RAJEEV KHANNA | 28 JULY, 2020
Distressing Covid-Lockdown Tales Too Small for the Big Media
Vegetable sales decline, repair shops see more customers
Since the series of lockdowns in the wake of Covid19 there are stories and stories to be told about how harshly life has changed for ordinary people, who are becoming poorer by the day with many fighting a battle for survival. This is an attempt to record a few symptoms observed in the last four months.
When the surprise central lockdown was announced and administrations imposed curfew in several places, daily-wage earners were the first to take a hit. The situation continues to fox them as the majority of them continue to be disemployed.
Farmers will small landholds, particularly vegetable growers, were next to be crushed. The lockdown made it very difficult to bring produce to the mandis, and if at all you reached them there was no guarantee your produce would make it to the metros, as transport had come to a standstill.
In many places this led to a change many experts consider positive: where these farmers themselves took to retail selling, in states like Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra. A large number of daily-wage earners also started selling vegetables by purchasing farmers’ produce straight from the villages and taking it to various localities for retail selling.
In this way the many middlemen were pushed out of the chain for some days.
Then there is the lockdown’s impact on people’s mental health, which remains underreported. A small state like Himachal Pradesh has reportedly recorded around 390 suicides in the first half of 2020, most of them during the lockdown. Those who killed themselves included housewives, manual labourers, students, private-sector employees, businessmen and farmers.
Reasons cited include anxiety and fear, loneliness and depression from the prolonged incarceration, and imminent starvation.
For the many families whose children study in private schools (43% of girl students in India and half the boy students) having to pay their wards’ school fees during the economic shock has caused much distress. People have also been forced to buy new smartphones with expensive data packs so their children can attend online class.
Making matters worse, some schools have been insisting that students wear their school uniform while attending online class.
A parent in Mohali disclosed, “It is a well known fact that schools have a commission arrangement with the shops selling uniforms. This is just to ensure that the shops sell uniforms like normal times and the schools get their commission. They even ask the child to stand up in front of the computer screens for prayers to make sure the parents have purchased school shoes for the child!”
“My daughter just got enrolled in class 11 in a different school. I have now got a message from the school to deposit Rs 65,000 as school expenses which include heads like library fee, sports and extracurricular activity fee, etc. All this when the girl has not even seen the face of the school till now,” said a hassled parent in Solan, Himachal Pradesh.
The countrywide real estate boom during the past two decades is also turning to tears. In most places real estate was no longer an investment option, but now things have hit rock bottom. Like several other people, this reporter has also been getting phone calls from towns in the north with people offering to sell their houses.
Distress sales have started, with people unsure of being able to pay their EMIs even when the economy recovers. Landlords’ rental income has also been hit, with tenants either having returned to the villages or moving to cheaper localities.
In states like Himachal where the tourist industry has taken a severe beating, there are hoteliers who are looking at converting their hotel premises into paying guest accommodations. “This way we can at least take care of our bank installments. There are many who have big hotels that are even planning to convert the premises into residential sets for rent,” said Amit Sachdeva, a hotelier.
The worst affected are the hotel staff, who were getting paltry salaries and have now been forced to return to their villages.
If one happens to visit the markets, the only places one finds people apart from the grocery and ration shops are those offering repair services. From cobblers to tailors to those repairing kitchen items and umbrellas, there has been a reversal of trends from purchasing new items to getting the old ones repaired, and saving something for the rainy days without end.
“We have seen a small spurt in demand as people in large numbers are going in for getting their utensils repaired,” shared Ankit who runs a small industrial unit in Delhi manufacturing bakelite handles for pressure cookers and other utensils.
For those who do not have ration cards and were making a living in different towns and cities by selling wares on the pavement or as daily wage labourers, life has become grim.
“We are no longer getting any food grains from the PDS shops despite some signed slips issued to us sometime back. We do not have ration cards, either in our villages which we left many years back, nor where we have been living all these years. Our family members have increased. We are also suffering because we do not have our votes here.
“The situation is that we have no money to pay rent or to have food. But this does not mean that we should be allowed to perish,” said a woman selling her wares on the payment, pleading with this reporter to somehow help her get a ration card.
Yet another disturbing trend is the falling sales of vegetables which many vegetable vendors confirm. “Rather than purchase a kilogram of vegetables which will only last one meal, the poor prefer to purchase the same amount of lentils, which will last them at least three to four meals,” said a vegetable vendor whose main clientele has been daily-wage earners.
These stories are too small to be highlighted in the big media. But this is the pain that the majority of Indians are going through even as the mainstream media is used to divert attention from Covid 19 and the misery people are facing since the economic shutdown.
A common person understands this well. “You will now see the temple issue gobbling up all the media space in the next few days. After all this suits everyone in power, while the poor perish,” observed a porter as he sat waiting for someone to employ him in the small town of Kandaghat.
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