On Thursday morning, 35-year-old Chhabu Mandal, a migrant from Bihar who worked as a painter in Gurgaon, sold his phone for Rs 2,500 and used the money to purchase a portable fan and some ration to feed his family — his wife, her parents, and his four children, the youngest five months old.
His wife Poonam was delighted when he returned home — the family had not had anything to eat all through Wednesday, and even before that, had been relying on meals being distributed for free in their area, or the generosity of neighbours.
Before she started cooking, Poonam went to the washroom, while her mother took the children and went to sit under a tree near their home — two shanties standing side by side in Gurgaon’s Saraswati Kunj, with tin sheets for the walls and roofs. Mandal’s father-in-law slept in the adjacent shanty.
While his family was out, Mandal closed the door of his shanty and, using a rope, hanged himself from the ceiling.
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“He had been very troubled ever since the lockdown started; we had been struggling to get food. There was no work and no money. We were completely dependent on free meals to feed ourselves, but these also did not come every day,” said his wife.
Gurgaon Police officers, when contacted, said Mandal was “mentally troubled”.
“We received information about the incident yesterday afternoon. The man was a migrant worker and was mentally troubled. His body has been handed over to his family, but they have not sought any further action in the matter. No FIR has been registered,” said Deepak Kumar, SHO of Sector 53 police station.
Officials from the district administration also insisted the 35-year-old was “mentally disturbed”. “In this unfortunate incident, the person was a bit disturbed and aggravated because of the disease outbreak. Food availability was not an issue since the family still has some food, and there is a food disbursal point nearby,” said a district official.
The closest food disbursal point for residents of Saraswati Kunj, as per a list released by the district administration, is the Community Centre in Sector 56.
“There is one in Sector 56 and there is one in Wazirabad also, from what we have heard, but those are very far for us to walk to. I am disabled, my wife is also aged, and the children are young. Walking that far for food is not possible, that too on a hungry stomach,” said Mandal’s father-in-law Umesh.
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Firoz, another resident of Saraswati Kunj, who also hails from Bihar, said residents were also scared to venture out since “some policemen are aggressive”.
Official from the district administration said the gaps, if any, would be plugged. “Efforts towards food distribution will be increased,” an official said.
It was 15 years ago that Mandal, who hailed from Bihar’s Madhepura district, moved to Gurgaon and took up work as a painter. Ten years ago, he got married and moved his family to the city. For the last several months, they had been living in Saraswati Kunj, paying Rs 1,500 as rent for each of the two shanties. Work had dried up beginning “October or November” last year, said Umesh.
“First work stopped coming because of the ban on construction due to pollution. Even after that, work remained thin and we were struggling to make ends meet. For the last month or so before the lockdown, he had got work only on a couple of days,” said Umesh, who has not been able to work since an accident six months ago. It was Mandal who managed to run the two households with whatever little work he got.
Soon after the lockdown was announced in Gurgaon on the evening of March 22, the family ran out of money. Poonam also claimed the landlord contacted them “once or twice” asking for rent, which created additional pressure.
All of them started keeping an eye out for where food was being distributed every day. Whenever they would get a tip off, they would rush, “because if we did not manage to grab that meal, we would have nothing”, Poonam said.
“On Thursday morning, my husband decided to sell the phone he had purchased for around Rs 10,000 so he could buy some food. He bought rice and pulses and a portable fan,” said Poonam, adding that the rising temperature and tin roof had made staying indoors unbearable.
Apart from the fan, some of the ration Mandal had purchased lay in the family’s shanty on Friday morning. “We were all stressed, but him more so because he felt he had the responsibility to provide for us. We knew that, but none of us expected he would take such a step,” said Poonam.
Mandal’s family carried out his last rites in Gurgaon on Friday morning. “We needed money for the tempo, the ambulance and other rituals, but we had nothing. We asked our neighbours, and people from our village who live near our home in Gurgaon to donate funds, and managed to collect Rs 5,000. Our situation is so bad that even my son-in-law’s last rites were done on borrowed money,” said Umesh.
“Apart from the sorrow of losing him, we have to cope with the fact that we now have nobody to earn for us. After the lockdown, I will look for some work as a domestic help, but there are still 15 days to go,” Poonam said.
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