NEW DELHI: In almost every locality you find a few self-employed professionals working on the streets, working silently with their tools to earn a living.

Tailors, florists, cycle repairmen, e-riksha drivers, food vendors shoe repairmen…

They meet many of our “inessential needs”, and gift a sense of security and familiarity to their surroundings.

In their absence the roads home seem unrecognisable.

During the lockdown when they were forced to shut shop, the roads fell eerily quiet and added to the grimness of the situation.

Now with the lockdown lifting, roads in the capital are coming back to life again, and the time has come to make up for the losses they suffered due to the lockdown.

But the road to recovery looks steep: many of them are still seeing a drop of 40–60% in customers and income.

Sri Krishna, a tailor, is waiting at his usual place in Mayur Vihar Extension, looking for a customer. He has been setting up shop here since 2001, and says he has never faced this kind of hardship before:

“Before the lockdown I would earn around 300–400 rupees a day. Those were the good days, when I could save some money as well. During the lockdown however, I had a severe money crunch and faced some tough times. My savings are exhausted. I could not replenish them, as there are no earnings. Even with the lockdown lifted my income is nowhere near what it was before.”

“We have no other option but to survive on what we have,” says Sri Krishna. It’s a cloudy day and he keeps looking up, anticipating the skies to fall.

A few steps down the road Mithuram, a shoe repairman, recounts his own experience of the lockdown.

“During the months of March and April, I was totally confined to my rented room. My family is in Bihar and I couldn’t send them any money whatsoever. I lived on my savings, which are now nearly over. All of us had to clamp down on our unnecessary expenditure…

“Thankfully, I am earning something now that the lockdown is over. But there has been a 50% drop in my income. It helps that I live alone, I can manage my expenses, or I would have been in serious trouble,” Mithuram tells The Citizen.

Obviously they are exposing themselves to the virus, despite all precautions, and that’s not all they have to worry about, as explained by Janardan Kumar, a paanwala cum ice-cream seller:

“Although we are back on the streets, the coming months are going to be extremely challenging. I have to do without the income from the metro commuters and schoolchildren who are the bulk of my customers. Also, with the unpredictable rains I am forced to shut my shop at least once, twice, maybe even for the entire day! It’s frustrating; it further depletes the already meagre income I was making since my return.”

Their troubles do not end there. The biggest looming problem is of rent.

“I used to earn Rs.400 a day before the lockdown, but now I earn just half the amount. This meagre amount I have to spend on food for my family, and also for the rent. I am two months behind on my rent. The landlord never excused our rent, only postponed it. With the work starting again, he is banging on my doors demanding his payment in full.”

So shares Pramod, a roadside barber who works near the boundary wall of a huge apartment complex. After the lockdown ended he was eager to return to work, imagining a rush of customers keen to get rid of the irritating forest growing on their face and head. But the reality has been grim.

Asked how he is managing it all, Pramod replies: “Somehow or other I am trying to repay it back in small instalments. But I think it might be time to leave this work and do something else entirely. With this I won’t be able to survive.”

People are trying to make up their losses in various ways. Ram Rao, a florist, ruminates that “Nobody is buying flowers these days, so I started selling tea as well to supplement my income. Tea is my main source of income these days. It is just sufficient to keep body and soul together for me and my family.”

Many were forced to take loans from friends and family, or other sources, simply to survive the gruelling lockdown. “Many like me had no option but to supplement our savings through loans during the lockdown,” explains Sachin, a food vendor.

“I borrowed money and food from my suppliers to sustain my family of four through the lockdown. Now I have to repay them. I will do so in small instalments.

“The road to recovery seems uphill. I am observing a 60% drop in my income as compared to pre-lockdown times. We are managing somehow. We have no other option,” says Sachin.

There are also new pressures, to adapt to changes in our lives brought on by the pandemic. One faced especially by children is the struggle to cope with online classrooms. Babloo, a freelance electrician, explains:

“I have two children in different classes, and they have to make do with only one smartphone. This sometimes leads to fights between the two as they have sessions at the same time. They are forced to take their classes by turn.

“There is no doubt that they are missing out on their studies. Before the lockdown I was planning to buy a laptop, but now with my savings depleted, all those plans have had to be shelved.

“I haven’t found much work since the lockdown either, which makes those plans, once within my grasp, now seem like a distant dream.”

The situation is even more difficult for Prem, a cycle repairman:

“Before the lockdown I was earning around Rs. 400, and now in the post-lockdown phase, like many others, my income too has seen a dramatic collapse. I was planning to buy a smartphone, but with the lockdown eating away my savings I don’t have the pocket to afford one. I have two children, but no smartphone on which they can attend their online classes.”

How will he manage their education? In despair he says “Ab jo hai so hai… issi se guzara karna padega, ab aur kya kar sakte hain?” It is what it is. We’ll have to make do with this; what else can we do?

Ram Sagar Pasvan, an e-rickshaw driver, has a smartphone for his kids to use. But Pasvan wonders how learning and playing together, which is an important aspect of going to school, will be possible through online classrooms:

“I am fortunate that my family have two smartphones and my two sons can each study on one. But there are many in my neighbourhood who don’t have a smartphone: their children come to our house and copy the notes prepared by my sons. But that won’t compensate for the classes they have missed out on!”

Pasvan further observed:

“Even though classes are happening, and my children are attending regularly, it is not much use as they cannot hear or understand anything. Many of the children don’t know how to mute their phones during class and there’s just too much noise.

“The teachers too are struggling to come to terms with this technology and are unable to guide the students properly. I know some people who own a smartphone but don’t know how to access the link for lessons. They can’t figure out which buttons to press and which ones to avoid, which is hampering the learning process.

“How will they manage?” he asked.

With the pandemic continuing unabated in India, “normal” seems a long way ahead. Yet despite these men’s struggles I sensed a flicker of hope among them: earning something feels much better than not earning at all.

But the future remains uncertain. For Mohammad Jaiz, a tyre repairman:

“Public transport is not plying and there’s nowhere near the number of cars plying before the lockdown. Nothing is opening yet. The factories are closed, so there is no other work available. I have been doing this work for the past 20 years of my life. I don’t know anything else. So where will I go?”