Every evening, the cheap smartphones in the 10×10 rooms above the jewellery stores in south Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar light up with video calls from Midnapore and Hooghly districts of West Bengal.
For Probir Giri (18), who hails from Midnapore, this has been the only connect with the outside world. Probir, who arrived in the city to work as a goldsmith with a shopowner two months ago and has been stuck in his room since the nationwide lockdown was declared on March 24, says he misses his home terribly. “My mother keeps asking me to come back, but we are stuck here. Some of my other friends (who stay with him) have been crying.”
Zaveri Bazaar, once known as the hub for goldsmiths in India, continues to be the sole source of livelihood for 20,000 to 30,000 artisans, most of whom hail from West Bengal and have been living in in groups of five to six or even more in crammed tenanted rooms, hired by their shopowners. Probir, for instance, has been stuck on the fourth floor of a building on Narayan Dhuru street with six others.
Since the lockdown was announced, the bustling street full of gold traders and street food vendors has been empty. With the shops closed, the goldsmiths complain that they find themselves virtually locked inside their tiny rooms, with not much to do.
Probir’s roommate Biswajeet (26), also from Midnapore, says, “We are afraid of going down. We are scared we will touch something and get infected. We would have been safer in our village.”
The men have been cooking with the little supplies left over in the house, rationing them by having two meals a day.
Biswajeet says, “We have food for a few days, but no one can reach us anymore. Our employer also cannot come to give us money. We are stressed and it feels like we will die of hunger before coronavirus hits us.” On a street across the road, Shahul (40) says, “All we want is to go home, we don’t want anything else.” Echoing him, Rocky Ahmed (27), a native of Hooghly, asks when train services will resume. “My wife has been crying, she wants me to return.”
Ahmed’s senior cohabitant, Shafiullah Haldar (40), says Ahmed got married only six months ago, to chuckles from fellow roommates. “I returned to Mumbai three months ago,” says Ahmed.
Shafiullah worries about the future. “There was a time when we would send Rs 15,000 to 17,000 a month to our families. But business has been bad for the past few years. We have been sending only half of this amount and this month, we won’t be able to send even that.”
Jamil Mir (34) says the biggest worry for workers is that they are neither registered with Maharashtra nor West Bengal governments. The Centre has already announced cash doles for construction workers and states are expected to come out with similar revival packages for other registered workers but the goldsmiths of West Bengal in Mumbai may miss out on both.
Shafiullah says, “Nobody has come to help us with ration or money. The grocer downstairs is giving us items on credit but how long can this continue?”
Dawood Malik (26), says, “Some goldsmiths started leaving the moment the chief minister announced the first set of restrictions (on March 14). But we held on, thinking it couldn’t get this bad. We were wrong.”
Ranjit Dutta, president of the West Bengal Welfare Association, says the goldsmiths have been badly hit due to all work shutting down. “We demand that all of them be adequately compensated,” he adds.
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