Wages vanish, demand for ration soars as coronavirus lockdown hits villages

Despite the lockdown, the Centre exempted a range of farm-related activities, resulting in rabi harvest of potatoes and wheat to start in the fertile belts of Western UP photo: Sanjay K Sharma
Usually around this time of the year, Maya Devi, 50, works in the fields to pluck potatoes, sort them and fill them in bags before they are transported to distant mandis.

This time, she’s anxious. “My husband used to work in a local shoe-making unit but he’s sitting at home since last month as the unit has closed down,’’ Maya Devi, who lives in Sewla village near Agra, tells this reporter. After the  lockdown, which forced companies to shut their plants and factories to prevent the spread of coronavirus, plucking potatoes is the only source of livelihood for her. With her husband losing employment, she’s even willing to work  at a lower wage.

Despite the lockdown, the Centre exempted a range of farm-related activities, resulting in rabi harvest of potatoes and wheat to start in the fertile belts of western Uttar Pradesh. However, the pace is slow as there are restrictions on the number of people gathering at any place due to social-distancing norms, and also a large number of migrant workers have left for their homes.    

Like Maya Devi, several other women, old and young, are all working in the potato fields, and have their tales of how Covid-19 has pushed them to the wall.

“We aren’t getting relief from the government because of the multiple conditions attached,’’ laments Puro Devi, a middle-aged woman also engaged in potato harvest. Recently some people started getting the pending MGNREGS dues but it was only for those who regularly worked under the scheme, she points out. ‘’So even as we have a NREGA card, we haven’t got any benefit.” A much younger Savita Bai explains that the names got deleted due to a government condition that dues will be cleared only for  those who have regularly worked under the scheme.

People queuing up in front of a ration shop to get their monthly quota | Photo: Sanjay K Sharma
“We get around Rs 180 per day for working in NREGA in these parts but the small shoe and petha (a local sweetmeat) manufacturing units offer almost double the rate,’’ points out another from the group, Savitha Devi.  While many of them had stopped going for NREGA because of the low rate. “Who knew that a time will come when digging trenches will be such a savior,” she says.

Far removed from the supply crunch and work-from-home pattern in cities, villages are a picture in contrast. Meeting daily needs is a much bigger challenge than maintaining social distancing, as is clear in these parts of rural Uttar Pradesh. While villagers attempt to follow the lockdown dos and donts, they break the rules quite easily.

“We are trying our best to educate people on hygiene standards and distancing guidelines. We have even arranged for daily spraying of disinfectants using our own funds. But you know there’s only so much one can do,” says Pradeep Sharma, a member of the Islampur Gram Panchayat.

Sitting with a fellow member, Sharma says potato cultivation, which is the mainstay of many villages in the region, has taken a big hit in these times. “Earlier, we used to transport potatoes to distant mandis of Delhi and even Mumbai. In the last few weeks, not only are truckers  reluctant to purchase our crop, even local sale is difficult as nearby mandis are shut,” says Sharma, who also cultivates potatoes.

During the recent years, people in Islampur and adjoining villages had shifted from growing wheat to potatoes due to the stray cattle menace, a decision which many regret.

In these times, ration shops have become a central hub for labourers and daily wagers. Here too, social distancing is a luxury.

“I have six adult members in my family but the names of only three are listed in the ration card. How will I feed all of them with the per unit (member) allocation of three kg of rice and 2 kg of wheat,” says Ramneek Lal, a daily wager. Before the lockdown, he used to work as beldaar (construction worker) in Agra. Now there’s no work.

“The lockdown has hit me hard. Ration is the only source of food that I have for the next few weeks,” Lal says, displaying a bunch of documents he has brought to convince the shop-owner to give him some extra grains.

Standing nearby, a frail Islami Begum narrates her tale. Originally from Fatehpur-Sikri, Islami is looking for ration from the shop in Bamrauli-Katara village on the Fatehabad road, a few kilometers ahead of Islampur.

Till recently, she used to get ration from a shop in Fatehpur-Sikri, but after the lockdown she can’t travel that far. “Will I get my monthly quota from this shop because I can’s travel all the way to Fatehpur-Sikri as roads are closed,” 60-year-old Begum asks.

60-year old Islami Begum has her ration shop in Fatehpur Sikri but wants to get the monthly quota from fatehabad as roads are blocked | Photo: Sanjeeb Mukherjee
Due to the growing impact of Covid19, the UP government has asked all ration shops to start distributing the monthly quota immediately from April 1,  advancing the date from 9-10 of each month.

But, so far most ration shops in the area are distributing the usual 5 kg of grains per person per month, and not the extra 5 kg announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman last month as part of the relief package.

“We got this wheat and rice last month at the usual rate, but have been told to distribute this to the poor and needy at free of cost. I don’t know when I will get the reimbursement from the government for this,” wonders  Sheetal Prasad, owner of the ration shop in Bamrauli-Katara, another village near the Agra-Fatehabad Road.

“I’m trying my best to enforce social distancing,” a cop in the vicinity claims.

In all, there are three ration shops in Bamrauli-Katara, each catering to around 500-600 beneficiaries. At any given point, large number of people can be found queuing up to get their share of ration.

“So far what we have been told is that free ration is for NREGA card holders, Antodaya scheme beneficiaries and also those whose names are mentioned in the state’s labour bureau list. Now, if everyone queues up to get their share of free ration, how can I entertain them,” asks Mahesh Chand, owner of another ration shop in Islampur, while holding out a list of MGNREGA job card holders whose names have been deleted.

If getting the monthly ration is a challenge for daily wagers and casual workers, left unemployed by the lockdown, just a few metres down the road, Balbir Singh, owner of a seed and fertliser shop is facing a problem of a different kind.

Singh has opened his shop after almost a month because agriculture inputs have been exempted from the lockdown. But, there’s virtually no sale. ‘’In peak season, sometimes I used to clock sales of almost Rs 10,000 daily as most farmers buy vegetable seeds from me. During the last few days, I have not been able to touch even Rs 1000,” he says, pointing to the stacks of seed and fertilizer bags lined in his shop.

As the country grapples with Covid19 and its aftermath, the struggle in villages such as Islampur and Bamrauli-Katara and Sewla, just a few miles away from big towns, is of another magnitude.  

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