Four months since the lockdown, the fear of unemployment in Solapur is fast replacing the fear of Covid-19, especially among those aged above 50. Known for its bidi and textile factories, the city administration last week allowed the re-opening of these units, but with conditions: each worker would be tested for fever and oxygen saturation level at entry, physical distancing has to be followed and pregnant women cannot be allowed. Plus, there was another -bidi workers aged above 58 years would not be permitted to work.
On ground, however, factory owners are refraining from allowing those aged above 50 to work. Halima Mullah, a 55-year-old out of job since March, squats outside her home in Shobhadevi slums. “There is no coronavirus in our area. I am fit, but I can’t earn,” she said.
Halima is a bidi-rolling worker, her husband Abdul Karim (57) a textile mill worker. Both managed to earn Rs 10,000 together until the pandemic struck. They now make vada pav at home. Their son, a welder who is also out of work, sells it. The family of eight has seen its income shrink by half.
Solapur has an estimated 42,000 textile and 70,000 bidi workers. With 5,104 cases and 371 deaths, the city ranks amongst the highest in Maharashtra for its fatality rate of 7.2 per cent.
At least 94.8 per cent (352) deaths are of people aged above 40 years. A worried municipal corporation decided to bar workers above 40 from working outside. On June 10, hundreds of bidi, textile workers, construction labourers, and auto-rickshaw drivers hit the streets for a protest march demanding reopening of factories and work. Eventually, the Solapur corporation raised the age bar to 58 years for bidi workers in a June 13 notification. Following a 10-day strict lockdown from July 17 to July 27, bidi and textile units reopened on July 28.
District Collector Milind Shamharkar was not available for comment but Solapur Municipal Commissioner P Siva Shankar said, “Maximum deaths have occurred of those aged above 40 years. Since this age group is highly vulnerable, we initially planned to not allow them to go out for work. Later we decided to increase the age bar but asked factory owners to screen and allow healthy people to work.” The rule has effectively rendered many unemployed.
“About 15-16 per cent of bidi workers and about 30 per cent textile workers are aged more than 50 years. They are all jobless right now. Factory owners don’t want to risk by allowing them to work,” said M S Shaikh, general secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Union (Maharashtra). Nasima Shaikh, a bidi worker, said they demanded government to pay Rs 10,000 to those forced to remain at home. “NGOs came and gave ration, some bidi owners also transferred money for a month. Beyond that we are on our own,” she said. “Sometimes bidi workers eat same meal thrice and sleep.”
Like the Mullahs several families have women employed in bidi rolling, men in mills. In some cases both husband and wife have no source of livelihood. Gaffar Ismail Jamarah (60) made towels in MIDC, and earned Rs 7,000, until March. When the mill reopened last week, his manager asked him to get clearance from collector’s office to work. “He said men of my age were not allowed to work. I have three daughters at home. My son is just a daily wager. For how long will we sustain… I don’t know,” he says.
Iqbal Shahabai (50) started a vegetable stall in the lockdown after textile mills shut. “But the police asked me to close it,” he said. His wife Praveen, aged 40, was not allowed in bidi factory after they found her oxygen saturation levels were lower than 95. She also remains at home now.
A bidi worker is paid Rs 175 for 1,000 bidis rolled. Several older women send younger women at a commission to get tendu leaves and tobacco for them to roll at home.
In Shobhadevi Nagar slums, where there are only two Covid-19 cases till now, the elderly population remains angry at government for confining them indoors.
Commissioner Sankar said they have begun door-to-door screening of elderly to measure oxygen saturation and temperature. “We have made it mandatory for factory owners to screen their staff and refer suspected cases to us,” he said. The municipal corporation is procuring three mobile vans with x-ray to conduct chest x-rays of people.
Business for textile mills and bidi has been hit too. Until March in bidi manufacturer Desai Brothers’ office, daily 200 women would visit to sell rolled bidis or collect leaves for rolling. With social distancing norms enforced, only 100 are permitted inside the dark godown each day since they reopened. Women first queue outside the godown, at entry each is checked for fever with a handheld thermometer, oxygen saturation measured with pulse oximeter. Those found beyond normal range have to get a medical certificate the next day. Inside, they open their cane basket to pour rolled bidis on floor, or stash tendu leaves and dry tobacco to take home for rolling. “Since we have to follow social distancing norms, we ask women to come alternate days. The output has gone down by half because of that,” a manager said.
Guduru Poshalu, manager at Shiva Krishna textile mills, said their manufacturing capacity has gone down by 30 per cent since reopening. “We have to follow government norms. There are fewer workers coming,” he said.
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