Rendered jobless by lockdowns, only govt food kits keep Kerala’s marginalised from starving

On a recent August morning, Aneesh KB, 28, should have been hard at work, helping to chop wood or doing some painting work, jobs he’s good at. Instead, he’s at his in-laws’ home in Vythiri, Wayanad, restless and anxious about his future. All of July, he has worked only eight or nine days. The wages of Rs 500 per day are grossly insufficient to meet the expenses of his family.

Two months ago, his wife’s mother took up the job of a home-nurse in Kozhikode city to do her bit. The family has to pay back a huge bank loan taken to build their house. His wife Athira, who has completed a course in accountancy, is preparing for the hard-to-crack Public Service Commission (PSC) exams that lakhs of people in Kerala sit for every year.

“Obviously, Covid and the subsequent lockdowns have made life extremely difficult. Work is hard to come by these days and we have to save every penny,” said Athira, 21, who belongs to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. “Often we buy certain things for the home on installments. And due to the present situation, we are unable to pay the installments. It’s really painful to see the shopkeepers arrive at our home and take back those things we bought. They say hurtful things,” she sighed.

Rendered jobless by lockdowns, only govt food kits keep Kerala’s marginalised from starving

Aneesh KB, his wife Athira and their daughter at his in-law’s home in Kunhangode colony in Vythiri, Wayanad. (Express photo by Vishnu Varma)

Since their home is located in the interiors of a hill, accessing an auto-rickshaw or a jeep for emergency purposes at night is another daunting task, she said. “The drivers charge hefty rates to come here. We cannot afford it. It would have been great to have an ambulance.”

A few hundred metres away, in the same Kunhangode colony, 35-year-old Girish KV, who belongs to the Paniya tribal community, rarely finds work these days. A daily-wage construction worker, he barely got 5-6 days of labour in July and doesn’t have big hopes for August as well.

“It’s a terrifying situation,” he said. “If not for the 30 kg of rice we get from the ration shop a month and the government’s Onam food kit, we would be starving.”

The rise in prices of materials like cement, steel and crushed stone and low demand and prices for agricultural products have greatly affected the construction and farming sectors, which are two major employment sectors for daily-wagers like Girish in Wayanad district. Demand for manual labour on the tea and coffee estates, hit by over two months of lockdown and subsequent containment restrictions, has also dimmed considerably, he said.

Rendered jobless by lockdowns, only govt food kits keep Kerala’s marginalised from starving Girish KV in front of his govt-built home in Kunhangode colony. The pandemic has wiped away his work-days. His immediate concern is the leaking roof of his home. (Express photo by Vishnu Varma)

His immediate concern, said Girish, was the leaking roof of his humble government-built house. With minimal savings in hand, he cannot undertake any major repairs at the moment. Temporarily, he has put up a tarpaulin sheet over the roof to ward off the rain, but it doesn’t offer much help. “During heavy showers, water enters our bedroom,” he said.

In Dalit and tribal settlements like this and across Kerala, the pandemic and its accompanying economic challenges threatens to bog down considerable progress achieved over the years. While the current Left government’s welfare schemes, in the form of essential food kits and pensions, come in for high praise from the public, there’s no denying that the slump in the unorganised sector and rising unemployment pose great risks for the state’s most marginalised sections.

In contrast to other states in India which have largely brought down the infection curve allowing them to open up their markets and economy, Kerala has been an outlier where cases have stubbornly refused to come down. A recent sero-prevalence survey showed that more than half of the state’s population are at risk of catching the virus. This means that the pandemic is set to move along a long plateau in the state, continuing the cycle of local lockdowns, quarantines and movement restrictions.

In fact, in villages with large tribal settlements, officials are taking no chance with the virus. In Poothadi, Mercy Sabu, the panchayat president, said as soon as a positive case is detected in a tribal colony, the patient is immediately shifted to a domiciliary care centre (DCC) set up at a local school where they can be quarantined properly. “In tribal colonies, families are large and there’s heavy social interaction. The disease can spread easily. We can’t afford to put them in quarantine in their own houses so we move them to DCC and release them after 17 days,” she said.

The bottleneck that the panchayat is facing, she stressed, with respect to the tribals was the delay in the MGNREGA payments. This could be hurting the families at a time of great financial upheaval. “While the payments for the general category beneficiaries have been cleared, those for STs are still pending across the state. When we checked with higher-ups, they said it was a server issue and would be resolved soon,” she said.

Prasad AM, an ST ward-member in Poothadi, disagreed with the view that the pandemic would bring long-term consequences for the community. “For the tribals, income-generation is not aimed at tomorrow, it’s for today. That’s why a delay in MGNREGA payments is serious. On the government front too, schemes are mostly aimed at poverty alleviation, rather than social development on a bigger scale. That’s why I doubt if there will be long-term effects of Covid,” he said.

G Pramod, the tribal development officer in Mananthavady, Wayanad, admitted that the pandemic has cut back jobs for the community, slashing household incomes. “We’re trying to do as much as we can through providing more work-days through MGNREGA and supplying food and vegetable kits to colonies in need. Additionally, as an Onam gift, the government has declared a one-time assistance of Rs 1000 to all tribals above the age of 60.”

Tomorrow, in Part 4, the police versus the people

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