Unemployment Stares at Aligarh’s Daily Wage Earners Amid Lockdown

With their businesses hit badly due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it is a struggle for survival.

Updated28 Mar 2020, 07:55 AM IST
My Report
5 min read

Irfan Ahmad takes the same route near a sewage line every day to his workplace at New Sir Syed Nagar, Aligarh. On Saturday, 28 March, he did so for the last time for the next fifteen days. He worked as a domestic help at several posh homes in the locality that usually houses professors of Aligarh Muslim University or the doctors at the nearby Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, one of the three places equipped with coronavirus-testing facilities in Uttar Pradesh.

On 21 March, the eve of Janta Curfew announced by PM Modi, seven out of the eight houses he worked at let him go, fearing the spread of the virus. 

The eighth house was of a retired professor, a widow who lives alone. She was the only one who was still paying him because, despite the prime minister’s appeal for workers to be given paid leave, many in the unorganised sector are not being guaranteed a pay during their time off work.

I asked Irfan if he was going to buy himself supplies as everyone else was panic-buying.

“I am panicking, but I do not have enough money to buy more than two day’s of ration. My Abba is 62 and needs his medicines for ulcer. I don’t know how I will afford those if the entire city shuts down. I have no work and savings to support him, too.”
Irfan Ahmad
Irfan working for the last time before the lockdown.
Irfan working for the last time before the lockdown.
(Photo Courtesy: Ansab Amir Khan)

He had saved enough money to last him about a week or so worth of supplies, but he would not have survived without the help from the retired professor. Most daily wage workers in Aligarh are not so lucky. The fear and stigma around the pandemic had hit their livelihoods much before the announcements of a Janta Curfew and lockdown.

Sales Drop in Markets

The number of people in the markets has dropped exponentially as well. The once busy and bustling sidewalks of Medical Road now bears a deserted look.

Manoj, a vegetable seller constantly looking over his shoulder for the police, told me on Saturday that people had not been coming to the markets to buy anything in the weeks leading up to the curfew.

“I was earning Rs 500 to 600 on a good day before the virus wreaked havoc. In the last two weeks, I earned a total of Rs 3,000. I am not even sure if they would allow me to sell vegetables here again.”
Manoj

On being asked how he would cope with the lockdown if it was implemented, he started shifting nervously.

Manoj is not being able to sell his vegetables.
Manoj is not being able to sell his vegetables.
(Photo Courtesy: Ansab Amir Khan)

“I might have to borrow money from my landlord. I was already in debt. I don’t know if I would be able to ever pay it off”.

Irshad, a fruit-seller in Jamalpur, described the difficulties in the simple process of maintaining hygiene during this crisis.

“There are 13 families living together in our slum, and almost everyone is back inside their homes because they cannot work outside anyway. Social distancing is not even a possibility. My kids wanted a sanitiser and mask because they saw one of my customer’s using it, and he said we must use it. Even if I could afford it, they are all out of stock. We wash our hands often. It’s all we can do.”
Irshad
Irshad, a fruit seller in Jamalpur.
Irshad, a fruit seller in Jamalpur.
(Photo Courtesy: Ansab Amir Khan)

Meat shops around are forced to sell at Rs 50 per kilogram in order to get make some earning. Mohd Akram, a fish seller in suburban Railway Road, hasn’t sold a fish for two days.

“Nobody wants to buy anything. All the customers are scared. I can’t even return the produce to the supplier. I can’t feed my family fish every day, and if I don’t sell these, I can’t feed them anything,” he rues.
Mohd Akram sits idle at his shop.
Mohd Akram sits idle at his shop.
(Photo Courtesy: Ansab Amir Khan)

“What Will I Earn for My Daughter?”

Kuldeep, a rickshaw-puller was very excited to ferry me at 3 pm under a scorching sun. I was his second passenger of the day. He was not wearing a mask, so I gave him one. I told him this could help keep him alive.

Before putting it on, he said “If they close off the roads, I’ll die of hunger anyway. I used to take my daughter to school first thing in the morning before earning for the day. Now, I don’t know how I will earn for her.”

Kuldeep with his rickshaw, after completing his second ride of the day.
Kuldeep with his rickshaw, after completing his second ride of the day.
(Photo Courtesy: Ansab Amir Khan)

When I met Rubina and Farzana on the eve of the lockdown, they were utilising the pennies they’d saved to buy whatever they could afford.

They live, along with some 40 other families, in an extremely congested slum near Amir Nishan in Aligarh. None of them can afford masks or sanitisers. Most don’t even have soap or ration.

In a dimly lit structure, the future of all those families looks bleak.

“We expect no help from the authorities. They (the police) bully us anyway, reminding us we do not own the land here, and can be evicted anytime.”
Rubina and Farzana
Dimly lit homes of daily wage earners.
Dimly lit homes of daily wage earners.
(Photo Courtesy: Ansab Amir Khan)

The daily-wage workers face the most damaging dilemma, too. If these people stay outside, they are likely to be infected with the virus.

On the outskirts of Aligarh, a few banjaraas have set up tents to save themselves. But with no resources and no income, they are not certain how long they can last.

Banjaras setting up tents outside Aligarh.
Banjaras setting up tents outside Aligarh.
(Photo Courtesy: Ansab Amir Khan)

Without social capital or monetary security these groups are the most disadvantaged, both in the fight against coronavirus and for their survival.

(All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)

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Published: 28 Mar 2020, 07:38 AM IST
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