Rekha works as a household help in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat, one of the more affluent colonies in the city. Prime Minister Narendra Modi might have announced a 21-day lockdown to fight the global coronavirus pandemic, but Rekha stepped out anyway to go to work.
“The people here force me to come. When we mention coronavirus and the lockdown, some of them still insist that we come,” she told Newslaundry. “What do we do? We cannot say no. Our livelihood depends on them.”
Rekha is one of 395 million workers who belong to India’s unorganised sector, which comprises nearly 86 percent percent of the workforce, according to a 2005 NCEUS . They’re also by the lockdown. Over the last few days, social media has been peppered with photographs of migrant workers struggling to return home, even as most states suspended public transportation. This morning, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a for the poor, primarily focusing on migrant labourers and daily wage workers.
In the meantime, people like Rekha continue to go to work. She works at five houses, but three of her employers have asked her not to come. She has no idea if they’ll still pay her.
“It’s very uncertain. We’ll only get to know by the end of the month,” she said. “We feel helpless. My husband started a new business some months ago and the rent of that shop is 20,000. How will we pay that?”
Rekha, her husband, and their two children live in one small rented room near Shahpur Jat, where they cook, sleep and sit. The rent is Rs 6,000 per month and it’s very difficult to maintain social distance, she said, if one of them is unwell.
Her troubles don’t end here. Rekha, like many others, had a ration card in her village, but she doesn’t have one in Delhi.
“Vegetables and other essential items are getting more expensive by the day. We request the government to please help us,” she said. “We’ll be happy eating even chutney and roti. The trains have closed down or we would have returned home. At least we wouldn’t have had to pay any rent there and we would have had what we grow on our farm.”
Rekha watches the news on television every day, she said, and is aware of the severity of the virus’s spread. “I’m taking whatever precautions I can, but I have to go to work nevertheless,” she said. “There is no panic in my area and people don’t seem scared here.” She’s unaware whether her area’s resident welfare association is taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus.
Most of the people Newslaundry spoke to said they have invested in sanitisers and facemasks, and are trying to maintain proper hygiene.
According to , released in 2018, over 9.91 percent of Delhi’s population lives below the poverty line as of 2011-12: about 17 lakh people.
Last week, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal a 50 percent increase in rations for 72 lakh people who depend on the public distribution system for supplies. He also announced double pensions for widows, senior citizens and the differently abled, and free lunch and dinner at night shelters.
But there’s a lot more to this story.
Gyandevi works as a cook near Delhi University’s North Campus. Even after the lockdown, she is forced to go to work.
“I live with my daughter, son, and daughter-in-law. My son is a rickshaw puller. Ever since the lockdown, he has been unable to drive his rickshaw or earn anything,” she told Newslaundry. “Therefore, I have to work. That is the only source of income right now.”
She added, “Parking the rickshaw outside costs us Rs. 50 per day. How are we to pay that amount daily? If the government gives us free ration, it will be helpful. I am old and cannot work much. My knees have given up on me.”
In South Delhi, Geeta, who works as a house help, has also been going to work — because her employers have asked her to come, lockdown or not.
“They [her employers] told me that if anyone asks you why you are on the street during the lockdown, tell them that you are going to take your salary from us,” she said.
Geeta lives with her husband and four children in a cramped room in a slum in South Delhi. She pays Rs 6,000 per month and rent. Geeta is the only earning member of the family.
“I don’t have a ration card here in the city. We can still manage for 10-15 days, but how will we manage if I don’t go to work for over a month?” she asked. “No one will pay me. My husband is also bed-ridden. What will happen to my kids?”
She added: "I have kept hand sanitiser and masks at my home. I have asked my kids to wash their hands from time to time."
On the morning of March 24, Tetri, who works as a household help, is also out and about. She told her employer there’s a lockdown, but was instructed to still come to work. “We don’t have the luxury of staying at home and maintaining social distance,” Tetri said. “We have to go to work every day.”
Tetri has two sons and one daughter. The family lives in two rented rooms, paying Rs 12,000 as rent. Tetri is worried about how she’ll afford it. One of her sons, who serves tea in a sewing factory, hasn’t gone to work in 10 days. The factory was shut down due to the coronavirus scare, Tetri explained, but the company hasn’t paid him.
Tetri has a ration card in Delhi, but said it’s of little use. “Whenever we go to get rations, the person in charge asks us to come tomorrow or the day after, because there are always scores of people lining up,” she said.
One of the Aam Aadmi Party government’s key initiatives in Delhi is a full subsidy to those consuming up to 200 units of energy, and 20,000 litres of free water to every household. Yet, most of the people Newslaundry spoke to for this story said their landlords still charge Rs 1,500-3,000 for water and electricity.
Tetri said, “If we are late in paying these charges, the landlord also takes a fine from us.”
Most of them send their children to low-income private schools, claiming the government schools refuse to take them for various reasons like their children "looking" younger than their actual age. Schools in Delhi have been shut in the wake of the pandemic, but the families still have to pay Rs 4,000 per month as school fees.
“We anyway have a hard time making ends meet. On top of that, the school keeps sending papers, asking for submission of fees,” said Tetri.
Sumadevi is also struggling to manage. She works as a household help, but has been at home for the past four or five days. She’s worried her employers will cut her salary since she’s not been going to work.
Sumadevi lives in a single room with her four children. Her daughter is currently staying with her as well, with her own kids, since they couldn’t go back home after the lockdown.
Sumadevi’s eldest son works as a helper in a grocery store. “He has to go to work even at this time. He doesn’t earn very much. The owner of that shop is very miserly,” Sumadevi said. “Even if my son is not present for an hour, he cuts his salary.” The family earned a combined income of about Rs 12,000, which they need to stretch to pay for rent, transport, food, school fees, and tuition fees for the younger children.
Like many others, Sumadevi doesn’t have a ration card. Several women told Newslaundry they had applied for one but were rejected due to minor issues like spelling errors.
“Most of the procedures for ration cards and applying for pension are online. We are not even literate. We don’t know most of the things written there,” Sumadevi pointed out. “I just put my thumb stamp. I didn’t know that they were writing wrong spellings of my parents’ names and other technical difficulties, because of which my application was rejected.”
Yashodha agrees. She’s a domestic worker while her husband, Anand, is a daily wage labourer. He hasn’t been able to earn anything due to the lockdown.
“My kid studies in a private school. How will I pay his fees and the rent of my home now that the government has locked down the city?” she said. “I have tried to apply for a ration card so many times but they always find fault with my application.”
Sahnudevi, who lives in Bhavana, said she’s forced to borrow money from others to manage. Her husband, Bhushan, works in a factory, earning Rs 10,000 a month. However, his work was suspended following the lockdown and he isn’t being paid. “Even if he took a day’s leave, they used to deduct from his salary,” she said. “They won’t pay if he doesn’t go to work.”
Sahnudevi, Bhushan, and their children live in a rented room. They don’t have a ration card.
"In our building, there are 300-400 small rooms. We all have to adjust in the same room. We cook, sleep and wash there,” Sahnudevi explained. “It is owned by a man who owns hospitals and some medical stores in the area. He makes more than Rs 15 lakh from rent but never exempts even a single rupee. He will not let go of this month's rent."
She added, "I tried to even apply for an Aadhaar card. They took Rs 300 from me but never gave the card.”
Her landlord charges Rs 10 per unit of electricity, despite the AAP government’s scheme. “Even in summers, we don’t use the fan. I just use one light and he [the landlord] asks for Rs 200-300,” she said. “If we don’t pay, he shouts at us. He even slapped my kid when he tried to ask him about the free electricity.”
Editor’s note: Most of those interviewed for this report either did not know their surnames or wanted to remain anonymous.