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Thursday, June 04, 2020

Kolkata: Hungry and desperate, ragpickers fear starvation more than the virus

The ragpickers’ livelihood has dried up since Sunday because of the lockdown, and without any cash on hand they are struggling to get food.

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya | Kolkata | Published: April 1, 2020 12:35:06 am
Most family members stay on the road during day, at night they crawl into crammed spaces inside their shanties. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Sixty-year-old Muhammed Azad sits on a bed in an open room about six feet by five feet in size, and made of tarpaulin sheet and plastic hoarding disposed of by others. An earthen stove stands in a corner.

After days of trying, Azad, a ragpicker, has managed to get his hands on a vegetable — a gourd that fell from a truck. It is the only vegetable that his family has managed to acquire since March 22. For Azad, feeding his family of eight is a priority, and not the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that has forced the government to impose a lockdown.

His neighbour is 40-year-old Sharifa Bibi, who lives in a similar shanty with her two sons, three daughters, a son-in-law, and a grandchild. She managed to procure 4 kilos of rice from a ration shop — the only edible item they have.

A family of ragpickers, they have also been jobless since everything shut down last week, and have no money. Bibi’s family says home isolation is impossible since there is no space. At night, all of them crawl into the room to sleep.

Azad and Sharifa Bibi live along the Canal East Road here, which is home to almost 2,000 families, most of whom are ragpickers. Some here are also domestic workers and van rickshaw pullers.

The ragpickers’ livelihood has dried up since Sunday because of the lockdown, and without any cash on hand they are struggling to get food. Since each family has eight to 12 members, most of them crowd outside during the day. At night, they crawl into small spaces to sleep. Sometimes two families stay together in a hovel — one on the ground, and another on a tiny bunk bed.

“On Sunday, there was a shutdown [Janata Curfew], and everyone expected it would be for one day,” says Azad. “But then it continued, and now there is a lock down. Since then people are inside, and the streets are clean. There is no rubbish or waste for us to collect. We also cannot roam around since the police will catch us. So, we have little cash in hand and large families to feed. This is our prime concern not the virus.”

The ragpickers usually roam around in the lanes and bylanes of the city and its suburbs to collect trash, which is then brought back to their slum. The trash is segregated, and each component is sold. Plastic is purchased by middle men, who supply to factories. In a day, the families collect three bags full of waste material. They earn Rs 250 to Rs 300 for that.

Sharifa Bibi says the rice she managed to get from the ration ship is of poor quality, full of pebbles. “But that is all we have,” she adds while eating rice and water for lunch. “One of my daughters and I work as garbage collectors. Each of us used to earn about Rs 250 daily. That has stopped.”

Some of the slum-dwellers visit Koley market near Sealdah, one of the city’s biggest wholesale markets that is about a kilometre away, to gather vegetables that fall off trucks.

The slum stands in sharp contrast to areas of the city that are well off. While in those places roads are deserted as people remain indoors, here men and women loiter around, children play on the streets, some women cook on the road with earthen stoves lit with wood collected from trees that line up the canal. Piles of dry branches lie in front of the shanties, along with rows of van rickshaws. Groups of women with empty buckets sit near a community drinking water tap, much before the water is scheduled to start flowing. The water is courtesy the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, and is supplied twice a day.

The slum has four toilets that were set up by an NGO a couple of years back. However, most people defecate in the open on the banks of the canal.

“What distance should we maintain from each other?” asks 50 year-old Rehana Bibi, who collects waste. “What are you talking about? Can’t you see the size of our homes? We have 10-member families. We will not simply fit into the room and the bunk bed during the day. So most family members are out on the road. At night we crawl inside, jostle for space and sleep. Some also choose to sleep on the road.”

At times, the police detain the men roaming outside, and take them to the nearby station. “Then leave them with a warning,” Rehana Bibi adds. “Sometimes, they give petty cases and we have to shell out Rs 180 to get our men back,” said Rehana Bibi (50).

Her husband Sheikh Raju is a rickshaw-puller. “Since Sunday, I too have no work like my wife,” he says. “Everyday we used to earn over Rs 400. That is the prime concern. Here we don’t understand the hygiene or social distancing you are talking about. Help us find some food. The water is used for cooking and drinking. We can’t waste it by washing hands now and then.”

Mohammad Monir Hussain, a handcart puller at Sealdah station, says he does not have money to feed his family in the coming days. He has a wife, five daughters, and four sons.

“My contractor did not pay me when work suddenly stopped at Sealdah station Sunday,” Hussain adds. “So I do not have any money. This may be our last meal. I do not have foodgrains. Maybe, I will be forced to take a loan from a local moneylender on high interest. My family has to survive, you see,” he adds, sitting on a chair with his children, while his wife cooks by the road.

Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?

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