We have all witnessed the cruel and inconsiderate ways in which livelihoods have been affected around the world with the onset of the pandemic. However, the inimical and perilous situations have not been distributed evenly amongst the citizens of the world, and especially in poorer countries like ours.
The divide between the haves and the have nots has poured out in immoderate amounts, blinding us and exposing the poor societal structure we have accepted as a canonical norm. The structural differences in preparedness are visible. One section of people roams around supermarkets, indulging in ‘panic buying’, while the other section can only afford panic.
Under normal circumstances, in an unfettered economy, the poverty trap is still theoretically escapable through savings, calculated, and minimal substitution of inferior goods by superior goods with an increase in disposable income. However, with the onset of the pandemic, the poverty trap seems inexorable and binding. The only way out is the influx of a large amount of aid which seems to be lacking on the ground.
Heavy numbers were flashed on newspapers and televisions of the said aid. But walking down Dharmatala in Central Calcutta, one of the busiest commercial areas of the city, at 7 am, those numbers resounded like empty promises on the sidewalks, bus stops and in the dismal eyes of the people I met there.
There were eight to ten men sitting on the sidewalk with their tools in front of them. They clutched on to their tools like the last straw in a storm and waited with eager eyes for work. They were day labourers, dependent on benevolent seekers who would hire them for a day and pay them their wages at the end of that day. The next day they would come back to the same spot with the same set of tools and a ravenous longing in their eyes. There were masons, painters, bricklayers, plumbers, and carpenters. They did not have a secure job, savings in the bank, an organisation or an institution that would support them on a contractual basis.
What they did, do have, is a tremendous temerity that looked the looming distress in the eye. Their struggle is for survival, a struggle that pans out every day, every hour, without an ounce of aegis.
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I started talking to them and understood that there has been a gradual decline in the aid that was being provided to them. In the initial days of the countrywide lockdown, local political cohorts had been providing food and essentials to these labourers.
As the days passed and the good karma got accumulated, the aid dwindled, and these labourers were left to the fate of a tilted societal space where work was extremely scanty. There was no structured intervention to help them with food, no temporary institution was formed where they could have been enlisted and work could have been allotted to them based on requirements gathered from around the city. Instead, they were left to sit on the sidewalk, at the wee hours of the morning, hoping that their tools don’t catch rust and their children don’t go to sleep hungry.
A little further down the road is a restaurant, “Nizams”. It is a Mughlai restaurant dating back to 1937, which claims to be the inventor of the famous Kathi Roll.
The restaurant has been closed for 5 months now and in front of the restaurant, three staff members from Nizams have started their own humble fast food centre called Ansar Fast Food. They sell halua wrapped in bhatura in the morning and chhole bhatura along with seekh kebabs in the evening.
They are on the payrolls of Nizams, but haven’t received a single penny since the restaurant shut down. The owner, Samar Nag, had promised them that their salaries would be paid even if the restaurant is closed and had asked them to get in touch with the manager, Dipankar Roy. However, both Dipankar Roy and Samar Nag have been unreachable by the staff. They invited me to have a look at the present condition of the restaurant. It was insalubrious and in a dilapidated condition. Neglect was clearly visible in the kitchen and in the seating area. The place where the staff used to retire after their shifts has become a dumping ground with variegated paraphernalia lying around making the entire place extremely unhygienic.
Nizams, the pride of Calcutta has been reduced to an unsettling hinterland. The cooks who made the delectable dishes that rolled in money and ensured that customers would satiate their hunger during favourable times have been left at the edge of privation and the management has taken no effort in supporting them. The irony is piercing. However, their entrepreneurial spirit helped them tide over the situation and fend for themselves.
The economic and social differences in our society have always loomed large, and they have now been evermore virulently exposed during this pandemic. The migrant labour crisis had taken the country by storm. The holes in the administrative abilities and intent of political cohorts have also been exposed.
Pandering to corporates and the well-cushioned middle class has taken empathy away from them. Catering to the daily labourers, migrant workers or people stuck in the poverty trap will not generate enough returns in the short run for any institution. The expected monetary utility of bridging the visible gap is low. There is a considerable amount of social utility that can be drawn from the process, but those olives are not celebrated by a society that has been wrapped in blind consumeristic passions.
If the well-cushioned section of the society can sustain itself, fancy things will be bought, the money will change hands and the rich will become richer, making the poverty trap an intractable abyss. The pandemic needs to force us to deconstruct our social and political consciousness. The distribution of capital has been skewed for too long, unchecked. The informal sector, with no recourse to savings, is being consistently overlooked and the cash transfers promised for them are being lost in the proverbial black box.
In due course of time, their existence will only be a variable in economic models. The despair is not idyllic, the despair is in the bones of the people on the streets. Political and social neutrality is a malaise that prevents us from identifying the rot that has set in the system. The privilege of owning luxurious commodities stands on thin ice against the privilege of survival. The world doesn’t owe anybody anything. Then why are we [the reader, you and I] better off than them?
These are some more pictures from that morning:
Tathagata Bhowmik is a independent singer songwriter.
All images provided by the author.