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The Budget connection: ‘Govt cannot bring back the dead, but can ensure that people like us survive’

Bhagwan Panigrahi is back to picking up pieces in life, something the small vendor has done all along – ever since he ran away from home in Odisha's Balasore and boarded a train to Kolkata as an eight-year-old.

Written by Sweety Kumari | Kolkata |
Updated: February 2, 2021 10:44:24 am
Bhagwan Panigrahi, 48, Howrah: Panigrahi, a vendor, has seen his income dip from Rs 8,000 to Rs 3,000 a month. (Express phpoto by Partha Paul)

SANITIZERS AND masks are the latest additions to his small, cramped stall outside Howrah Railway Station. Bhagwan Panigrahi is back to picking up pieces in life, something the small vendor has done all along – ever since he ran away from home in Odisha’s Balasore and boarded a train to Kolkata as an eight-year-old.

Forty years later, Panigrahi says, the pandemic has pushed life back by several years, like it has for several others from neighbouring states who are struggling for livelihood in the city. “There was a time when I attended customers all through the day. Now, although the trains have resumed, the rush is not the same nor are people buying things,” he says, as he hands over a matchbox to a customer.

The Budget Connection

A ‘future ready’ Railways system by 2030, along with new passenger-friendly amenities will bring more travellers and increase traffic. A huge capex budget of over Rs 1,07,100 crore means new works to add to Railways’ lure.

Panigrahi has been selling bottled water, tobacco products, shampoo and toothbrushes and combs outside the station for the past 15 years. He has a designated spot – close to the hotel where he worked when he first landed here as a child. He says he used to earn around Rs 8,000 a month in pre-Covid times. Today, it is down to Rs 3,000 after 18 hours of keeping the stall open. In between, there was a trip back home, the lockdown, months of no income and despair, he says.

“The fight for survival has been really tough,” he says. Panigrahi and other vendors outside the station got the first taste of things to come on March 22 last year. It was the day of Janata Curfew, when people were asked to remain indoors from 7 am to 9 pm. Soon after the announcement, several vendors decided to return to their hometowns. Panigrahi was among them – he returned to wife Manjulata (44) and younger son Sushil (21). His elder son, Nikhil (23), works as a daily-wage worker in Tamil Nadu.

“Little did I know that I would be stuck there for months without work,” he says. “I had no option to return even if I wanted to… I had stock worth Rs 50,000 here which got damaged during the lockdown.”

Once back after the relaxation of curbs, Panigrahi says he took a loan of Rs 20,000 from a friend to set up his stall again. “I do not know when I will be able to pay him back. I haven’t paid my room rent for the past four months too,” he says.

“Covid took lives of the rich and livelihood of the poor. I did not hear anyone in my circle dying of the disease but the fight for survival in these pandemic times is killing us daily,” Panigrahi says.

“The government cannot bring the dead back to life but it can ensure that people like us survive.”

“I am waiting for the day when passenger traffic increases so that I can expect a better earning,” he says. Only lower fares can bring back the footfall, he says.

On the Budget, he says, “I heard gold prices have come down but we are not the ones who can afford gold and silver.”

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