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The Watermelon Stand and Other Stories (the struggle is real)

May 14, 2020

Janvi and her friends hanging out pre-pandemic. DWP photo taken January 2020.

 

The lockdown for the poor in India begs to differ the meaning of “we’re all in this together”. For families living in slums, for the migrant workers who live on construction sights or on the side of roads and, for Muslims who were blamed for spreading the virus, the lockdown means no food, no money, no jobs waiting, no medicine, no government help, and heightened derision across caste and class. Slum residents are locked down in overcrowded, unsanitary communities, with no way to maintain social distance from others. Going to the toilet for those without a squat toilet in their small homes, means lining up along a narrow lane and stepping inside a filthy stall used daily by hundreds of others. When they are allowed out for a few hours each morning, they rush to buy rations, or see a doctor. They are existing in a state of fear and panic for basic needs. The police beat and fine those who don’t make it back home before the morning curfew closes. The month of April means 40 degree temperatures inching higher into the month of May. The cost of electricity means ceiling fans will be used sparingly causing the one room homes to become unbearably hot. If a home has a window it will be closed against the onslaught of mosquitoes. The already difficult living conditions for the poor are exaggerated, magnified, and exacerbated. These are a few stories from the families we're in touch with daily, weekly, and monthly.

 

Samiksha standing near her home a few months ago. DWP photo.

 

 

Samiksha

 

“We have started a watermelon business but that is in loss now. My Uncle Sanjay borrowed the watermelons from a wholesale business. No one here is buying”.

 

About four or five times a day and well into the night we exchange texts and sometimes video calls with 15 year old Samiksha and her parents, Vijay and Jyoti, and her brother, Sumedh.  We text back and forth, us from the comfort or our home in Canada, and them from an eight by ten foot home in a slum in Mumbai, a home we have spent much time sitting cross-legged, accepting Jyoti’s warm invitation for chai and snacks. We have food and money to procure what we need. We can have hot showers and long walks through empty streets marvelling at the beauty of spring and the falling cherry blossoms I pick up and let float back to the ground. We have a government that is helping the majority of the population by handing out money to those who need it. Samiksha’s home overlooks a large area of piled garbage heated by the sun, picked over by the flies, the crows, the wandering dogs, and small children looking for a prize among the waste.   

 

She sends us a photo of her mom and her aunt sitting proudly beside vegetables planted in rice sacks sitting in the sun along the pipeline in front of her aunt’s home. Another text with a photo lets us know that her mom planted bitter gourd in a sack just outside their door. It’s doing well and they hope to harvest a few small gourds soon. She sometimes cuts our daily chats off because she has to study her 10th standard text books to prepare for when schools will open. She’s keenly aware of the stress her parents are experiencing which is well above the levels of reasonable coping. 

 

Anxious about finding ways to earn some money for basic needs, last week the family ‘borrowed’ watermelon from a fruit wholesaler that Uncle Sanjay knows. They set up their shop on a piece of tarp in front of her aunt’s home where people gather despite the lockdown and the foot traffic is constant. Watermelon is refreshing and the weather is scorched earth hot now and getting hotter by the day in the lead up to the monsoons in June. However they soon discovered that buying a watermelon in a lockdown is a luxury that no one in a slum community can afford. Selling a watermelon which doesn’t provide abundant nutrition or fill hungry stomachs is akin to setting up a Rolex shop in the neighbourhood. So they sat day by day waiting for a customer, the watermelons slowly turning into mush in the hot sun. Within a few days, Samiksha texted again, “there was loss in the watermelon business but we ate so many watermelon.” 

 

Samiksha’s family and her two aunts' families each receive 2000 rupees ($40) per month during the lockdown.

 

Indu and her daughters, Aarya and Aagya, in the doorway of their home. This is where people line up for rations. DWP photo taken Feb. 2020.

 

 

Indu

 

“Mam and Todd Sir, so many people are coming to my door. I have to turn them away”. 

 

Indu’s home is a refuge for many families in the community.  Now the children slowly wander by her  door wishing they could all gather inside again, where the boredom of homework was completed, where rousing games of Housie were played, where we would plan picnics and celebrate birthdays and watch Priyanka mimic Bollywood dances to loud clapping and cheering. Now it’s the children’s parents lining up at Indu’s door. This time it’s not for help with school fees, it’s because they are desperate for rations to feed their families. 

 

In late March, just after we returned to Canada, we had a video call with Indu to determine how best to help the families. It was decided that giving 2000 rupees each ($40) to families we collectively determined to need it the most would enable those families to buy food, medicine if needed, cooking gas, and data for the family phone. We only give out cash in extraordinary circumstances, and the current worldwide situation has presented that circumstance probably for the next few months.

 

In early April more families started to line up at Indu’s door begging for any kind of help.  She was devastated to have to turn them away.  Another video call with us took place. She explained to us that she wanted to buy bulk rations and distribute them to the people coming every day to her door. She assured us this was doable after hearing our concerns about how she would manage the logistics to buy a truck load of rations from more than one shop when citizens were policed and sometimes beaten for being out on the streets.

 

She gathered her husband and a few neighbours to help her manage the magnitude of this task. She put on a mask and gloves and left her home during the allotted hours citizens are allowed to shop for essentials and walked a kilometre to the ATM to receive the funds we sent. Then she stopped at a medical shop and purchased a large bottle of hand sanitizer, more gloves, and some masks. With her husband and his friend along to help, they went to three or four ration shops and took their place in the ragtag line-up to purchase bulk bags of rice, grains, spices, oil, salt, sugar, and tea. A tempo (small truck) was hired to transport the goods back to the community. By the time they had unloaded the tempo and carried the bags to her home, the word was out in the community. They’d purchased enough rations for forty families and made a list of who would receive them. Over the next two days the families on her list sent one or two family members to collect their rations. A day later another line-up of people began asking her for help. We received another concerning video call from Indu. We sent more funds and she made another list of forty more families. While she waited for the ration shops to bring in more supplies, she gave out another round of 2000 rupees ($40) each to the  families on the first list we made. Until the lockdown is over, Indu will continue to add families to the list for rations.

 

 A few of the many families who received 2000 rupees/rations. Photos taken by Indu and her husband Akhilesh April/May 2020. 

 

 

Ashwini

 

Twenty year old Ashwini texts us daily, sometimes three times a day, which for us is the middle of the night. She lives with her fragile, often unemployed mother, in a different slum community in a room at the end of a very claustrophobic dank lane. There isn’t room for two people to stand in front of the door without touching the adjacent damp cement wall covered in moss and mould. There’s no visible sky. Recently she was feeling sick with a cough and a fever. She sent a small snippet of a voice recording. We could hear the distress and the change in her voice that a fever and a cough had rendered hoarse. She told us she went to a doctor and he gave her some pills. A photo of a selection of yellow, orange, and white pills, bundled in a small plastic bag was texted to us next. We asked her if the doctor suspected that she had the coronavirus. She said he assured her that she only had a cold and the pills would help. With no way to test her for the virus, he was only guessing. I could imagine the dismissive flick of his hand, the Indian equivalent of ‘we’re done here’, waving her out of his office.  

 

We know the drill at a doctor’s office well. The doctor would have opened a drawer full of single pills. There would be dust and papers and pens and junk in the same drawer. He would pick through them, probably with his bare hands, bag them in a small plastic bag or a scrap of paper. He charged her 200 rupees ($4) for his services and 100 rupees ($2) for the pills. She promised us that she would rest and tell us if her condition worsened. Taking rest for Ashwini means laying a chettai (woven plastic mat) on a cement floor, laying her head on a pillow long overdue for a replacement, while the overhead fan creaks with every turn stirring the oppressive heat of the day into a hot breeze. 

 

Ashwini recovered, she says, from the first bout of fever and cough, but two days ago I received another text from her. “Mom I’m not well.” Indu was notified, and within a few hours, Ashwini’s mother was at her door to get 1000 rupees ($20) so Ashwini could go to a doctor, pay for medicine and have cash left for other immediate needs. 

 

Ashwini and her mother received 2000 rupees ($40) in April and May and also received a bag of rations. They received an additional 1000 rupees for medical treatment.

 

Ashwini's mom receiving 1000 rupees emergency cash for doctor's fees and medicine for Ashwini. May 12, 2020  Photo by Indu.

 

 

A Stranger’s Request

 

“Mam, we need to help this man.”

 

A few weeks ago a man came to Indu’s door on behalf of an uncle who’s recently arrived from a village in northern India and found a job in a factory. His uncle lives with a group of men in a single room, works in a factory, and sends money to his wife and children in the village. The factory is closed now and he doesn’t know if he will have a job when the lockdown is over. Through tears, his hands clasped together, he quietly begged Indu for help for his uncle’s wife and children. Another call was placed to us. Indu was tearful as she told us what transpired in the laneway outside her door with this man. There is always distress and despair in slum communities, but the lockdown has elevated the stress levels for people who strive to remain resilient despite caste prejudice, harsh living environments, poor working conditions, and menial wages. His family in Bihar was hungry and desperate. Indu, who has witnessed many times the despair of others and has deep personal experience of  everyday difficulties in her life, was unusually distraught by the plight of this man who was out of hope and begging for anything that would help his uncle’s wife and children. As Indu’s children played quietly behind her in her small room, she told us she felt deeply the pain of his situation and she couldn’t imagine this situation for her children.

 

He was included in the growing list of people receiving rations and 2000 rupees ($40) in cash which would enable him to send a large portion of that to his wife in the village.

 

Arpan's family is living in their under-construction home during the pandemic. DWP photo taken in early March 2020.

 

 

Arpan’s House

 

In late February, Arpan’s parents took a loan from his mother’s employer for the purpose of building a better, more permanent home than the corrugated tin hut they’ve lived in for about five years. The terms of the deal were such that the family would pay an interest rate and the loan would be paid back by deducting a large portion from her monthly wage. Her job is sifting grains twelve hours a day, six days a week, in a basement below a grain shop. Her wage is 7,000 rupees ($140) a month. Besides the hefty loan repayment, the self-appointed female slumlord in their area demanded a bribe of 20,000 rupees ($400) be paid to her in monthly instalments plus interest, for the privilege of rebuilding in the area. In addition, in a show of deranged authority, she demanded that the footprint for the new home measure ten feet long from front to back instead of twelve feet.  Aided by a growing gang of young men with nothing to lose, who she controls with drugs, alcohol, food, and a place to sleep, for their service, this unsympathetic slumlord has a strangle hold on the families in that area of the community. 

 

In late February, their tin walled home was demolished bit by bit and construction began on four new brick walls. While Arpan’s father and a hired bricklayer were busy with construction, the family slept outside in the lane. When the walls were finished and the mortar was setting, but a new floor was yet to be poured, the family moved inside to sleep. While we enjoyed a cup of chai made by their mother, surrounded by the new brick walls still smelling of wet cement, I asked Shobha, Arpan’s sister, how they would sleep on the unfinished dirt floor littered with loose gravel, bits of brick debris and hardened pieces of mortar scraped from the brick walls. She pointed to a rolled up piece of billboard vinyl, a plastic tarp covered with dust, and a few large pieces of scavenged wood. “We put these on the floor and lay a chettai (woven plastic mat) and blankets on top and sleep. My father wires the fan every night so we get a breeze. It is for a short time only. Soon our house will be finished”.

 

Just before we left Mumbai in mid-March, we had another round of chai in their unfinished home. The chai pot sat precariously on a gas cooker atop a piece of wood supported by crude skeletal frame. There was palpable excitement about their soon to be finished home. The mother talked about the colours of the tile she chose for the floor. Shobha grinned and chatted excitedly about how soon she wouldn’t have to use the public toilet and she would have privacy to take a bath behind a closed door. Their older brother, Sachin, was most proud of the water tank they would soon have, and how the entry door to the home would be solid and fit the frame of the new brick walls. The rats that shared their old home wouldn’t stand a chance - they would have to move elsewhere. 

 

A few days later, India was in lockdown. The one-room home remains unfinished. The good news for the family is the father found someone who would lay tiles on the dirt floor. During a recent video call with the family, Shobha was busy wiping the mortar off the new tiles. After weeks of sleeping on cardboard covering the dirt floor, the new tile floor is an exciting addition. We communicate with them regularly through texts. They are resigned and hopeful that their home will be finished soon. The loans, however, will go on forever.

 

Arpan’s family receives 2000 rupees ($40) each month during the lockdown. 

 

 Arpan's mother receiving 2000 rupees in May from Indu (in blue). Photo by family member May 4, 2020.

 

These men are migrant workers hired to clean out sewers. DWP photo taken February 2020.

 

 

The Migrant Workers

 

Thousands of migrant workers come to the big cities to find work and move frequently from one construction site to another. They are employed as masons, ditch diggers, pipe layers, brick carriers and gutter cleaners among other construction jobs. Without proper clothing, equipment or safety gear they work in deplorable conditions to build luxury high-rises, tar roadways, and lay municipal pipes. Their families often work alongside them, children included ,who play in the ditches, in the shells of high-rises without walls, and and in ditches meant for drainage. Their homes are often just tarps set up at the job sites with cooking done over scavenged wood fires. When the lockdown was announced with only four hours given to react to the news and make a plan, migrant workers found themselves once again in the worst situation. They reacted by picking up their few belongings, putting the smallest children on their shoulders and started walking hundreds of miles back to their villages. Some tried to board buses. All of their efforts were halted by brutal police force to keep them from moving on. 

 

As the weeks wear on and the lockdown shows no sign of easing up, if a migrant or slum dweller wants or needs to go back to a native village, they must line up at a doctor’s office and pay to get a paper that says they don’t have the virus (they are not tested), next they must stand in another line-up  at the nearest police station to present the medical paper and pay a bribe. Once the police have stamped their medical papers, they must join another long line of people at the nearest politician’s office to present the paperwork and pay another fee. Then have to arrange some sort of private transportation, with others going to the same state and pay for transport. These steps are put in place to dissuade people from moving around unnecessarily, to extract bribes from desperate people, and to control a swath of population that is bereft of choices in their daily lives in normal times heaping distress onto families already challenged by life’s miseries. 

 

An extended family of migrant workers who lived on the construction site they work on. DWP photo from 2014.

 

Back to the Watermelon Stand....

 

Samiksha’s family, texted us a few days ago to say they might try buying onions and other vegetables to sell instead of watermelons. Everyone uses onions, even sparingly. The watermelons weren’t wasted. The family managed to consume the pile of slowly rotting watermelon, offered some to the neighbours and other relatives, and wasted nothing.  Uncle Sanjay will have to pay the wholesaler for the unsold watermelons.  

 

A week ago, Samiksha, texted me this message: “Mum and Dad r telling…..Don’t take stress, keep ur mind calm.” 

Yesterday, she texted that her parents want to go back to their village. They're fearful of relatives who stop by their home because they won't practice social distancing. One of the relatives and her child are sick. They say they would hire a bus with other families for the journey. They think they will be safe on the bus and in the village, despite knowing that they can't isolate while travelling so far. She thinks her parents will stay in the community for another few weeks until they decide whether it's safe to leave. They have acknowledged that they will struggle to survive in the village and they won't have easy access to medical care.

 

How we determined who received rations or cash:

 

Initially, during the first week of the lockdown we identified 17 families we know well who needed help. At that time rations didn’t seem to be an option because it would have been difficult to gather enough rations for many families at numerous shops. Police were beating people for being out and the task was deemed too difficult for Indu to manage. We decided that cash in hand would allow families to ascertain their own needs with one family member assigned to go out to get supplies and food.

 

As the lockdown continued and some restrictions on going out to gather supplies eased a bit, Indu decided that buying bulk rations was the best way to help the large number of families coming to her for assistance since the first round of help.  Because it’s difficult to purchase and haul large quantities of rice and grains back to her home at one time, the decision to continue to give the first 17 - 20 families cash enables Indu to focus on rations for 40 other families at a time.

 

To date: 

 

- 80 families have received enough rations to keep their families fed for two weeks to a month depending on how many family members live in the home. The rations bought in bulk cost approximately 500 rupees ($10) per family.

 

- 20 families receive 2000 rupees a month ($40) until the lockdown is over.

- a few people have received emergency funds in small amounts for medicine.

 

For families receiving cash - this is what 2000 rupees ($40) will buy:

 

- 100 rupees will buy enough vegetables for a family of four to use sparingly for 4 - 6 meals 

- pain pills cost 1 rupee each   

- milk is 20 rupees for 500 ml pouch  

- low grade rice and grains are purchased at ration shops at discounted prices for people with ration cards. 

- tomatoes/onions are 30 rupees per kg

 

According to Indu, landlords are demanding/needing rent from families but many families are not able to pay until they have employment. The average monthly rent for a one room home in the community is 1000 rupees ($20) for a tin shanty without toilet, up to 6000 rupees ($120) for a brick room with a squat toilet and a tiled floor. 

 

Some of the families are also receiving sporadic, but unreliable rations from charitable trusts, employers, and politicians (to appease their vote bank).  (Vote banks are organized by slum dwellers on behalf of politicians who often chose women with power in their slum communities to convince neighbours, relatives, and friends, to vote for the politician in exchange for receiving a small payment. Promises are made by the politician to build a toilet block, pave a laneway, or other forms of help. More often than not, once these tasks are complete, or not, the politician looks the other way.)

 

Until the lockdown is over and the families can get back to work, or the government gives sufficient help to the poor, we hope to continue to help families with rations or cash disbursements. Currently Mumbai is the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak in India with close to 14,000 cases and a death toll of 508 as of May 12. To date Sakinaka has 127 plus cases. These numbers are possibly much larger because slum residents are afraid to admit any symptoms to neighbours for fear of reprisals against them. 

 

Total spent to date to help 100 families: 81,000 rupees ($1620 CAD)

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