KOLKATA: “Since the lockdown I have not been able to pay school fees for my son. I appealed for a waiver but it was all rejected,” says Abdul Malik Sekh, a hawker in Sealdah South lines.

The 52 year old father, a day labourer from Kaliachawk, Maldah fights the odds every day to stay alive. He is the sole earning person in a family of five, two daughters who have finished their education and son still in school.

All the family dream about is that their child should never have to experience the life they are living. The mismanaged pandemic has strangled these dreams. Train services in West Bengal have completely been shut since March leaving hawkers like Sekh anxious and stranded.

Sekh used to earn 300–400 rupees per day inside trains selling hair clips, bands and other toys which he would buy from Burrabazar. “We want nothing more than food and education for our children.”

An appalling financial crisis has engulfed the middle class people and those below the poverty line. “But, in the midst of all this, the railway hawkers have remained out of discussion,” says Manik Bakshi, hawker by profession, who has spent his life serving tea at Garia railway station.

His life was going quite smoothly with the earnings he had from selling tea for the last 40 years. But the lockdown has completely eaten up whatever money he had saved till date.

Previously his earnings of some 1,000 rupees a day afforded him and his family a small shelter near the station. “I have raised two daughters. They are well educated and established. They got married too. But I never imagined that I would have to be in such a dreadful situation like this towards the end of my life.”

Bakshi stated that he had crossed many hurdles in life but this financial crisis had made it even harder to survive. He suffers from diabetes while his wife is facing old age hazards of health.

“I don’t see the government paying any heed to us. It is not possible for me myself to do a job in this physical condition. My daughters have been helping me. Unfortunately, I have not received any support yet from the government. Thankfully a few leftist trade unions were kind to help us get through this, otherwise it would been difficult for me to stay alive.”

“I have seen many hawkers running their families very well. They could make sure that their children are well educated and settled. Some of them became doctors and others excelled in their respective fields. However, I am afraid that the pandemic led lockdown has not spared them the financial crisis,” he grieved.

During Amphan, the deadly super cyclone, his stall was heavily damaged and said that the state and central governments had promised them rice and wheat, but was sceptical whether the quantity would be sufficient. Due to a denial of state funds, he along with his fellows have tried to help other hawkers feed themselves.

“We have voluntarily collected money for the hawkers. We have been able to provide food to more than 1600 hawkers recently. Some of the hawkers are now selling fruits and vegetables door to door for a living. We also established a community kitchen in Laksmikantapur and a few other places, along with the local RPF, where we could feed approximately 200 hawkers who would come from different villages every day.”

Narayan Chandra Das, who used to tell stories on dogs and cats and sell watches in the trains told The Citizen, “I have been in this profession since 1998. I have a family of four. My children are still studying. But since the lockdown, I have no income. They are not going to tuition anymore since I can’t pay the fees.”

During the interview, tears came out of his wife’s eyes. Das used to earn 200 to 500 rupees each day. One of his daughters is studying in school and the other in college. But now there is no income and they are in a dark pit of helplessness.

“Even if the train service resumes, I am unsure how much we would be earning,” said his wife.

“I’ve heard that Indian Railways is getting privatised. Isn’t it? Would we, the hawkers, be allowed to board trains?” Abdul, 52 years old, expresses his concern. He is the only earning member in his family. He has sold cosmetics in trains for a living for the last 30 years and says he feels doomed.

In order for his children to continue their education, he has decided to travel miles after miles on cycle selling various products. But “what I earn now is not even close to how much I earned in trains”.

The railway hawkers here are currently living a life of complete uncertainty. Some of them have had to take resort to other professions which they are unable to cope up with. All that is left with them is the hope that the railway service will start again and they will go back to their known lives.

“We exist and the government must let us, the hawkers do what we have been doing for years for our living. The government should either accept us or make sure we have an alternative job to earn money,” said Manik Bakshi.

Abdul Malik Sekh

Demo Kit of a hawker which has become useless now. It was kept with other scrap materials in their house.

Abdul Malik Sekh

Abdul Malik Sekh

"The government should either accept us or make sure we have an alternative job to earn money," said Manik Bakshi.

Narayan Chandra Das has a family of four. With no income since the lockdown, he said he has not been able to pay the fees for his daughters' tuition anymore.

Narayan Chandra Das

A Railway hawker is now selling Ayurvedic products in a local bus. He complained that nowadays, he earns very little in a day.