Bhilwara: In India’s first district to go on lockdown, workers battle hunger and uncertainty

Bhilwara, a textiles and mining hub, was one of the first districts in India to be locked down following fears of community transmission. It’s taking a heavy toll on the poor.

ByAnumeha Yadav
Bhilwara: In India’s first district to go on lockdown, workers battle hunger and uncertainty
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On March 21, Ashok Gehlot became the first chief minister to announce a lockdown in India, stopping all movement within and into Rajasthan. Three days earlier, three doctors and as many nurses at a private hospital in Bhilwara, a city in southeastern Rajasthan, had tested positive for coronavirus.

The Brijesh Bangar Memorial Hospital is one of the region’s largest multispecialty hospitals. In the weeks before the medical staff started showing symptoms, they had met at least 6,192 patients from 13 of the state’s districts and 39 patients from outside Rajasthan.

Rajasthan is India’s largest state by size with a population of over 76 million. Authorities feared that community transmission might have already begun in the state, and that the Bhilwara hospital could turn into a major site for the spread of the coronavirus.

So, six days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown, the Rajasthan government sealed the private hospital, closed off Bhilwara, and placed the district’s 2.4 million population on lockdown. The large number of residents now facing the prospect of community transmission has drawn comparisons with Italy.

While Jaipur, the capital, and Jhunjhunu, a district in northern Rajasthan, had also recorded a spike in positive cases in the week before the lockdown, the patients had all travelled abroad or had contact with those who had returned from abroad. In Bhilwara, the authorities say, the affected doctors and their colleagues in the department of internal medicine do not have a recent history of travelling abroad. It’s suspected that they could have contracted the virus from a 52-year old man with pneumonia whom authorities did not test for coronavirus before he died, or from a doctor who had gone to an Udaipur resort for Holi on March 9.

Rajendra Bhatt, the Bhilwara district collector, told Newslaundry that since the first infections, over 600 samples have been tested and 19 have come back positive. All have been traced to the hospital, including 15 of its staff and four patients.

“We have 2,200 teams of three members each conducting a door-to-door survey of over 3,40,000 households. In rural areas, we have four-five member teams going door to door,” said Bhatt. “We are enquiring about upper respiratory conditions and flu symptoms in this population.”

The district administration has placed 6,445 persons under watch. These are people the hospital staff and the patients had been in contact with. Meanwhile, marginal workers on farms, in factories, mines and stone quarries are braced for hunger and anxiety, as they wait for relief to reach them.

Bhilwara city on lockdown.

Bhilwara city on lockdown.

Several lakh people work as casual and contract labourers in and around Bhilwara city’s 10 industrial areas with 15,734 registered units and numerous smaller workshops that produce synthetic yarn, woolens, cotton yarn and fabric. The annual exports total over Rs 1,100 crore.

Around 10 km from Bhilwara city, Rakesh Berwa, who works in a thread manufacturing company called Sangam Spinners, has run out of food, nine days after the lockdown.

“We are in a very difficult state. We can’t get food and we can’t go out,” he told Newslaundry over the phone. “There are six people in my family. I have no money left for food expenses.”

Berwa is from the village of Rawasana Dungar in Sawai Madhopur in north Rajasthan, 450 km away. He has worked at Sangam Spinners for 12 years and received his last salary of Rs 10,000 on March 8. The cash has run out.

“We live in a rented house. After the lockdown was announced, the landlord who lived nearby moved to his second house,” he said. “About 150 workers stuck with us here, near Kalika Hotel near Mandafiya railway station, are from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. They work in different factories.”

Berwa, an Adivasi worker, said he repeatedly tried calling the state control room and helpline for assistance. “I have been calling since yesterday. No ration reached, no person reached. Once they replied saying we are reaching in half an hour. I waited, but no one reached,” he said. “Then, when I kept trying, they said the team came and left as they could not find us. How could this be? No one came. If they had come, wouldn’t they have called us and said come outside and take food supplies?”

“There is no food left now, none,” he added, sounding exhausted.

Berwa

Gehlot, extending the lockdown to the entire state on March 21, said the state had set up a “core group” under the additional chief secretary, Home, to examine problems being faced by the public, and to ensure no one faced scarcity of food. He also asked employers to give paid leave to workers in all categories until at least March 31 and not retrench anyone.

Santosh Punia is a programme manager with Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit which runs a helpline for daily wage and industrial workers. The bureau is now being used to assist in relief measures. They are getting 400 calls daily from daily wage workers and casual labourers who are stuck without food and facing retrenchment and wage cuts.

“We are able to coordinate basic relief efforts in other districts but we aren’t able to help in Bhilwara,” Punia said. “There is an absolute shutdown there, thousands are in quarantine, and policemen are standing outside houses.”

He added: “There are far fewer distribution points in Bhilwara compared to, say, Udaipur which has 30 centres. Fewer ration shops are open, not even grocery or milk stores are open there. We are also encountering resistance from lower ranking officials who do not wish to go there to the distribution points without adequate protection.”

In rural areas like Bhilwara, where 1.8 million of its 2.4 million people live, marginal and daily wage workers, and those working against wage advances such as in brick kilns and mines, said they have got no support from employers and no information on how they can access state relief.

Bhilwara is home to one of India’s largest brick centres, producing four crore insulation bricks a year. It has over 200 kilns in peri-urban and rural areas with a total production of 100 crore bricks per annum, said Sudhir Katiyar, who heads the Prayas Centre for Labor Research and Action, a non-profit.

These kilns employ 40,000 migrants, Katiyar said, most of whom are landless agricultural labourers from Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh and near Bhagalpur in Bihar who migrate to Bhilwara in non-farming months for cash advances given by kilns.

“Entire families, along with women and children, make the bricks, for which kiln owners pay a ‘kharchi’ – a wage at per piece rate, Rs 500-600 for every 1,000 bricks the workers make,” Katiyar said. “The workers, usually from Dalit castes, routinely face violence and coercion from kiln owners.”

Susheela Devi is a migrant worker from Bundelkhand who has worked months every year for 10 years in Bhilwara’s kilns. On March 25, she said her family has food stocks that would last two days at most.

“Kiln work was closed because of coronavirus. The owner paid us ‘kharchi’ three weeks back, but it is now finished,” Susheela said. “We have no information about where we can get food relief from.”

Susheela has Rs 200 in the bank. “Can Rs 200 save a family? There are 40 such families here,” she said. “We have been told to stay inside our houses or huts, cover our faces, and stay inside day and night. But getting food is a challenge. What services would we have living in the middle of nowhere? The ration shop is 10 km away.”

Susheela Devi

Ramcharan and the seven members of his family work at a brick kiln as well. His family got Rs 7,000 on March 8 for making around 13,500 bricks, at the rate of Rs 520 per 1,000 bricks.

“We have no money now,” Ramcharan said. “We have two and a half kilos of rice, two kilos of aata.The cooking oil is finished. If we eat less, we can make the grains last for two meals.”

Ramcharan’s family has a below poverty line ration card, but he can use it to get subsidised food rations as a National Food Security Act beneficiary only in his village in Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, 1,100 km away. “When I heard on my mobile that it is a 21-day junta curfew because of corona, I called the owner who lives in Asind, 12 km from us, and said please give ‘kharcha’, cash for our expenses. He told me, ‘Call the government or the collector.’ There are 200 of us here at the klin, including 25 women, children, and 14 small children.”

Ramcharan with his family.

Ramcharan with his family.

Credits: Photo taken by a coworker.

Ramcharan did not know that Bhilwara was under stricter restrictions because of the positive cases at the hospital. He had heard about the government announcing rations and paid leave for everybody, though. Of the 200 people who work at Sangam kilns in Bhilwara’s Mandal block, two or three workers have bank accounts, he said. “No one except one or two of us has a ration card and none of us is covered under the pensions scheme.” He was referring to the Union Rural Development Ministry’s National Social Assistance Pensions for elderly, disabled, widows.

He also knew that train and bus services had been shut down. “We have seen on the mobile that if the police find us or catch us, they will beat us.”

Ramcharan

Lakhs of miners, transport workers, and head-loaders work for per piece rates and daily wages in more than 1,700 sandstone mines in Bijolia and Mandalgarh.

The economic as well as health crisis in Bhilwara and adjoining districts is particularly grim because they have very poor populations, and lakhs of miners who are already affected by respiratory diseases.

As per the Rajasthan Food and Civil Supplies department, of the 8.3 lakh families in the district, 1,43,215 live below the poverty line and 28,336 qualify as “Antodaya”, that is, the poorest of the poor.

The National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 shows that 27.5 percent of rural women and 24.3 percent of all women in Bhilwara are underweight and have body mass index below normal; nearly 29.9 percent of rural men have body mass index below normal as well. Among children between six months to five years of age, 72.6 percent of children in rural families are anemic. Only 21.8 percent rural families and 22.6 of all families have any member covered by a health scheme or health insurance.

The villages in Bijolia and Mandalgarh are dotted with sandstone quarries. Tonnes of sandstone excavated and processed in the area makes its way through Gujarat’s Kandla port to the United States, western Europe, and the United Arab Emirates for use as cobbles and tiles in pavements and buildings.

Marginal farm workers from nearby districts and outside Rajasthan migrate to Bhilwara every year to work as casual labourers in sandstone mines. Bijolia’s 1,556 sandstone quarries generated a revenue of Rs 117 crore between 2014 and 2017, but the workers lack work contracts, social security or any health benefits. Many of the workers live with tuberculosis, and more than 1,500 suffer from silicosis, a non-infectious, fatal respiratory illness caused from inhaling fine silica dust through prolonged exposure in the quarries.

Thousands of marginal farm workers from within and outside Rajasthan migrate to Bhilwara every year to work as labourers in sandstone mines.

Thousands of marginal farm workers from within and outside Rajasthan migrate to Bhilwara every year to work as labourers in sandstone mines.

Credits: Anumeha Yadav

Ratan Bhil, a 58-year-old Adivasi worker, who worked in factories in Delhi in his youth and then as a miner in Bijolia before being laid up by illness, said in his village in Mangarh, most miner families are out of all resources after nine days of the lockdown.

“This is a mining area and we are all very poor. All work in the mines has stopped,” he said. “The police and the administration have said ‘stop work’, and people have no money. Cities and banks are closed and people cannot get any cash. We are not able to get food services. Section 144 is imposed and we cannot go out of our homes.”

Bhil said farmers in the area grow wheat and flour mills in their village could have processed enough to help them tide over the lockdown. “But it has rained. As I am talking to you, it is raining. The harvested wheat crop has become wet. It will take weeks to process and eat it,” he added. “For the next one month we have no means at all to eat.”

Bhil said he has a ration card but the ration shop in the Magarh has been closed for now.

Ratan Bhil

Govind Meena, a 32-year old Adivasi worker, who has worked in the sandstone mines since he was 20, said no food stocks or relief had reached his village in Bijoliakhurd and he did not yet have information on how relief would be distributed.

“There are eight to 10 people in the quarry I work in and each quarry makes stone slabs which are exported to foreign countries, it is a long supply chain. We are home and the mines are closed. We have two or three days’ ration left.”

He had received information that an alert had been declared across Bhilwara against the spread of the coronavirus. “We are around 500 families in a small village with one small grocery shop,” he said. “No one has reached here and there are no stocks in the shop.”

Govind Meena

Responding to queries about the lack of access to food in many places, Bhatt, the district collector, said the administration was trying to ensure no one slept hungry. “Though it is very challenging, we are delivering dry ration packets to beggars, brick kilns, stranded factory workers,” he said. He added that to protect the government and contractual staff who would be delivering the relief and conducting door-to-door surveys, the state had reserved 1,30,000 face masks to be made at a textile factory in Bhilwara.

Further, the administration had taken over all private hospitals, hotels, resorts for use as isolation wards under the Epidemic Diseases Act.

On Thursday morning, Bhatt had dry food packets containing 5 kg flour, 1 kg rice, 1 kg pulses, half a liter cooking oil, and salt delivered to the families of 200 brick workers at Sangam kiln in Mandal block after Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a campaign for rural workers’ rights, intervened based on information shared by Newslaundry. Susheela Devi and Ramcharan confirmed they had received dry rations for 200 families.

Kavita Srivastav of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, one of the civil society organisations working with the administration to provide cooked food packets to the workers until the state or central relief reaches them, said the state must step up to ensure nutrition for all.

“The challenge is to identify pockets within pockets of who is most vulnerable and assist them on priority,” she said. “Employers, whether at factories or kilns, must also step up and provide the administration lists of those who work for them, and also transfer their wages. The sub divisional magistrates must ensure such lists are supplied by all employers.”

The Rajasthan government has taken the crucial step of providing food rations to all rather than just the 1.14 crore families that are National Food Security Act beneficiaries, she said. Now, it must extend the Rs 1,000 cash payment provided to 60 lakh elderly persons, widows and disabled registered for the National Social Assistance Program to all 1.14 crore ration card holders.

Nikhil Dey, a social activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, said this was an “unprecedented and extraordinary crisis”. “It is a relief that the Rajasthan government has stated that they will disburse food rations and food packets without asking for documentary proof of being a ration scheme beneficiary,” said Dey. “But as to the means of distribution, a lot of details and transparency are required. If someone is not getting their due, who should they go to? How will you deliver the rations safely for everyone? How will you deliver the cash? Not only civil society, but panchayats and 1.1 lakh ward members from across the state should be involved to report if anyone is hungry or ill.”

He added that the state’s decision in Bhilwara of taking over private establishments such as hospitals and hotels showed what an unprecedented moment this was: “Society as a whole needs to come together in this crisis, it cannot be each one looking out for themselves. It needs extraordinary thinking and communication, and the understanding that resources are everyone’s and they will be put to use. You cannot make the poor the collateral damage of this crisis, the poor are the backbone of this country.”

Additional chief secretary, Home, Rajeeva Swarup, who heads the state task force on COVID-19, did not respond to phone calls and SMS requests for comment.

Also Read : Attacks on journalists, migrant workers struggling to go home: India’s lockdown is taking a toll
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