Days after the Karnataka government announced a Rs 1,610-crore relief package for those struggling in the lockdown, Ashok Kumar is waiting for a way to access that money. The promised one-time transfer of Rs 5,000 to taxi drivers like him is the only government assistance he can look forward to at a time when his earnings have dipped to zero.
“Some drivers are lining up at the post office, submitting applications. Some say we will have to apply through an app. There is a lot of fake news going around, and no directions have come from the government,” the 32-year-old “partner” driver with Ola in Bengaluru says.
Until the lockdown confined him to his one-bedroom house in north Bengaluru, Kumar would be on the road for 15 hours a day in his Maruti Swift Dzire. “We had seen jail on TV before, but this is what it must feel like,” he says over the phone.
With some relaxations in the lockdown in Bengaluru, Kumar is hoping to find some work with a delivery service. “More important than the government’s money is finding some work. Maybe some delivery service will need a car and a driver. Else, hunger is a real possibility,” he said.
From a monthly income of Rs 40,000-Rs 45,000 a month, Kumar has now earned nothing for days. “I have withdrawn even the minimum balance that the bank asks me to keep,” he says. The money he had and the food supplies at home lasted for two weeks; since then, it has been a precarious existence.
For days, the family has been waiting almost till noon for NGO workers to arrive in their neighbourhood with breakfast. The leftover rice is usually shared between Kumar’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and his ageing mother. “If some social workers arrive with tiffin, then the rest of us get to eat,” he says.
His daughter hasn’t had milk for weeks now. “A few days ago, some people were distributing milk in the area, but they never got to our house,” Kumar says.
Two of his brothers, both in college, have also lost their part-time jobs. “It’s only because of the social workers and the ration they donate that we survive. If I don’t go out to work, I can’t earn.”
While he hasn’t had to pay EMI for his car (Rs 15,000), Kumar had no option but to pay the interest he owes local moneylenders. “They never waive their interest,” he says.
Like many workers in the gig economy, Kumar has found little support from the platform that “employs” him. “Ola calls us their partners. They gave us a ration kit – it did not have oil; just 2 kg rice and 1 kg onion. In the name of assistance, they say they will give us Rs 500 a week, but which we have to pay back once we start driving again. Is this how you treat partners?”
Before the lockdown began, Kumar says he earned enough to cover his daily costs. “We never had any savings after paying rent, EMI and maintenance for the car. Every month, at the local grocer’s, there was at least Rs1,000 outstanding. But how much more can they loan us now,” he asks. The one expense that he has held on to is the Rs 250 monthly recharge of his phone. “This is the only link to the outside world. If there is any news of work, it can only come through this.”
While Kumar has seen bad days before, he says he has never experienced a similar collapse in finances and support. “I have fallen ill, and have had to stay home without earning. But even then, there were friends and relatives who could step in, who could bail you out. Some help would definitely come. But now, everyone is without work and money,” he says.
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