With just 170 positive cases of coronavirus disease in the state, Bihar as a whole and Patna in particular (barring the two contamination zones of Khajpura and Sultanganj) are comparatively well suited, when it comes to relaxing lockdown rules to enable some economic activity as per the Centre’s guidelines. But whatever partial relaxation has been allowed has brought little relief to the poor of Patna, which is not surprising given the many inconsistencies in the guidelines.
For instance, the guidelines allows plumbers, electricians, carpenters, daily wages workers and highway dhabas to ply their business. But with all other shops being closed, these people are unable to buy the parts and tools they need for their work, and the highway dhabas, given the many restrictions on vehicle movement on the highways, find rare customers. The relaxation given to rural industries and road construction department to resume pending projects using local labour is hampered by their supply chain of raw materials being uncertain and unreliable.
Government officials insist that the relaxation will enable at least 700 small industries and over 10,000 government projects to restart. But the guidelines, which specifically mention small rural manufacturing units like brick kilns, do not take into account labour shortage as many labourers have returned to their villages, although a few employers are willing to bear the additional cost of providing their labour with personal protection equipment, food and ensure social distancing while at work. The few workers that could be seen were using gamchas (hand towels) as face mask with women wrapping their sarees over their face.
“After the the lockdown, most of the labour has gone to their respective village,” said Sumit Kumar, owner of a brick kiln located on the outskirt of Patna. “As vehicular movement is restricted and people need to carry a vehicle pass, it has become really difficult to run the factory.”
Claims by ministers like Nand Kishore Yadav, who heads the roads construction department, that “around 300 projects of road construction department have resumed after the partial relaxation,” need to be taken with a generous pinch of salt. What the minister failed to admit, but his officials did, was shortage of labour. “We are following department orders but labour is the main problem and though we are hiring locals to fill that gap, the strength is not adequate,” said an engineer associated with the ongoing Rs 1742 crore Gandhi Setu restructuring work.
Self employed workers like plumbers, electricians and carpenters in the city, on the other hand, complain of police harassment. Aftab Alam, an electrician who lives in Phulwarisharif said he faces a lot of difficulty with the police while cycling to his shop in Boring Canal Road, 9 km away. “I was mistreated by the police many times, despite showing my tools as well as my identity card,” said Alam. “At the shop, I stopped accepting any long distance calls for the same reason and visited only a few houses near my shop”.
Manohar Ram , a semi-skilled carpenter and the sole earner in his family of five has been sitting idle for a month now and sees little hope in the future. “The lockdown has made our life very difficult and it is becoming hard to survive each day,” said Manohar, a resident of Buddha colony in Patna. “I am in no position to feed my family two meals a day.”
Bihar is a non-manufacturing state where people working in the informal sector comprise around 75% to 80% of the working population. They include not just daily wage labourers but also self-employed people like Aftab and Manohar and others involved in tailoring, food preparation, cobblers, roadside vendors besides domestic help. All these activities have been shut throughout the state since March 24th, except shops selling essential goods.
And every one of such people that we spoke to said no government relief has reached them so far.
Earlier, daily wage labourers would gather at specific points in the city for contractors to hire. But such gatherings are no longer possible. Yashwant Kumar, 32, a daily wage labourer who used to arrive at Panchmukhi roundabout in Boring Canal Road area is a typical example. “If the lockdown continues, we will have no option except committing suicide,” said Kumar.
Tales of misery
Small shops and business owners too are extremely skeptical on the revival of their business. “I have eight helpers to whom I pay salary but as there is no income, I am giving them essential goods in the form of grocery and some money,” said Gopal Kushwaha, who runs a small restaurant called Old Champaran Meat House near Patna Planetarium. “I am not in a position to give them proper salary.”
Wherever one turned, there was a tale of disappointment and misery. “Earlier, we made a profit of Rs 5000 to Rs 8000 daily,” said Nalin Kumar, who runs a second hand two wheeler shop at Bhattacharya Road in Patna “Now, there is zero income for the past one month. The two wheelers which have been left untended will have developed some problem which would mean additional expense to make them functional.”
Owners of shops that do not fall in the essential goods category argue that they too should be allowed to open. “We will also follow the norms that grocery shops are having to,” said Shivam Kumar, who runs a small readymade garment shop. “We should be allowed to do our regular business otherwise we will have to face lot of problems in the coming days.”
Employees everywhere are the most scared, of losing their salaries and possibly their jobs. “There is already talk in the office of retrenchment and of a 30% salary cut,” according to Shubham Kumar, employee at a private company in Patna. “The HR department is attributing this to heavy loss of business in the lockdown. The list is being prepared and will be announced after the lockdown.” Shubham did not want to name his company fearing he would be sacked.
Employees also fear that returning to work could expose them to the risk of contracting the virus. “There are more than 500 staff in our office and I am really scared of resuming work,” said an employee of one of India’s leading companies on condition of anonymity. “God knows, who is the carrier of the virus? At the same time, one cannot leave the job either. I will take extra care once I resume work.”
“We are doing our best to ensure that the people involved in the informal sectors are not affected badly,” said Patna district magistrate Kumar Ravi. “My department is doing everything we can do to ensure that people involved in informal work are not affected,” added Bihar industries minister Shyam Rajak.
But the Patna Chapter of Bihar Industries Association (BIA) claimed that the government is not doing enough to help restart formal and informal sectors. “I have not come across any example where people in the informal sector have received any help,” said BIA vice-president Sanjay Bhartiya. “The government should immediately allow the informal sector to start their business, otherwise it will have a cascading impact”.