For one week, it has been the same. Arrive at 6 am. Bow at the Mahavir mandir. Spend Rs 5 for a cup of chai. Count the rest of the money: Rs 160 today. Then, wait. At first, patiently. Sitting on his haunches, staring out into the distance. Or engaged in conversation with those around him. In an hour, Vishnu Das’s eyes are more desperate, hunting for signs of a contractor, or somebody who will offer work. Sometimes, he asks a passer-by, “Kaam chahiye kuchch (Do you want work done)?” By 8.30 am, the crowd around him begins to thin, the shops prepare to open. Another morning has passed. Das has not found work this entire week. Tomorrow he hopes, will be better.
Das, 46, is an old-timer at Tilka Manjhi Chowk, the site where daily-wagers collect every day before dawn to find work. The chowk is the centre of Bhagalpur town by day. But now, in these uncertain times, the centre and the ground beneath it is shifting for most people like Das as they grapple with the effects of a pandemic and the lockdown that followed.
Bhagalpur, its district headquarters 239 km from Patna, has all the trappings of small towns raring to break into the big league, its aspiration defined by its coaching centres, the markets that sell silk saris and the shopping arcades that display flatscreen televisions. It’s one of four Bihar towns on the Centre’s list of proposed Smart Cities, yet, the district is dragged down by high levels of poverty and malnutrition.
In a way, Bhagalpur is illustrative of challenges across the country as districts, especially those facing the brunt of migrant distress — exodus or influx — try to get back on track.
Tilka Manjhi Chowk
At the chowk’s centre is a statue of Manjhi, one of India’s first recorded tribal freedom fighters, who was hung by the British for his irreverence, as folklore says, right at this chowk.
Das chuckles, “Manjhi may have died fighting for our freedom. But here we are, at a labour mandi. A market where we sell ourselves for Rs 200 a day. Hamaari halaat itni kharaab hai ki hum bolte hai, humein khareed lo. Nahi toh bhuke rah jaenge poore din (Our situation is so bad, we put ourselves up for sale, saying we will go hungry otherwise).”
Life has always been hard for Das, who lives alone in a shanty 2 km away. He doesn’t talk much about his past, except that he was born and raised in Bhagalpur. “Akela hoon,” he says, when pushed. “Koi nahin hai,” he adds, with a finality that resists more prodding questions.
He is more open about his present situation. When the lockdown was first announced, the chowk was empty, he says. Das tried to move out to look for work, but every time he did so, he was heckled or charged at with a police lathi. “I stopped after four days,” he says.
For a month, from the end of March to the end of April, Das stayed home. By the second week of May, though, there was a new problem at the chowk. Migrants, who had lost jobs in Maharashtra, Gujarat, or Delhi, began arriving, desperate for money. According to state records, an estimated 63,962 migrants have returned to Bhagalpur since the lockdown.
Among them, Shyam Sundar Yadav, who worked in a warehousing company in Pune. He walked, and hitched rides to Bhagalpur. Once here, he arrived at the chowk to look for work. “I have been here for a month now. For one week I lifted cement sacks at a construction site. After that, nothing,” he says.
Das continues, “When the migrants came, there was a huge number at the chowk. Maybe 400 people a day. Then slowly, people realised there was no work. Now even those who came for years have stopped. There are only about a hundred a day, and even they have no work.”
Asked why there is no work even after the government announced the ‘un-lockdown’, Das and the others say there can only be one reason: Fear.
Ram Krishan Singh, a mason, says construction drives the economy of the labour market. “Those who were building something have stopped putting in money because they are afraid. What if another lockdown happens? Also, money is hard to come by these days. So if someone needs five people, he makes do with two. Even when we get work, we get paid less. Earlier we could get Rs 300-400 a day. Now it will be no more than Rs 150,” Singh says.
Frustrated with the wait for work, the men have begun talking about “other options”. Many, they say, have taken to roaming the bylanes of Bhagalpur, asking for odd jobs by knocking on doors of shops. Some have returned to villages hoping to get MNREGA jobs.
Then, there is the other option. Right next to Tilka Manjhi, every morning, people line up on either side of the road to sell vegetables. Here, alongside the established ones who sell out of carts, there are the new entrants who sit on mats on the road. If nothing else, Yadav says, he will do that. “Some of those at the chowk have begun going to the mandi… They earn between Rs 50-100 a day. At least it is something.”
JLN Medical College and Hospital, Mayaganj
A paved road, with wild grass on either side, snakes around the main building of the 800-bed Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital. Past a parking lot, an administrative block and some shanties, the road ends in a place that’s unsettlingly still, with only a white building in sight. It’s a new building, with a board that says ‘MCH’ — the 100-bed Mother and Child Healthcare wing. Today, it is the isolation ward of JLN Hospital, the dedicated Covid care hospital in the district.
At 11 am on a Wednesday, Balram Das arrives in his tempo that has a ‘COVID duty’ sticker. He sits on the bench, a mask hanging loosely around his face, playing a game on his phone. He is waiting for the hospital staff to hand him the garbage. There are three big bags today; two weeks ago, there were many more, he says.
Bhagalpur district now has the second highest number of Covid cases in Bihar — 348, compared to Patna’s 377. But recovery is strong, with 266 already discharged, and only 81 active cases. The district has recorded one death so far.
Says Dr R C Mandal, Chief Superintendent of the hospital, “About two weeks ago, we changed strategy. We realised that a vast number of our cases are asymptomatic. So while earlier, all cases were in the isolation centre, now we only have those who are symptomatic and serious. Aymptomatic patients are placed in the Covid care centres. Right now, we have no serious cases at the isolation centre, and only four who are symptomatic,” Mandal says.
Thus the deserted surroundings, and the three garbage bags.
“Everything is under control. There are only four cases that require medical attention, and two patients who have fever. Even the one person who died had cancer. For now, there is absolutely no reason to panic,” adds Mandal.
The lack of serious patients is reason for solace, for now, but the numbers show how small the margin for error is. Mandal admits that JLN Hospital is the only large medical college for a 200-sq-km area covering three states. “There is a big hospital like this in Patna, Dhanbad in Jharkhand, and Siliguri in West Bengal. Everyone comes here, and we need to be ready,” Mandal says. Besides, the Covid numbers have been rising steadily (see box).
For a hospital that serves so many, the numbers too allow for no complacency. There are all of 22 ventilators, 10 of them new, and 64 ICU beds. Plus not enough protective equipment.
A doctor at the hospital says on condition of anonymity, “One of the reasons asymptomatic patients were moved to Covid care centres was that the hospital couldn’t handle 100 patients. There weren’t enough protective equipment. Even now, we make do with kits that are hardly protective.”
The testing numbers are also abysmally low. Dr Vijay Kumar Singh, Civil Surgeon in the district, says the district is conducting 315 tests a day. Overall, till June 15, it had conducted 5,632 tests. With 333 testing positive until that date, it’s a confirmation rate of 6.2 per cent, higher than the national average of 5.7 per cent. Of the 333 who tested positive, 311 are from tests on 1,801 returning migrants, a confirmation rate of 17.26 per cent.
There are other concerns too. With JLN set aside for Covid cases, the non-Covid cases are being handled by the older, smaller, and much less advanced Sadar Hospital. Dr Mandal says he shifted at least 10 senior doctors to Sadar. But the hospital is showing signs of creaking under the strain. There are patients waiting on the floor, some sleeping on it.
Singh, the district Civil Surgeon, admits he is worried about the monsoon. “In crucial departments like paediatrics and anesthesia, we have two and three doctors respectively. The load is getting too much. Which is why despite being a Covid-only hospital, we have had to open the emergency ward of JLN with 150 beds,” Singh says.
Khalifabagh Market, Bhagalpur
Bhagalpur has earned itself many monikers over the ages. The ‘city of academia’, because of the ancient Vikramshila University, is now associated with the 1989 Bhagalpur riots and the infamous blindings of a decade earlier. It is called Bihar’s silk city as well. And yet, for locals, what sticks is the image of a town of traffic jams.
Shyam Sundar Newetia, a shopkeeper at Khalifabagh, the town’s busiest market, bristles at the sight of the crowd outside his shop.
“These people who are out on the street… You think they are coming to buy? No. They are bored at home, so they are here. Fools! I don’t allow them to sit in my shop anymore,” he says.
Ever since restrictions began to ease, traffic has returned to Bhagalpur’s narrow streets, where shops open by 11 am. The motorcycles, rickshaws and pedestrians are all out in force, enough to make mockery of any intended social distancing. Masks hang loosely on faces, if at all, and pedestrians brush past each other.
The roads might suggest normalcy, but, as Newetia says, it is all a mirage. Shops are empty, sale registers bare. It’s a time of deep distress.
Newetia owns ‘Matching Corner Boutique’, a 50-year-old store that sells clothes, primarily for women. He opened the store on June 1 and since then, business has been dire. “ About 75% of business has gone away. People want to hold on to their money in these uncertain times. Even the 25 per cent sale I am doing is of nighties or undergarments,” Newetia says.
But there are things to be thankful for. Such as the fact that he owns the shop. “Those on rent have let go of most of their staff. There is no money. Last year, one of those rickshaws you see would refuse to take you to the railway station for Rs 40; today, he will go for 10,” he says.
Most businessmen in Bhagalpur also complain about the timing of the shutdown. Newetia says, “From June to November, there is the wedding season, Durga Puja and then Chhat festival. Right now is when we should be having festive sales.”
An employee at Hotel Chinmaye Inn, one of the city’s biggest, says that during the wedding season, their 59 rooms would be fully booked. “As of today, only four rooms are occupied. Also, a lot of our clientele used to come for trade from Patna or Kolkata. As long as trains don’t restart, that won’t happen,” says a staff member.
A km away, is Mayfair restaurant, one of Bhagalpur’s most popular eating joints. At 2 pm on a Thursday, there is one family at a table.
Owner Navin Nishchal says, “People have just stopped coming. I reopened the restaurant only earlier this month. Most of the orders are deliveries from either Zomato or Swiggy… I had 22 people working with me. I have seven now,” he says wistfully.
On some days, when his cellphone rings, he fervently hopes it’s an order, but these days, there are more calls asking for jobs.
“One of them told me he worked in a restaurant in Pune and is now back in Bhagalpur. He said he earned Rs 22,000 a month but could make do with Rs 12,000 now. It broke my heart, but I could do nothing,” he says.
Right next to Nischal, a family of three are waiting for their order. The kitchen door swings open and three plates of dahi vada emerge. The waiter serves them and asks, “Aur kuchch?” The answer to that question, in times such as these, may well decide his future.
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