Coronavirus safety measures pose tough challenge to the survival of daily wage earners

It’s been six months now since the lockdown was announced in the state. As the lockdown is prolonged, poverty and misery, and the question of survival stare at the daily wage earners.

They used to wait here - the Humped Bridge or Thong Nambonbi, a historic place, in the heart of the capital city Imphal. It was the common waiting site. To get here, they would set off as early as 7 in the morning to reach Imphal by whatever means they could find. They would come to the bridge and wait till someone would take them to a working site to do whatever odd job was available for the day. But now, the waiting site wears a deserted look. The daily labours no longer wait here. Times have changed since the Coronavirus pandemic reached Manipur. It’s been six months now since the lockdown was announced in the state. As the lockdown is prolonged, poverty and misery, and the question of survival stare at the daily wage earners.

The COVID-19 safety guidelines such as stay home, avoid crowded places and maintain social distancing considered the sensible things to do in the days of lockdown, now have begun to irk many daily wage earners as they struggle for survival against the threat of Coronavirus and poverty.

In the absence of no new strategy or change in the system to face the new normal brought about by the pandemic, lockdown measures have made life difficult for all. However, the daily wage earners seem to be the most miserable lot with no more source of earning whatsoever to continue feeding their families and their dependents.

The unorganised labour group has no other form of earning money other than the little amount they got each day. As the government announced relaxation in lockdown restrictions, the unorganized labours are out seeking jobs. But for fear of the virus, no one is ready to employ them. They have been coming to the main market for the past few days, seeking jobs but all in vain.

When situation was normal, these unorganized labours earned enough to support themselves and their families. "I used to earn Rs 700-1000 daily according to the type of work we got for the day," said one Abdul Salam from Mayang Imphal, in an interaction with the Imphal Free Press.

But now the prolonged COVID-19 situation is posing hardship to their lives like never before.

One Aji Phusamayum from Mayang Imphal said, "It has become difficult to live. We had never experienced this kind of hardship till now".

Abdul further told Imphal Free Press, "School fee relaxation is a big help else they could be in deep trouble". And this was the same for the others also. But they worry about the future of their children.

When asked about online class, Aji replied, "Loktak Radio is a big help to us as we are unable to afford smartphones. We can just tune in and hear the lessons being taught".
When it comes to living hand-to-mouth it is not only this group of labours who is trying to cope with the new normal.

An interview with a barber, Oinam Thoi (Premjit) from Iroishemba who has set up his own salon since 2001, revealed that Covid-19 is taking a toll on his business and in turn adversely affecting his family. Sometimes, they are stigmatised. He lives in a family of five. Before the lockdown was imposed, he could earn Rs. 500-1000 in a day. He could afford his family with their daily needs.

"Before my shop was full of satisfied customers, and had to employ extra hands. I have even taught my wife, children apart from the many students who have now set up their own salon how to cut hair," Oinam Thoi recalled. Being stigmatised when he goes to buy groceries from the shops in the locality was the most disturbing, Thoi told Imphal Free Press.

Having no other means to earn, he gives haircuts to customers on request or if the person is known to him with the doors half shut. However, the police would come stop him from doing his work due to the restrictions imposed.

"How can Social distance be maintained in a salon?" he said and added, "The salon business is different and it keeps evolving with new technologies being invented and developed, but his tools are collecting rust and finding a place to repair such tools is like finding a needle in a haystack due to the fear of COVID-19 and lockdown".

Another daily wage earner, Thambal, who once sold vegetables in the popular Ima Keithel turned a roadside vendor on Keishampat Sega Road, said due to the COVID 19 lockdown, sales have gone down drastically. Due to restrictions, she has turned to selling dairy and bakery products instead of vegetables.

Before she could sell vegetables worth over Rs 5,000-7,000 in a day, even as a street vendor. But now she could hardly manage to get half of it in a day.

"We are five members in our family and if I don't venture out and sell something who will feed us," she asked.

“COVID-19 situation has eased all other expenses like school expenses, monthly installment for lending money, festivity and religious ceremony expenses, but we can't sit idle and rely on the government ration alone,” Thambal toldIFP. She does not get much return as dairy products have a short shelf life and selling vegetables was more profitable, she added.

Many other daily wage earners and labours in the inorganised sector in the state, like Abdul, Aji, Athoi and Thambal, have applauded the relaxation of loan installment, school and tuition fees by the government. But they are not happy about many other things. As they go hunting for odd jobs, they are risking their lives daily. Apart from the threat of contracting the virus infection, they also face stigmatization in various forms. They are poverty-stricken now as nobody wants to give them work. But, somehow, they have to survive through this pandemic. So that their stories can live and passed down to generations to come. The struggle is tough, but hope is not lost as they wait for the situation to improve and the concerned authorities to come to their rescue.

First Published:Aug. 22, 2020, 10:33 p.m.