used to simply hate us, now they treat us like disease-carrying vermin.
In this season, when we are returning from begging, our feet burn as if we are walking on flames. We aren’t even finding old slippers to salvage – what do we wear when we go out? Our difficulties keep piling onto each other.”
As told to Savita Sohit