Lockdown in Kolkata: For city’s unseen residents, these are uncertain times

Neha Banka

For many in Kolkata, this is the first time they have experienced a lockdown of this nature. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

Bachchu, 63, a flower seller in a local bazaar in Kolkata’s Park Circus area, has not seen his family in six days. In Kolkata, his is not a standalone story.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a three-week lockdown on March 24 to curb the spread of COVID-19. But the country coming to a total halt has hit its poorest citizens the hardest.

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“My family is in my village and I have told them to take essentials from the local kirana store, and to tell the owner that I will give him money when I return,” said Bachchu. In the stifling, humid heat of the city, Bachchu has temporarily taken off his black face mask for a break. In the usually busy market where people jostle for every square inch of space, most shops have closed and the few that remain open are struggling to deal with the onslaught of customers.

In Photos| Life comes to a standstill in Kolkata following lockdown

Local authorities have permitted the market to operate every day for limited hours — from 7 am to noon — and people from nearby homes throng to stock up on daily supplies. For small shopkeepers like Bachchu, these are difficult times. He has been compelled to raise prices of his flowers because costs have gone up for him as well. “I am buying the flowers on the black market. Pujas are ongoing, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten these marigold garlands,” he says.

Local authorities have permitted the market to operate every day for limited hours. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

The nine-day Hindu festival of Navratri means that his customers have requirements for specific flowers and he knows what they need. “I took a friend’s bicycle to Howrah to get these flowers at 12:30 am last night and returned at 3:30 am in the morning, paying double for these marigold garlands. But there is no solution. The suppliers are also facing difficulties,” says Bachhu.

A mobile phone is his only mode of communication with his family for now. “I am very worried. How can I not be? But what do I say?” he asks. He understands why the government put the country under a lockdown, but had allowances been made for transportation to suburban West Bengal, it would have helped people like Bachchu.

Read| ‘We may survive from corona but not hunger’: Bengal’s daily wage workers struggle for survival

Food has been difficult for daily-wage earners like Bachchu and they have been surviving on packets of muri — dried, puffed rice grains, and batasha — small discs of unrefined sugar. Most shopkeepers in the market rely on small roadside eateries for their daily meals, but with these closed, food has been hard to find. For dinner, he goes to a friend’s home in the city and pays him for the extra costs. Deep inside the market, Bachchu says shopkeepers like him find places to sleep.

A few meters away in the bazaar, a young shopkeeper sits under the shade of a large umbrella, without a face mask, watching music videos on his mobile phone, selling bunches of green grapes for Rs 100 per kilo. “I’ve left it to Allah. What can I do?” he says, declining to give his name.

In this market, especially at the kirana store, customers aren’t engaging in social distancing and only a few have a face mask or a handkerchief tied around their faces. The shopkeeper and his assistants have no time to talk, sweating bullets wearing face masks, as they try to deal with as many people as they can, before the shop closes for the day at 2 p.m.

The local shops especially the kirana store sees a lot of customers who don't usually engage in social distancing. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

At a meat shop and restaurant nearby that usually has a busy crowd during lunchtime, the shopkeepers are sitting on plastic chairs outside, having closed their kitchens and operations. A recorded message of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee plays all around the marketplace reminding people to maintain a distance from others and engage in personal hygiene.

On the first few days of the lockdown, people were still milling about the streets, with some others in the Park Circus area racing down the empty roads on their motorbikes, taking advantage of the empty roads in an otherwise congested area. “Initially people were not understanding the severity of the situation and about the virus,” said Anuj Sharma, Commissioner of Kolkata Police, in an interview with indianexpress.com. But over the past few days, he has observed the situation change in the city. “These are not normal circumstances. People need to maintain social distancing and need to stop going out.”

Abhishek Dasgupta, 31, an HR professional, says he has been facing difficulties finding medicines for his parents. “Chemist shops, even though open throughout the day, aren’t able to restock many medicines and are unsure when the stock will come next. I haven’t been able to buy half of the medicines for my elderly parents as there is no stock,” he says. The medical supply chain has been impacted globally since COVID-19 cases began rapidly increasing in China in January this year.

In Dasgupta’s south Kolkata neighbourhood of Garia, silence has descended and most people are adhering to the lockdown. “Food shops are only open in the morning between 6-9 am. They are fairly stocked, but because of the small window when they are open, it’s causing people to crowd, which isn’t a good thing,” says Dasgupta.

In a residential building in south Kolkata, security guards have been unable to go home after the local trains shut down this week. For the past four days, they have been sleeping in the building premises itself, without any change in their shift because their colleagues have been unable to come in to work. Some residents in the building have been providing them with food because the roadside eateries they frequent for their meals have downed their shutters, and have provided them with face masks. Facing physical exhaustion and unable to see their families, they are holding on for now, using mobile phones to get updates from home.

In the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, lines start forming outside Metro Cash & Carry, a wholesale supermarket, even before it opens every morning. Arka Bhattacharya, 30, a Santoshpur resident, shared a photo of the long, winding queues on Thursday morning and told indianexpress.com that people were seen buying supplies to last them at least for a month. “There wasn’t any chaos per se, but there were some unruly people trying to jump the line.” Many seem to be hoarding supplies, believes Bhattacharya, due to fears that the supply of necessary goods may be impacted in the days to come.

In the Lake Gardens neighbourhood in south Kolkata, newspaper deliveries have stopped as have local laundry services, where clothes are given for folding and ironing, says Natasha Roy, 30, a lawyer who practises in Calcutta High Court. The sweepers and cleaners have stopped coming in as well, she says. According to Roy, domestic help who come in each day to work in homes in the neighbourhood have also stopped services. “Though they stay walking-distance (from Roy’s home), apparently their neighbours and other domestic help have all decided not to step out and are stopping people if they do,” says Roy.

(Chowringhee, Kolkata) Police has observed a drop in petty crimes like thefts and house break-ins due to the lockdown in the city. (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

The effect of the national shutdown is being felt across socio-economic groups and across professions. With the courts closed across the country, the overburdened Indian legal system may feel additional strain when courts open again. “Most of us who practise get paid according to the number of appearances we make in court or the number of documents we draft or the meetings and arbitrations we attend. So now since there is no work, there is no payment,” says Roy.

According to Roy, till recently, many of her clients were unable to understand why cases were not being heard in court, despite Calcutta High Court orders stating that only urgent matters would be taken up. The lockdown means no work for many lawyers because meetings with clients are not possible in the current situation.

“The suspension of judicial proceedings will have a major effect on the pendency of cases and we will see a steep increase in the pendency of matters because during the lockdown none of the cases will be disposed off,” says Namrata Basu, 30, another city-based lawyer. “We are receiving innumerable calls as clients are frantically asking us about the status of proceedings.” Basu says young lawyers, especially those who have just started out in the profession have been severely impacted due to the loss of earnings.

The deserted streets of New Market, Kolkata (Express Photo by Neha Banka)

Following the announcement of the lockdown, the Bar Council of India urged the Prime Minister and states across the country to help lawyers who needed financial assistance, proposing a monthly allowance of Rs. 20,000. However, there has been no development on this front as yet.

“There are hundreds of lawyers and registered clerks in the High Court at Calcutta and several more assistants who earn on the basis of filing documents. These people would be severely affected by this lockdown because they wouldn’t have any savings,” says Basu. The situation will be even more dire for lawyers practising in subordinate courts in the city and across West Bengal.

Banks and ATMs are continuing their operations in the city and a cash crunch has not been observed as yet since the lockdown was enforced three days ago. Across the Kolkata metropolitan area, Kolkata Police and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s office have been monitoring the situation on the ground.

Banerjee has been making rounds around the city along with the Commissioner of Police, broadcasting her visits live on Facebook. In major marketplaces across the city, Banerjee was seen drawing chalk circles in front of vendors to demarcate the approximate distance people should maintain in such public spaces, an initiative that appears to have appealed to her followers.

For many in Kolkata, this is the first time they have experienced a lockdown of this nature. “People get agitated. I have asked police officers to be understanding of the situation,” says Sharma, responding to reports of police aggression against people reportedly violating lockdown rules. According to Sharma, police personnel have been given face masks for personal use and have been provided training to deal with the situation in the city, along with information on how to maintain personal hygiene for themselves and their families.

Kolkata Police has observed a drop in petty crimes like thefts and house break-ins due to the lockdown in the city, but Sharma believes it is too early to ascertain any trends. On the fourth day of the lockdown, while some private cars have been out and about on the streets, an otherwise busy metropolis has fallen silent.

In central Kolkata, the chaos of the business district is absent and the neighbourhoods of Esplanade, Chowringhee and Park Street, devoid of hawkers, pedestrians and cars, look like they never have even during national holidays and bandhs. Most pavement dwellers have left their usual spots on the city’s streets.

In the neighbourhood of Park Circus, one pavement dweller exits a nearby pharmacy carrying a face mask and some medicines, walking barefoot, uninterested in answering questions. For many of the city’s invisible residents, these are challenging and uncertain circumstances.