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Friday, June 25, 2021

UP: From market to labour chowk, fear of Covid — and lockdown

Aligarh is among the several smaller cities in UP that are reeling under the second Covid wave. It is also under a “partial lockdown” till May 17, with essential items such as fruits, milk and vegetables allowed to be sold from 7 am to 11 am and 4.30 pm to 7.30 pm.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Aligarh |
May 12, 2021 2:43:36 am
At Aligarh’s Labour Chowk, finding work is becoming harder amid curbs. (Photo: Praveen Khanna)

In Aligarh, “Dubey ka padao” is a Covid nightmare. It is 9.30 am, and every inch of this market crossing is occupied by carts, selling vegetables, flowers and even dolls, and a cluster of customers around each. Some vendors wear masks, but most have it around their chins. There are more masks among customers, but no social distancing.

Yet, there is a word that generates more fear than Covid in these parts. “Please, don’t get another lockdown imposed. We can fight Covid, but not starvation,” says Narayan Das, a vegetable vendor.

Aligarh is among the several smaller cities in UP that are reeling under the second Covid wave. It is also under a “partial lockdown” till May 17, with essential items such as fruits, milk and vegetables allowed to be sold from 7 am to 11 am and 4.30 pm to 7.30 pm.

There is no other way out, say officials. On April 29, Aligarh had a daily caseload of 321, a total of 64 deaths and 2,410 active cases. On May 11, the daily count was 227, with 82 deaths and 3,130 active cases. In the first wave last year, Aligarh’s daily count peaked at 197 on September 10.

But for the sellers like Das, it’s a balancing act between survival and lockdown, incomes and social distancing. And there are no simple answers.

Das calls out to customers loudly. His mask is around his chin, and gloves have been kept aside. A bottle of sanitiser is placed in the middle of his cart. People are more comfortable with vegetables sprayed by a sanitiser, he says. “In these times, anything to improve a sale,” he says.

The thought of contracting an illness that could kill him terrifies him. “But I have a wife and children at home. I have to work for them, and I fear a lockdown will destroy us. They say wear masks. Do they know how difficult it is to shout for our customers with a mask? That we stand in the heat for six hours in the day when it is 40 degrees?” he asks.

Across the road, Mohammad Shahzad has a stall full of unsold bananas, and an hour to go for the 11-am cutoff. “I used to earn Rs 400, even after the first lockdown ended and people started spending money. Now it is only Rs 100-150 a day,” Shahzad says.

There is another reason why Shahzad’s cart is empty. “Last year, once the media and the government said all that about the Tablighis, people stopped coming to Muslim vendors. That fear has still not gone,” he says.

Three kilometres away, at Aligarh’s biggest labour chowk, there is growing desperation among the 500-odd people waiting for work with an hour to go for police patrols to begin. “We sit here from 5 am to 11 am when the police shoo us away. But these days, barely 20 get work in a day,” says Mohammad Shahid.

The mismatch has meant a further lowering of wages, from Rs 400-500 to Rs 100-150. “Earlier, we got jobs as labourers at construction sites. Now, rich people come in their cars and take us to lift the bodies of their family members. They are too scared to touch the bodies because of Corona. But we have families to feed,” says Shahid.

This time, the waiting workers say, there is no government relief in terms of food packets, and no NGOs. “Last time, if we ran out of money and food, we depended on each other, or our families. They gave us a small loan. But now, after a year of hardship, if nobody has money left, what will they give us,” says Rahul Kumar.

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