M K Tayal: Sarita Devi with an infant in arms walked a gruesome nine kilometers from Mauli Jagran locality to posh Sector 21 in Chandigarh, looking for alms. Wife of a rickshaw puller, Sarita, just couldn’t see her children cry and sleep hungry. She along with two other fellow wives decided to take matters in her hands and go begging for food. On Tuesday morning, they headed to the richer part of town, hoping to make it through for some time. And the rich in the city did not disappoint them. They had managed bags full of food in no time. People were helping out fellow citizens gladly. Some money, some rations, some biscuits etc.. With smiles on their faces, they could thank God and eat for a few days.
“We had come here to beg. Now we are going back. Why don’t you give us some money,” Sarita asked this writer. “We have to go back,” she said smiling. But go, how? Sarita and her friends had another problem at hand. How to carry the relief material and their infants and undertake nine kilometer journey back to their home? That’s when Gabru, who had come to town to deliver goods and was returning with an empty cycle cart, came in handy. God sent, Gabru offered them a ride. Happily, they hopped on. There is indeed God in India.
Daily bread earners, Sarita’s husband would pull a rickshaw to ‘comfortably’ support his family of three children. Staying in a makeshift hutment, Sarita’s life involved cooking and looking after her children while her husband would struggle to earn their daily bread. They had managed to set up their jhuggi in Mauli Jagran area. And life was good, till the lockdown happened and the money ended before month.
“Kya kare sahib, we had come here to beg. We don’t know for long we will get food like this,” she said. Her friend, Gudo, asked me to cut the conversation short. “Lets go, we got to go,” she nudged Sarita. The abrupt lockdown had driven lakhs of families likes these to the edge of existence.
Workers walk back, leaving cities
The causality figures have reached 1690 with approximately 50,000 positive corona cases in the country. The virus had left around 130-140 million daily wage earners without any means of income. Mostly stranded in cities and towns, many had started to walk back home while the government was looking at ways and means to transport them back to their home stations. But not all are as lucky to get a ride back home.
Ravi Mahal, a taxi driver in Chandigarh, decided to do the unthinkable. With the lockdown in place, his cab, his only source of income, was just parked outside his apartment in Khudda Lohra. Sharing a flat with two others, Ravi had everything going for himself. He had finished his graduation and was driving his taxi and leading a ‘good life’.
Hailing from Karnal district, son of Haryana police officer, Ravi’s life came to a standstill with the lockdown. “Taxi services have been stopped. So there was no money coming in. But I still have to pay the EMI for the car,” he said.
When all the money ran out, after 44 days, Ravi was left with no option but to head back home. And he just couldn’t drive all the way to Karnal with all the restrictions in place and police checking and barricades.
So he packed his belongings in a bag, and decided to walk 150 kilometer or so to his village in Karnal district. But barely he had covered 20 kilometers o Tuesday morning, Ravi was exhausted, dehydrated and without any money. Seeing a friendly car, he hitched a ride. “Thank you. Sir, apne meri jaan bacha li (you have saved my life),” Ravi said with almost tears in his eyes. The five kilometer ride to the end of town, permissible limits that I could drive, was more than comfort for him. “No one is stopping because of the fear of the virus. I don’t know how I am going to make it. I just have my last 10 rupee left,” he said pulling his empty wallet out to show this writer.
He had no idea how he would cover the long journey. “But I couldn’t just sit and wait for some miracle to happen. Walking was the last option available. I should have left a while ago,” he said. The third phase of lockdown was the nail on the coffin. But when pointed out the government had permitted limited taxi service, Ravi said, “What the government says and what is on ground are different. They are not permitting taxis. One or two you are seeing are either mad or lucky. If they get caught, the cops will take out everything,” he said sounding wise at having taken the most difficult option. “At my parents’ home in the village, at least I will get some food,” he said, getting down and looking at the road ahead.
Begging also comes at a cost
It is not only the working class is facing difficulties. Even beggars are badly off. Smartly dressed in her begging attire, Saira (or so it sounded) didn’t rush on seeing prospective donor. On being asked what she was doing before the lockdown, Saira said, “Bheek mangti thi (I used to beg earlier).” Your husband! “Woh bhi bheek mangata hai (He also begs),” she admitted. Is there any difference in the trade: She replied, “Hanh curfew mein koi gaadi nahi aati thi, bheek mangna bhi mahanga pad gaya (There were no vehicles during the curfew, so begging really became difficult),” she said, gripping the clutches tightly hurrying off to another car.
The lockdown has been scaled down and with 33 percent staff, offices have been permitted and shops are allowed to open for limited timings with other restrictions. Signs of life coming back!