By Nazim Ali Manhas
Stories of poverty and hunger, cramped living spaces and mental health issues emerge as the world’s biggest lockdown unflinchingly casts horrific shadows upon the lives of thousands of poor and marginalized people in the country. In India, which is still grappling with large scale poverty, marginalization and social discrimination, the lockdown has posed serious threat to the survival of people who live on the fringes of the society.
For forty year old Sajida Bi, being able to survive is contingent on two factors – the alms that people give her to feed her husband and five children and the money she earns from labor work in her village. Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in India at the beginning of March, income from the latter has dried up. She now resorts to begging to feed her family of six, a battered, impoverished and a faceless woman to whom no government help is forthcoming.
After the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a total lockdown in the country to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Sajida Bi, who lives in Sagra, one of India’s frontier villages near the Line of Control with Pakistan, was pushed into extreme poverty, with no money, food, aid or medical supplies. Sagra is a village in Mendhar tehsil in Poonch district of the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir along the Line of Control with Pakistan. “With the lockdown, I cannot find labor work and so I started feeding my husband, four young girls and my son with whatever I could get from begging in my village,” she says. The family barely survives on the wheat or maize that people give them as her husband, 45 years old Mohammad Ishaq, son of Ghulam Hussein is suffering from a leg injury and therefore cannot support the family. “My son is mentally and physically disabled” she says, with tears streaming down her eyes “I am not able to afford treatment for him, right now my only concern is to feed him at least one meal a day”. The dilapidated house she lives in has only one shabby rundown room that accommodates her family of six. The house was completely damaged in the heavy rains over a year back. “I do not know how long the roof will hold up, it could fall on us anytime soon”, she says with panic and a helpless despair lit large on her face.
The Indian government has initiated several schemes for the poor such as the Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY) that provides free housing for the people below the poverty line and homeless, a pension scheme, construction of toilets (Swach Bharat Abhiyan), Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM-JAY) which provides medical insurance to the poor, none of which have reached this family living in one of India’s poorest frontier villages. “I did ask for help from government officials” Sajida Bi says despondently, “but no help came, no one cares for us, our lives do not matter”. Official apathy combined with a disinterested and sluggish administration has failed this family which is poor, malnourished and is desperately fighting to survive. When contacted Tehsildar Mankote/Mendhar Dr Vikram Kumar promise to send a team over to the house to help the family, but as is with most government organizations, it remains to be seen, what help is accorded to the family.
At least 49 million people across the world are expected to plunge into extreme as a direct result of the pandemic’s economic destruction and India leads that projection, with the World Bank estimating some 12 million of its citizens will be pushed to the very margins this year. And for this family in a tiny forgotten village across the LOC, all hope of life is lost.
Sajida Bi cooks wheat rotis on a traditional tandoor (an outdoor clay oven) from the alms she obtains from begging.
The dilapidated house the family lives in which threatens to cave in anytime.
Sajda Bi’s mentally and physically challenged son and daughter.