COVID-19 lockdown: Labourers from unorganised sector in HP stare at uncertain future

Shimla, Mar 26 (PTI) Bilal (22), a porter, has been cooped up in a room at Jama Masjid near Mall Road here for days now, stepping out only to buy food from a dhaba within the mosque complex.

Amid the spiralling number of COVID-19 cases in the country, people have largely stayed indoors, reducing work opportunities for porters who make a living by carrying heavy loads to homes and shops up and down the hilly roads.

Future appeared more uncertain for Bilal when the Himachal Pradesh government announced a complete lockdown across the state on Monday to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Then came Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement on Tuesday of a 21-day nationwide lockdown starting midnight to break the chain of transmission of coronavirus.

A native of Jammu and Kashmir's Anantnag district, Bilal has been spending most of his time worrying how he will manage to make ends meet when his savings run out.

'I used to earn Rs 500-1,500 daily but I have not earned even a single penny for the last 10-12 days. Work had started drying up days before the Himachal Pradesh government imposed a lockdown,' Bilal, who has been working as a porter for five years, told PTI.

'I have some savings which I am using now to buy food and other eatables from a dhaba in the Jama Masjid complex.

'I don't know how I will buy food after I run out of money in the next few days. There is no possibility of finding any work at least till the 21-day lockdown ends on April 14,' he said.

Bilal is not the only one facing an uncertain future. There are many other labourers from the unorganised sector who are sailing in the same boat.

In Himachal Pradesh's Hamirpur district, Jagat Ram, a native of Bihar, is worried that his dream to build a better life for himself and his family will be cut short if he is unable to find work soon.

'It will be a very grim situation for me and my family,' Ram said.

Mantran Devi and Simrto Devi, labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh respectively, are also living off their savings from the past six months.

On Monday, the Himachal Pradesh government announced a one-time financial assistance of Rs 2,000 each for about 1.5 lakh labourers registered with the Building and Construction Workers Board.

It also announced a Rs 500-crore relief package for the poor but did not announce any help for labourers in the unorganised sector.

On Thursday, Hamirpur Deputy Commissioner Harikesh Meena said essential items will be provided to migrant labourers in the district.

'There is no shortage of essential commodities in the district and if need be all sorts of help will be provided to the people.

'Migrant labourers living in various parts of the district will be provided 10 kg flour, five kg rice, pulses, salt, oil and spices. All this will cost around Rs 700 to 800 per packet and it will be borne by the district Red Cross Society and Sidh Baba Balak Nath Temple Trust, Deotsidh,' he said.

This comes amid demands by opposition leaders for government assistance for labourers in the unorganised sector.

Leader of Opposition Mukesh Agnihotri has sought the creation of a Rs 1-crore fund for deputy commissioners of all 12 districts in the state on the lines of Punjab to meet any eventuality.

He has also demanded that arrangements be made to provide meals to labourers from the unorganised sector at Rs 20 as done by the Kerala government.

CPM MLA Rakesh Singha has said labourers from the unorganised sector should be identified and food items delivered to them in this time of crisis.

The total number of coronavirus cases in the country has risen to 649. Himachal Pradesh has reported three cases so far, according to the Union health ministry. PTI DJI DIV DIV