The Invisible Virus and the Struggles of India's Invisible People

From the video of a man scooping papaya fruit out of an open gutter to people eating plain chapatis, the lockdown has brought to fore the precarious lives of many in India.

There is a lockdown and then there is a super-lockdown. Right now, fifteen districts in Uttar Pradesh have been “completely sealed” or are in super-lockdown mode. The sharp spike in COVID-19 cases in the state has made the state government declare that nobody can step out until April 15, not to go to the bank and not for food. Food will be delivered home.

But where is home? Take, for instance, the district of Shamli in Western UP, a poky industrial belt, now completely sealed. This video was shot three days ago by two social activists – Himanshu and Deepak.

Video courtesy Himanshu and Deepak.

You will want to turn your eyes from his sumptuous meal of papaya fruit peels scooped out of the open sewer. But you must watch the entire 1:10 seconds play out as he stoops over the drain, foraging for the next peel and fishing out the tiniest bit of fruit from it. Is there any? A voice, off-camera, filming; asks the old man incredulously – “Kya kar rahey ho baba? (What are you doing, uncle?)” But ‘baba’ doesn’t answer. He is very focused on his food.

The UP state and in fact the government of India’s response to migrants has been that there is no need for them to complain, they are all being fed. The government said exactly this to the Supreme court, two days ago, in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by rights activists Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj, that there are sufficient supplies to meet the needs of migrants, currently without their daily wages since the March 24, since ‘Lockdown’.

“We cannot say that they are not getting food,” said the court. Which makes our baba in this photo a nowhere man. He is invisible to the courts, to our government and to many of us who will ask – “How do you we know the authenticity of this video? It could be old. It may have nothing to do with the lockdown. This is malicious lies being spread to discredit our government’s valiant attempts to save all of us in this time of crisis.” And here, as ever, there is no counting and no proof on offer. We can keep saying that the following people took the video three days ago but who’s listening?

People walk home with their luggage from Nizamuddin station. Photo: Shome Basu/The Wire

Our nowhere man’s story cannot be called ‘fact’. We do not know where he came from or where he disappeared after the taking of the video. But facts are not the most defining feature of the lives of 80% of our labour work-force in India that is in the unorganised sector. It’s too difficult therefore to come up with accurate numbers or any numbers for the entire country. But here are some anecdotes from Shamli. Let’s not call them facts for now.

A source who we cannot name for reasons of safety and confidentiality visited a ration shop in the city area. The shopkeeper told him that the list supplied to him by the district magistrate’s office of people meant to be given free rations for the month of April, during the period of the lockdown, are all from rural Shamli, not from the area where his shop is located. They are unlikely to come to him for food. And those that are starving are mostly urban poor.

Also Read: In Photos: The Poor Set Off on Foot, to UP and Bihar, as Lockdown Makes Delhi a Ghost City

Migrants as well as locals who work in small factories such as one that makes pressure-cookers. When the lockdown was announced, the owner told his workers not to worry. They could stay on in the factory and they would be given food. After a few days, however, he threw his hands up and said he couldn’t hack it any more. “In these times of extreme deprivation, no one is going to buy a new pressure cooker. And I have stocks piled up already that I can’t sell. I might have to close, so I can’t afford to pay you or give you food any longer.” And that was that.

Most of these tiny factories, tiny stores selling soaps and cheap clothes stitched locally and shoes and chappals and furniture and farm-tools can’t afford to keep their workers and office boys. Most aren’t registered on any wage board and don’t have contracts. We know why that is. For quite a few decades, small and medium scale and even some large-scale industries have worked with a minimum requirement of permanent labour that needs to be unionised, paid a provident fund, health care etc., and relied increasingly on large contingents of less expensive unorganised labour.

Dehadi pe kaam karney waley” or people who work on daily wages are mostly a shifting population of seasonal workers who earn and eat what they earn the same day. It’s barely enough for that. They don’t officially exist or many don’t. Like the man in our video, they don’t officially exist. By definition therefore, food deliveries the UP government is now promising can’t get to them either. These are just some basic ‘non-facts’.

Of the tiny proportion that do have ration cards, there is a second problem. Many have not paid the annual registry fee of Rs 20 for the card to be valid because they are often made to stand in line all day and lose out on that day’s wages of Rs 200 to pay the Rs 20 required. On balance, that didn’t make sense to most. Now, that twenty bucks is costing them a valid ration card.

Then there are the e-rickshaw drivers of Shamli. Taufeeq (34) is one and only recently paid for a new, multi-coloured vehicle. He is the sole earning member in a family of seven. His rickshaw cost Rs 1.3 lakh and he’s now got to pay EMIs and his rent, plus earn enough for food. But what can he do in a lockdown? We know his story through a citizen’s group in Shamli that’s been handing out food. “He’s looking out for help with food so he and his family can live a little longer,” is what we were told. “Live a little longer,” that’s the aspiration right now. Let’s live a few days, shall we? Nothing to take to court as a fact however.

People distributing food say they’ve seen sights they aren’t going to forget in a hurry. Those that are boiling plain water with salt and sipping it slowly as pretend-chai, to make up for the missing rotis. Some are better off. They’re eating whole chapatis. Without dal of course, but that’s asking for a lot. Too much aspiration.

People handing out snacks. Photo: Ismat Ara

And there is a woman somewhere in Shamli who was recently widowed. Her husband was killed, apparently in an encounter with the police sometime last year, but we can’t say for sure since the post-mortem report hasn’t come yet. She’s been waiting for it for nearly a year. She doesn’t have a ration card either. No husband, no card and now no food.

Also Read: DM, Public Provide Food After Hungry Kids Seen Eating ‘Grass’ in Modi’s Constituency

Another man, accused of stealing cattle and is in jail, has a hungry family that has scraped together a living by making and selling balloons and popcorn at weddings. The alleged cattle thief’s 12 and 13-year old children have stood outside weddings – i.e. happy places, with wooden poles stringing balloons and popcorn that other children attending these weddings with their parents have bought. Now of course that’s stopped and so has the food.

There’s a bus-conductor who lost his leg when the private bus he worked on turned turtle. He’s been out of work ever since – that’s a few months ago. His daughter came to visit with her children and then the lockdown happened. So, this man who was recently rendered jobless now has the additional burden of looking after his daughter and her children with no money coming in. Are the chief justice and our government listening? Perhaps they will deduce that these are perennial issues of the ever-present poor in strained times. Nothing specifically to do with COVID-19. These are invisible problems in times when we are hit by an invisible enemy.

As the government prepares for the next phase of handling the pandemic, one question hangs overhead like a necessary curse – should the lockdown, so supremely well-managed, be extended? Solutions are pouring in from everywhere, including from economists like Jean Dreze who have advocated that our grain stocks piled up in the public distribution system or PDS need to be emptied and distributed to whoever comes to the ration shops. That we should use the PDS to send grain free everywhere. That we have more than enough food in stock and money in the Centre’s coffers if we add up the oil deficit of over four lakh crores because world oil prices recently crashed.

The solution may be in plain sight, but it all depends on what we are looking at. And whether the man picking peels from the drain is in our frame of reference.

Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of The Anatomy of Hate, published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul.