We have lost thousands due to malnutrition, silicosis, spread of poisonous gases and other such circumstances which could have been controlled, but the world did not stop to look back. These were tragedies that unfolded in the margins of our country. Even today, we are seeing 24/7 coverage of COVID19, a virus which would have probably been ignored like so many others if it had started its spread from the economically lower sections of our society. Within the air-conditioned offices of the powerful industrialists and the balcony seats of the powerful political elite, life would have continued as if nothing had happened.
To be heard and seen, the working class has always had to come out on the roads to make their presence felt. And now they are prevented from doing exactly that, in their hour of perhaps greatest need. From the comfort of our homes, we can assume that it is equally simple for people to deal with the state’s announcements. So far, the state has provided in some clusters, not all, a security measure of Rs. 500 and 5 kgs of grains. How far would a 500 rupee note take any of us? And as always, the responsibility is being shouldered and the loss is being felt most keenly by women – the marginalised even within the margins. Theirs are the voices that need to be heard most urgently. Over the course of our food distribution work in the last few weeks, here are some of the things the women we have met have shared with us.
In a lane in Imamwara, I met a young woman. Ruksar would go to a boutique for hand-work on clothes. Her husband died seven years ago and she supports her three children, while living at her parents’ house. When I asked her about her earnings on other days, she shared, “Madam would not let us rest for 5 minutes also, so how can I expect to be paid for these off days. It would have been different if we had a government job.”
Usha lives with her old mother, blind sister and a son in 11 Number in Gandhi Nagar. Till 2 weeks ago, she went to wash utensils and sweep in a couple of houses in a posh colony nearby. Today, she stands deserted at the gate, salary unpaid, with the security guards not allowing her inside the gated colony while her employers have not been taking her calls.
Latika’s son is the only earning member in the family. He laboured at the Parcels Office at the Railway Station for a daily wage. Today, they don’t have a penny at home.
Salma’s husband was working in one of the bakeries in the lanes of the Housing Board area near Karond. Working for 12 hours, non-stop, they would make trays of rusks that would be supplied across town, for which he would get Rs. 300 a day that would take care of the family’s needs. Now they have had to borrow 50 rupees to be able to buy milk for their infant child.
Sana’s widowed mother could not step out of the house with the iddah [the mourning period] for her husband ongoing, and thus could not go out to take the food packets that were being given out on the road.
Tabassum, in Baanganga, called up several times in a 2 hour period for some ration support. She shared that her sister-in-law is going for palliative care work for an old person, and the family did not have any other phone that they could use to call us for support for a week, so if we could get anything to them, it would help.
Pushpa’s husband had deserted her a few years back. She has been living with her two children in her brother’s family in Panchsheel since then, and since the lockdown she has been constantly facing rebukes, accusations that she is simply an extra mouth to be fed.
Sayeba’s husband is a driver, and has been at home unable to earn since the last week of March. When she called for the first time, she began to cry while telling where she lives and said, “I have never had to ask anyone for food.”
The state has failed to support people in these difficult times. They have not just failed, they have driven vast numbers of people to the brink of starvation, and sometimes even pushed them over the edge. It would not have taken much, other than real delivery of ration bags to people in the 500+ identified bastis and low income households spread within the city and on the outskirts. It is in these areas, where people who make up the unorganised, and essential, sectors of our city live, that the government needs to get to work. Areas where people do not have any savings/resources to dip into in this kind of an extended lockdown. Hunger, insecurities, indebtedness and desperation grow as civil society also cannot keep up with the demand in different parts of the city. The need remains to ensure food supplies and soothe the fears and the daily stress of securing food for one’s family as insecurities seep into our hearts.
Women are bearing the brunt of our inhumanity as they step out of the houses, as mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters and wives to see what they can put together for their families. We see them making calls to ask for supplies, collecting rations from whoever is willing to give, protesting on the roads, distributing what they have among all those around them.
The author, Shivani, works with Muskaan, an organization that has been involved in relief work in Bhopal. Email: email@example.com
(Names have been changed to protect identity)