It was a hot July morning when I met Naren Das in the lobby of a private hospital in Guwahati. 48-year-old Naren, a fisherman from a village in North Assam, broke down when he narrated his plight during Covid-induced lockdown in March last year.
“The lockdown finished us. Not Covid-19 pandemic but the lockdown has made our life extremely difficult,” he said.
Most of the residents of his village belonging to the Kaivarta (scheduled caste) community and they earn their livelihood by catching and selling fish.
Even though barring a few families, none of them could make a huge profit from their traditional occupation, they never faced any difficulties and managed to run their families smoothly until the imposition of a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Not only had the Kaivartas, the people belonging to East Bengal-origin Muslims, who live in the char (sand bar) areas of Assam, also faced a similar fate.
Many of them, who are involved in fish selling, had lost their livelihood, as the movement of people was restricted and the market remained closed for months.
Disaster struck almost all the families of this village from March, 2020. As the government announced total lockdown, all boat transportation stopped from the other side of the rivers.
With the closing of all shops or markets in towns not only selling of fish came to a halt but even door-to-door vending too was not allowed. A few of them who were trying home delivery was caught by the police and beaten up black and blue. Getting scared, they stopped altogether. They had to survive with whatever little savings they had in their possession.
“In the past, I used to save some money at home as I didn’t have bank accounts. But, in the aftermath of demonetization, one got demotivated to do so. So, now, we have hardly any savings,” said Naren.
Finally, after months of total and partial lockdown, the markets were reopened. Naren found himself heavily debt-ridden. Forced to sell whatever ornaments his wife possessed, he had to restart from existence in debt. Slowly as his fish selling business was showing signs of recovery, once again lockdown was imposed this year.
This time there was hardly any savings with which his family could survive. There was nothing much of worth that could even be sold. The ‘strict vigil’ of police in all the alleys of the city made it impossible to sell fish by stealth! If he can’t earn a few rupees by selling fish then his family will die out of starvation.
“Government should have imposed lockdown keeping the wellbeing of everyone in mind. However, what will happen to the thousands of daily wage earners like us! If we can’t earn our livelihood, shall we not die of hunger before Covid kills us? Will those who get monthly salaries or pension comprehend our predicament!” he said.
A few years back four young entrepreneurs joined hands to start a hi-tech printing press in Guwahati. They were able to engage 35 persons in this printing establishment. As there is a total halt to all printing work in the last one and half years (though there was some activity during the Assam Assembly Elections, the amount earned was very little) the financial conditions of these entrepreneurs as well as the employees are precarious.
“We don’t have any other options now. With whatever little money we had in our possession we kept the establishment alive with that amount. Even when there’s no printing work, one has to regularly pay for electricity bills, house rent and other taxes. There were no slightest waivers for small industrialists like us,” said a city-based printing press owner.
“Most of these small and medium business-industrial firms from where the government was earning considerable revenue are almost bankrupt today. Unfortunately, the government has no financial package for us to revive them. On the contrary rates of trade licence, has been increased consistently. The machines are lying idle, while we are still making payments for electricity bills! We have no other options now, but to sell off the printing machines,” he added.
The third story is even more heart-wrenching. For the last few weeks, two youths were seen selling vegetables door to door in Rajgarh and Sarania localities of Guwahati. One of them is bespectacled. Both of them have a very worried look– seem to be always uncertain about their future.
While buying vegetables from them I enquired about how long they have been in this business, how is the business? The bespectacled one replied with some anxiety, “We are not regular vegetable sellers. We had a small eatery- used to sell pakora, tea, etc. in the evening. “
“A few used to have lunch during the daytime too. But, now, due to night curfew, we can’t open in the evening time and there is hardly any profit from day time sale. Just now we are struggling to pay monthly house rent in the city and to survive. With closed shops, how can we support our families? That’s why now we are doing this. Don’t know how long this is going to work,” he said.
The last remark made us shiver. Probably the authorities have overlooked how thousands of people around us moving towards starvation. There’s a huge livelihood challenge for these self-employed people. The publicity-hungry and propaganda-centric rulers are blissfully unaware of this inevitable tragedy.