URBAN POOR – BIGGEST TRAGEDY OF THE PANDEMIC

about 2 months ago
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Shaileshbhai is a tailor and his specialty - stitching party wear and clothes especially for weddings. The pandemic has dealt a body blow to his business as weddings, if at all they happen, are on a very low key and no one is spending much on clothes now. He managed to survive for a few months and migrated to his village in UP. He is farming now but does not make much to make two ends meet. His children are out of school as he simply does not have enough to pay their fees. He is planning to come back to Mumbai by mid-August as he feels he might be able to get some work again. He says that in his forty years of working, he has never ever gone through what he is going through right now – piece of wood adrift in the wide, dark ocean.

Anjali is a hard-working woman and she cleans and cooks for three households. Her husband is a watchman and they had put their one son in an English medium school so that he gets a much better life than theirs. Corona struck and both were rendered jobless. They got their salaries for two months but after that it was zilch. The three of them boarded a bus and left for Ratnagiri, their native place. Even there, they have just enough to eat two times a day. With patchy internet connection, their son is virtually out of online learning and wiles away his time chasing crows! Anjali and husband had never in their life thought that they would face such poverty when all through their lives, they worked at creating a secure home for themselves and their only child.

Then there was the story two days ago of Ashok Singh, crying, slumped on a road divider in King Circle, Mumbai, with swirling flood water around him. His sense of hopelessness resonated with many. The four months of lockdown and unlocking, had as such beaten him down. He somehow managed to raise money by pawning his wife’s gold and started a vegetable shop; unfortunately, the day he opened his shop after four months, the city was flooded to its brim and he had to down his shutters and throw away all the damaged veggies. His spirit was completely crushed and he was caught in that candid moment when he was at his most vulnerable.  Mumbaikars were moved by Singh’s plight and some Rs.2 lakh poured into his account from all over the city. Singh is overwhelmed and said he will now repay the Rs.10,000 loan he took from his brother and get his wife’s jewellery back by repaying Rs.30,000.

This is just a small glimpse into the plight of people; the human story of the pandemic. Apart from the disease itself causing havoc, the way it has upended lives of people is unimaginable. The human tragedy which we see around us today is huge – the poor have got poorer, all the rich have not got richer and the middle class can mutely see their opportunities shrink, jobs disappear and incomes getting thinner and thinner. Children have been forced to configure a new way of life; if we thought earlier that they were getting more and more introverted, they are fast losing more social skills in this pandemic. Young adults have graduated but they have nowhere to go and even the road ahead looks dark.

This is what India is all about today – not the Ram temple, not Sushant Singh and definitely not the stock market. The impact of the pandemic is so deep rooted that it is going to take years for many to climb back on the economic ladder.

The human tragedy came into focus and seems more profound in the backdrop of RBI allowing one-time restructuring of loans. 40% of corporate India’s loan is likely to be restructured. But what about people like Shaileshbhai, Anjali and Singh? When they form the majority of India’s population, how come nothing changes their plight. Singh is fortunate his picture struck a cord and Mumbaikars helped him out but what about so many more like him?

The common thread of complaint from all these street and small vendors – banks do not even entertain their request for a loan, forget getting it. So, what exactly did the Govt do for people like Shaileshbhai? We constantly talk only about the farmers and rural India but what about lakhs of people in urban India whose life is undergoing untold sufferings? And that is the suffering which needs to be addressed.

The human story unfolding in the backdrop of this pandemic is much more scarier than the Covid itself. Be it the RBI or the Govt, the faith of the people needs to be rebuilt and that would require more than fiscal measures when people stand with empty pockets and hearts filled with loathe.

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