Living on the brink: ‘If UP govt had given us food, we would have stayed home… ab dekha jayega’

Asad Rehman

Surrounded by posh colonies of Lucknow, Akbar Nagar slum houses around 4,000 families.

With the entire country under lockdown amid coronavirus outbreak, the daily wage earners are among the worst-hit. With no means of earning and no relief in sight, daily labourers are staring at hunger and despair.

At Lucknow’s Akbar Nagar slum, surrounded by posh localities of Mahanagar and New Hyderabad, three men in their 20s with black masks sit on a parked cycle rickshaw, with eyes glued to their mobile phones’ screens. The three work as mechanics in a motor garage in the Lalbagh area of Hazratganj.

“Ek hafte se zyada ho gaya hai kaam pe gaye huey (It has been more than a week since we had gone to work),” says one of the youths.

The eldest among them, Mohammad Arif (21), says that his family has struggled since the day people were advised to shut shops and stay at home.

“On an average, we make around Rs 250 a day. Now, we have no cash. We are eating khichdi or roti-chutney. But soon, we are going to run out of that too,” says Arif, pointing to his shanty nearby.

Arif’s mother Ruksana (56), who has two other children besides the eldest Arif, comes out of the shanty to check if her son was in trouble.

“Are you here to distribute food?” she asks. She clicks her tongue in disappointment on told that no food was handed to people.

Complaining of receiving no help from the administration or government, she says, “Gareebon ki madad kaun karega (Who will help the poor).”

Arif’s father was a rickshaw puller, but is now too old to work and suffers from high blood pressure and has a heart disease.

The Akbar Nagar slum settlement is divided into two parts — new and old Akbar Nagar — and houses around 4,000 families. The settlement is surrounded by posh localities, including Badshah Nagar, Mahanagar and Paper Mill colony. Lucknow has a total of 350 slums settlements with daily wagers forming the majority of population here.

A few metres away from them, a woman, Sandhya (33) is cradling her crying baby in her arms. She works as a domestic help in three houses where she has been asked not to go.

“I have not worked for over a week. At one house in Badshah Nagar, I work on a daily basis. They pay me Rs 75 per day. But, because work has stopped, my earning has also been stopped. At other houses, I get a monthly salary, which is almost over. I don’t think I will get any salary next month,” says Sandhya, who has three children and a husband with a disability to feed.

Amreesh (33), who washes cars in posh Mahanagar neighbourhood, says his three children have been eating salt and roti for a week now. Sitting in his shanty with his four children and wife Jyoti, he says that work has stopped completely.

“Why would people want to get their cars washed when they don’t have to go anywhere. Also, the police are not letting us go anywhere. I had to go and collect money from an employer. But, I am scared. I saw on TV that policemen are beating up people who are venturing out,” says Amreesh, whose children are playing with a plastic toy gun.

“We are trying to keep them busy, but hunger is tough to control. I wish our netas knew how it is for the poor,” adds Amreesh, while his wife scolds him for “talking too much”.

At an intersection near Amreesh’s house, some people are talking of buying bananas in bulk. “Jo paisa hai, kela khareed lo (whatever money you have, buy bananas with that),” says the eldest Abdul Wahid (58), who has a family of seven to feed.

Asked if they are practising social distancing, Wahid says, “We are trying to, but we need to fill our stomach too. If the government had given us food, we would have stayed at home. Who doesn’t like lying down on the cot and watching TV all day.”

Razia Bano (31), who works as house help in Paper Mill Colony nearby, says, “We are constantly washing hands. Those who have soap are using it, those who don’t are doing without soap. All the women in the area are covering their face with their dupatta, while the men are wearing masks.”

Another woman, Geeta (41) interrupts Razia and says, “How will we maintain distance. Six of my family members live in one room. Some of the houses don’t even have proper toilets, so we have to go out in the open. But we are all trying our best.”

Lucknow division commissioner Mukesh Meshram said that relief will reach people very soon. “The process for transfer to daily wagers has already begun by the Labour department. Those who don’t have bank account, cash will be handed over to them. The database has already been prepared,” said Mehsram.

“Areas which have not received food relief till now will get it soon. From tomorrow, 10 janta kitchens will be started in the city, which will be set up at marriage halls, guest houses, etc. They will distribute foods to those in need,” he adds.

Radha (31) is visibly angry at how “the government has left the poor to die” and thinks the government should have planned the lockdown better.

“Bandi hai toh hum kya karein. Khana na khayein, marr jayein kya (What do we do if there is a lockdown? Should we not eat and die?), says Radha, whose husband works as a labourer and makes around Rs 400 a day, while she stays at home to look after their children.

“The rich have locked themselves to save themselves from this disease. But, what about us? How will we eat?” asks Radha and adds,

An elderly man, Naeem Khan, in his sixties walks up to Radha to console her and says, “Beta, parehsan mat ho. Sab mil kar iss musibat se jhoojh lenge (Don’t get worried. We will deal with this problem together.)”

Radha sits down on the ground and wipes the sweat on her forehead with her dupatta and asks, “Kya chacha. Kaise hoga? (How will it happen).”

With only hope as cue, Khan answers, “Dekha jayega (We will see).”