By Venkatesh Raghavan*
Mumbai: So far, we have been hearing stock phrases like migrant workers and daily wage earners. To number them is unwieldy as these expressions are loosely used for people working in shops, hotels, railway canteens, malls, theatres, multiplexes, and sundry. However, to get a clear picture of the dimensions of human suffering, narrowing down on one section of this broad segment helps throw light on how afflicted our Maximum city is.
The people working in railway canteens, bookstalls and shoeshine boys besides hawkers, beggars, blindmen and eunuchs who used to ply the local trains of Mumbai for eking out a living are now in dire straits. The railway canteens are run by private contractors. They hire boys or men to work on their terms meaning mostly contract labour. On a normal day (referring to pre-March 24, 2020) these canteen boys were over-stressed catering to customers who flock to them for a bite amidst crowded platforms. The canteen has to keep running till the last train leaves the station.
Post March 24, 2020 things have come to a grinding halt for these labourers. Though not in all instances, many of their employers found it untenable to provide continuous sustenance in the absence of any business activity taking place. Still worse, most of these canteen workers used to either sleep on the platform or alternately live in a shanty which house five to six people. This enabled them to share their rent with each of them doling out Rs. 500 and odd. Thus, deprived of any permanent residence or even ration cards, the canteen workers are hard-pressed to manage two square meals a day.
The fate of shoeshine boys operating on railway platforms is still worse. These boys get a license to operate on railway platforms. For the past two months however, they are out of business and have no recourse to any alternate income. To make it worse, many such shoeshine boys have to fend for sleeping on the platform by greasing palms. It’s not an easy task as workers of the lowest income category can’t afford to live on their savings for an indefinite period.
The fate of the blind people who used to handpick on first class compartments of the local trains is somewhat bearable but short of being a silver lining. An NGO in tip of suburban Mumbai, namely Mulund is providing them with food and other essential supplies. Their plight too is uncertain as this cannot be sustained indefinitely. With the Damocles sword hanging above their heads, finding a form to fill up details and supply their mobile numbers for facilitating their homeward journey is a
stiff challenge for these handicapped lot.
Beggars other than handicapped and eunuchs have no means to survive. Especially, the eunuchs are forced to walk on foot over long distances without any access to food or water. Very recently a group of eunuchs who used to live their lives in local trains were seen protesting against the state government’s apathy.
In addition, the hawkers who used to sell their ware in the local trains including mobile covers, pens, snacks and other accessories are badly hit with nowhere to go and do business. They too were required to grease palms for operating on the local trains. Their lives have come to a standstill.
Where is there any wherewithal for these unfortunate sections of migrant laborers who rely on the efficient functioning of Mumbai’s lifeline? There are a few instances where generous employers of the canteen workers pitched in to help. Here too the workers are faced with constraints as such help cannot be sustained indefinitely.
One can only hope that normalcy is restored in Maximum city in God’s good time.
*The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist and novelist. He is the author of bestseller thriller, Operation Drug Mafia (Times Group Books). The views expressed are his own.