COVID-19 Lockdown and Resilience: Narratives from the Ground
Location — Guwahati, Assam
Saraswati Das (65) an elderly woman staying in Santipur railway gate no 10. basti, lives alone and has survived two-three meals daily for weeks by picking rotten potatoes from the roadside and eating it with plain rice during the lockdown. ‘I used to work as a domestic worker to earn a living before the lockdown, which has completely stopped now. My sons and their families do not support me either.’ she states.
With the shortage of water supply in her area, her only option to access water was to collect it from nearby localities without getting caught. This has been challenging. Whenever she was caught in the act, abusive words were hurled at her by the neighbours. Before lockdown, they used to fetch water from the Brahmaputra river situated near their area, but armed forces deployed in the streets due to the lockdown wouldn’t allow them to collect water from the river.
To secure ration supplies amidst the lockdown, YUVA Guwahati team received numerous calls from Saraswati and many like her, appealing for support. Some callers said that they have been skipping meals at night for days and just eating once a day.
‘I do not have a ration card, so I am unable to receive ration, because I couldn’t provide the necessary documents’, says Saraswati. We noticed these situations among most of the domestic workers . They could not apply for a ration card as they couldn’t furnish proof of permanent address and other necessary documents needed which they were unable to produce. Although the Food Corporation of India (FCI) claims to have supplied about 3.51 lakh tons of food grains for distribution to the poor via ration shops in the region under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana and National Food Security (NFSA), the main concern remains of the low-income groups living in the region without a ration card and with no other source of income! They are not benefiting from the economic package and many among them are street vendors, rickshaw pullers, unregistered construction workers, domestic workers, bus/auto, rickshaw drivers, waste recyclers, etc. Some are migrant workers from different states and districts and are now facing severe economic crises because of the lack of proper documents and a permanent place to hold on to.
To add to it all, the devastating floods that hit the state this year were by far the worst, as per the latest reports. About 107 people have died in flood related incidents and above 16 lakh are affected at a time when we are already bearing the burden of a pandemic. Additionally, like the Santipur slum that is built on railway land, other informal settlements in Guwahati established on railway land, private land, wetlands and hills, have increased to 163 (according to a recent Pradhan Manri Awas Yojana [PMAY] survey), but lack of regulations, notifications from the Government, proper lease or pattas, and deprivation from benefits under the flagships schemes like PMAY, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM), etc. has put them under continuous threat of evictions.
Since 2018, the state of Assam has been at the centre of the national discourse, mainly due to the furor over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Simultaneously, the state was also not spared from disasters such as floods and erosion, and state-driven forced eviction drives led to loss of lives, habitat and livelihoods. With the pandemic, the loss of economic activities and wages has doubled putting people in a vulnerable spot.
Though different individuals/groups/organisations have done exemplary work trying to support communities and low-income groups in Guwahati, the relief resources have been limited. ‘Fatigued eyes of men, women and children, standing in long queues for hours to secure three to five kgs of rice, dal and other goods exposed the failure to uphold constitutional rights of all’, said Pooja Nirala, Consultant, YUVA Guwahati team.
The state and country are preparing to unlock and resume economic life, but most of the workers have not been able to retain their jobs. Though Assam is preparing for unlock, more than 57,000 COVID positive cases have been reported till date and it is increasing at an alarming rate with every passing day, making workers perplexed about their safety in resuming work too.
As Saraswati exclaims, ‘Maa! lockdown is not favourable for people like us’.
Syeda Mehzebin Rahman, City Associate, YUVA, Guwahati
‘COVID-19 Lockdown and Resilience: Narratives from the Ground’ is a series through which we are showcasing community voices and experiences in lockdown, people’s resilience and the continued struggle for their rights. Stay tuned!