“No one likes to beg, people have started looking for other work; they will not continue to beg,” says a determined Tasvir, trying to mask the suffering and struggle of months and trying to find hope in the bleakest of situations. But does his community really have alternatives?
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Tasvir belongs to the ‘Pardhi’ tribe, members of which are scattered across Bhopal and its fringes. In an earlier article, we had described how the COVID-induced lockdown had brought them face to face with hunger and malnourishment, making them entirely dependent on the charity of civil society organisations.
Deprived of their livelihoods and meagre earnings, many of them had turned to begging but with restrictions being lifted in Bhopal and across the country, the community is also trying to rebuild their lives. But the road proves to be no less arduous now.
Before lockdown, members of the Pardhi community were mostly engaged in occupations such as Manihari (mobile vending of wares), scrap collection, as head-loaders, construction workers, agriculture labourers and occasional work in marriages or small parties. It was also reported that a few owned small patch of lands, but outside Bhopal.
Our discussions and newspaper reports reveal that a few members did sometimes resort to thieving or illegal hunting (although hunting was their traditional occupation and was declared illegal after the passage of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972) but were driven to this by extreme poverty. However, employment does not come easily for Pardhis due to the common association of criminality with the community.
Disappearing sources of income
‘Manihari‘ or mobile vending (of household items such as metal rings, pearls, threads of different colour and bangles), takes them from one locality to another and fairs organised in the city and nearby areas. The work is tedious, with poor margins and not without verbal and physical abuse. But even these avenues have disappeared now,Narender Singh says, “ Manihari ka dhanda ekdum khatam ho gya hai. Abhi tak kaam shuru nai hua hai! (The business of mobile vending has come to a complete standstill. Work is yet to begin after the lockdown).”
Post lockdown the business is yet to pick-up due to restrictions in mobility, lack of savings that they can reinvest and absence of public fairs and fetes. Several localities do not allow them to sell their wares even at the door, due to the fear associated with the pandemic.
The situation with scrap workers and waste pickers is no different. Even in regular times, such occupations are market-dependent and bring low and erratic income. During the lockdown, this meagre source of income was lost too, leaving them fully unemployed.
Post lockdown, the availability of waste and scrap is minimal; the associated market has crashed; resulting in the reduction of prices by almost 50% irrespective of the quality of the scrap or waste.
These people are also unable to commute to far-off places to collect scrap or waste due to limited transportation facilities. The intra-city buses are not plying at full strength at present, and even when they do, they do not allow the Pardhis to travel with their load of scrap in the bus. With the increase in diesel prices, the fares for bus, small tempo and auto services have become costlier. The entire situation has only made these families poorer and more vulnerable.
The current situation is rightly captured by one of the respondents, where he says, “Aas pass kitna kachra binegaay” (how much scrap can we collect from nearby localities?) A few families with two-wheelers can still afford to go to other corners of the city in search of scrap but there again, police checking has gone up, which given the exploitative relation between the two, has made lives more difficult. With the onset of monsoon, the chances of income from waste and scrap collection are anyway bleak.
In Rajiv Nagar, a few families working as head-loaders in the transport sector have started going back to work, but availability is still uncertain and inadequate. The same holds true for those families working in the farm and construction sector. During the lockdown, there was a complete suspension of work loss in both sectors and the workers were unable to contact their regular employers. Not only did they not get any help from employers or contractors, neither, the dues from earlier work were also not released.
With the reopening of the economy, a few of the Pardhi families found work in locations where construction started. However, due to heavy rains in the city, construction has stopped and they find themselves unemployed again. There is no certainty of getting any other work immediately.
No money for farming
A few of these families do have small land-holdings, but refrained from returning to their villages for agriculture work. Whatever savings they had, if any at all, were used up during the lockdown and now they have no money left to invest in agriculture. As Narendra Singh says, “Our savings are all exhausted, where shall we find the means to start agricultural work? Only those who had some money went back and were able to sell the crops locally and re-invest in growing soybean. A few families were fortunate to have relatives back in the village, who took care of the crops during the lockdown and are growing soya bean now.”
Faced with such circumstances, several women and children resorted to begging during the lockdown, resigned to the atrocities and abuses this would bring.
Rebuilding lives and livelihoods
During our discussions with members of the tribes, we found out that a few households in Rajiv Nagar had started selling fruits and vegetables even before the lockdown commenced. But as all economic activities except “essentials” hit the pause button, they were unable to continue the business because they could not get a vendor’s pass.
Now after the lockdown has ended, they have neither the economic means nor the mental strength to re-start the business. As a result, they have stopped selling vegetables and are searching for other work opportunities. Muskaan (a Bhopal-based NGO) is extending financial help and technical guidance for setting up vegetable shops and carts for the community.
A few years ago, ten households had set up shops in the city’s New Market, hoping to earn a decent living from trade here. New Market is a shopper’s hub and the sales on Sundays is usually high with a significantly high number of footfalls in the market. The Pardhi members expected that this would help them to break even quickly.
During the lockdown, business came to a complete stop. Now, even after activities have been resumed partially, new rules mandate closure of markets on Sundays. Hence the business has turned into a financial liability for the shopkeepers.
To tide over the financial crisis, several households have started fishing for self-consumption. If they find a good catch, they sell it in the local market. It is interesting to note that it is mostly male members who go for fishing, while the women go for scrap collection.
Post-lockdown, people across the country are slowly discovering ways to resume economic activities, though the momentum may be slow. But for marginalised, exploited urban communities such as Pardhis, the conditions are far worse than for many others. The series of lockdowns, including the recent 10-day complete lockdown in the city, coupled with the lack of support from the State, makes their future appear very bleak indeed.