When Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 14 announced a 19-day extension of the nationwide lockdown to prevent the surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, he admitted, although in passing, to the immense human cost of the lockdown and the suffering of the poor.

This is a time when there seems an official and substantial middle-class consensus that their suffering is a necessary, even if regrettable, cost for keeping the country safe from the pandemic. But there is a granularity to that suffering which people who have not known the torment of hunger can never understand. Each dispossessed family is compelled to suffer in their own way. We need to hear them and heed them. At the very least, this is what we owe them.

In a series of stories, the Karwan e Mohabbat team will try to tell the individual stories of suffering, each substantial, each immense, many beyond remittance. In this article, we highlight the plight of people Haryana’s Nuh district, bordering upmarket Gurugram.

Last rites

We spoke to Hashim, a young 22-year old marginal tenant farmer. His earnings from farming were not enough to feed his family of eight, so his father had started driving a truck to distant parts of the country. To save the wages of an assistant, called a “cleaner” in the truck trade, he had pulled Hashim’s 15-year old brother out of school.

When the lockdown was announced on March 24, father and son were transporting a truckload of onions on a highway in Bengal. They were scheduled to offload the stock somewhere in Assam. Hashim did not know the details.

Over multiple phone calls since the lockdown, Hashim’s family could tell that his father was terribly worried – about his children left behind in the village with no food, about how he would deliver his consignment during the lockdown, and whether he would be able to return home.

To their relief, his family learnt that the truck had been able to travel some way further on the highway. And then one day, Hashim’s brother called in great distress. Their father, still in his 40s, had suffered a heart attack. People on the highway helped get him to a hospital and the truck owner told them not worry to about the expenses. But by the time they reached the hospital, Hashim’s father had died.

His family was distraught, none more than the teenage boy with the custody of his father’s dead body, stranded in a strange land. His older brothers would have rushed to Bengal to help him, but that was impossible in the lockdown. The truck owner organised for a driver to reach the spot the day after. The cargo was shifted into another truck and the father’s body was taken back to his village in Nuh, in the same truck in which he suffered the heart attack.

They met many police barriers along the way, but hearing of the tragic death, they all allowed them passage. When they reached their village, the body had decomposed. They took their father’s remains directly to the burial ground. Only a few people gathered for the last traditional offering of soil, and farewell prayers, to the departed man.

Labourers across the country are facing a similar plight. In Mumbai, a truck driver and his assistant cook food in the vehicle during lockdown. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Perpetual uncertainty

Surrounding the small district town of Nuh are a number of settlements of near-destitute families, perched precariously under low plastic sheets strung on bamboo sticks. Each household is racked with the same worry – about if, and how, they will organise their next meal.

In one of these plastic dwellings is Shahnaz, a widow with a large brood of children. Her husband had died a few years earlier of an illness in the Nuh district hospital, long after they had moved here from their village in rural Bihar.

Shahnaz works as a domestic helper, sweeping floors and cleaning dishes. But all of that work has dried up. Her older son had also begun to earn for the family with casual daily wage labour. That too has stopped.

They have no savings left. The family just awaits cooked food supplied by some people – she does not know who they are, the administration or citizen groups. Moreover, with the growing summer heat, the food is sometimes spoilt by the time it reaches them.

But even this is irregular. “Some days, they supply us cooked meals.” she said. “But often, they do not.”

Living on scraps

In one of the hutments lives the family of Mansoor Ali. Five years earlier, his family had made their way from their home district Barpeta in Assam, where they lived in poverty, to the streets of Nuh in Haryana.

I asked Ali, in passing, if his family and he had found their names in the National Register of Citizens in Assam. He said that all of them were included in the list. They had gone to Assam and collected the documents they needed to establish their citizenship. But to survive, they had to return to Nuh.

There is one vocation available to those for whom most pathways are blocked – waste picking. This is what Ali does with his family of ten. His wife and children scour through waste dumps for anything that can be recycled and sold – plastics, glass, metals. They do not earn much, but it is enough to survive.

With the lockdown, they are not allowed by the police to walk to the dumps to search and sift the waste. They are beaten with sticks and batons. However, even if Ali’s family is able to somehow dodge the police and reach the waste heaps, it would serve no purpose. Waste contractors who buy their waste have all closed shop.

Since they are from another state, they don’t have ration cards and receive no support from the government. Some citizen groups help with cooked food sometimes, but apart from that, there is no food at all.

A community kitchen in Mumbai prepares a rice meal for stranded migrant labourers. Credit: Roli Srivastava/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Royal lineage, warped reality

Among the residents of these wayside plastic sheet tent-like hutments is Suban. His extended family occupies four adjacent tiny hutments on the side of a road. They are from a nomadic community that traces its origins to Chittor in Rajasthan.

According to their folklore, they believe they are descendants of Maharana Pratap. Their lived reality, however, is as distant as can be from these claims. Criminalised since colonial times, the community traditionally travels from place to place in search of work, always dodging the police. They have specialised as lohars or ironsmiths, adept at repairing iron farm instruments and knives.

Three years earlier, their travels brought them to the district of Nuh. They found work here, and the local people allowed them to settle in the outskirts of the district town. They walk from village to village, and are able to garner enough work to feed their families.

All of this has ground to a complete halt since the lockdown. This was that time of the year when the wheat crop would have been harvested, a good period for which they waited the entire year, because there would have been a higher demand for their services, to sharpen and repair harvesting instruments.

But that was not to be. The police, Suban said, does not allow them to move anywhere on the road. “They are doing their duty,” he quickly said. “They have to prevent the spread of the disease, we understand. But what can we do, when we have to watch our children sleep hungry on so many nights?”

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I cannot eat or sleep’: In Assam, farmers grown anxious as vegetables go unsold amid lockdown