COVID-19 is cruel to young and aspirational India

More than the pandemic, it’s the sheer abdication of responsibility from those in power that’s destroying the dreams of rural India  

By Subhojit Goswami
Published: Tuesday 27 April 2021
COVID-19 is cruel to young and aspirational India
Bhanu Singh with his flutes. Photo: Subhojit Goswami Bhanu Singh with his flutes. Photo: Subhojit Goswami

At the age of 23, Bhanu Singh, aka Bhanu Baansuriwala (flute player-cum-seller) left his village in Uttar Pradesh. He thought working as an agricultural labourer on someone else’s land and that too for Rs 100 per day, will not take him far. His father had passed away long time back and he did not want his mother to live a frugal, and sometimes uncertain, life. He wanted to explore greener pastures. Delhi, he thought, will be the right place to make a better living.

That was 2018. On April 25, 2021, Bhanu is a 26-year-old distraught man, who looks older than his age and often breaks into tears while talking about his experience in the last two years. Due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and its corollaries, his aspirations have petered out. He is now desperate to go back.

Within months of coming to Delhi, he found his feet in the new city. He would make Rs 300-400 every day by earning a small margin on flutes he would sell. He rented a small room near the Badarpur Border bus terminal for Rs 750 and brought his mother to Delhi with the hope of finding better treatment for her low vision. Being aspirational was paying off.

In March 2020, when the country shut itself down, rather abruptly, Bhanu felt the jolt. While he was sensing a possible lockdown, he had no idea that it would happen so soon. Sitting idle for 21 days (the first phase) and exhausting meagre savings was not an option. “I thought it is better to head home with whatever little money I am left with and come back once the lockdown is lifted. A gentleman from South Extension helped me pay off my rent when I decided to leave Delhi,” says Bhanu.

A few months after being one of the many nameless characters of the Great Reverse Migration, he returned to Delhi in November last year. Just when he started to see a transition from near-deserted neighbourhoods to near-busy streets, Delhi announced a lockdown on April 19 and appealed to migrant workers like him not to leave Delhi, because it will be a ‘short’ one.

“When I came to know about the lockdown, it was already evening and the next day was lockdown. How could I have arranged to go back at such short notice,” says Bhanu. In the first two days of the lockdown, Delhi Police abused and beat Bhanu for venturing out. For the last few days, he is walking 22 km every day, making a round trip from Badarpur Border to Chittaranjan Park (and neighbouring areas). Each day, he leaves home at 3:30 AM so that he can escape police abuse and beating and reach his destination safely by 7 AM. He reaches home at 11 PM after a gruelling 3.5 hours of walking.

When I asked him how does he manage with so less sleep, he says, “Bhaiya, bhook ke maare neend nahin aati. Mein agar ek time na bhi khaaun, mujhe maa ko toh khilana hai.” (I am not able to sleep because of hunger. I can manage skipping one or two meals, but I have to provide food to my mother). He hasn’t even earned Rs 1,000 in the past two weeks; he has no money to pay for his fare back home; and his landlord would not allow him to leave without paying two months’ rent.  Such is the allowance one has to make for dreaming a better life!

While parting, he told me, “Iss baar ghar chala gaya toh wapas nahin aaunga.” (If I go back home, I won’t return again) I could not ask him to stay back. How could I?

Subhojit Goswami is Senior Program Manager (Advocacy & Communication) at The Leprosy Mission Trust India

Views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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