Shimla: Hunger looms large as jobs fall prey to COVID-19

Sirmauris, as natives from Shillai are known, have been living for years in Shimla working as porters, tourist guides, taxi drivers, private security and waiters. So have the roughly 8000 porters from Kashmir. But none of them have faced such a financial crisis ever before, unable to meet even their basic food needs.

Harshvardhan Chauhan, a-five-time MLA from Shillai, a poverty-ridden belt in the interiors of Himachal Pradesh’s Sirmaur district, has been stuck in Shimla these last few weeks due to the lockdown. “But in a way, this has been a blessing in disguise, me being here than in my constituency,” said Chauhan. “I have been able to help 250 to 260 daily-wage earners from my constituency held-up in Shimla due to the 21-day lockdown. These poor workers have run out of money, food and other daily needs. But their problem is just not of today. The crisis is much deeper for all like them. Both in terms of their subsistence and future job revival .I am just trying to do my bit.”

These ’Sirmauris’, as the natives from Shillai are locally known, have been living for years in Shimla working as porters, tourists guides, taxi drivers, private security and waiters. But never before have they ever faced such a dire crisis, having suddenly lost their jobs and unable to meet their minimal daily needs, primarily food.

As the enforcement and containment and social distancing measures have now been extended till the May 3rd (HP had registered 32 positive case with two deaths till April 13), the Himachal government, like every other state government, is faced with a harsh dilemma. To devise a post-April 15 policy that walks the thin, delicate line between saving lives and saving livelihoods.

Chauhan is not alone when he says “the implications of coronavirus spread and lockdown will be dire”. The Sirmauris, like migrant workers everywhere, are so poor that their families back home will go hungry in the continuing absence of any income in the post lockdown period too. “Only a few of them are educated a bit and have diversified into small business like taxis or taken hotels on lease basis,” added Chauhan. “They will be even worse off especially with no hope of tourism activity bouncing back for at least six months”.

Every day, dozens of daily-wage earners from Shillai visit Chauhan, asking for either monetary help or rations. Some have walked through tough mountain routes to Shimla from their homes 185-200 kms away. They have little hope of regaining their livelihoods in Shimla this summer season at least. Long months of hunger stare them and their families in the face.

The tourism catastrophe

But the Sirmauris are just one community among the thousands of daily wage earners in Shimla, whose livelihoods depend on the tourism industry and trade, which is a washout this year. The state government puts their numbers between 20,000 to 25,000, who are directly affected by the lockdown in Shimla town. But their numbers will be higher if those in related segments are considered, such as out-sourced employees and garbage collectors engaged on contract by the Shimla Municipal Corporation during a normal tourist season.

Shimla’s former deputy Mayor Tikender Panwar, who has already shot off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighting the plights of the migrant workers  says “In Shimla, the impact on daily wage earners is going to be severe.” The town has a large work force employed by hotels and restaurants. Then there many more employed in shops, business establishments, eateries, fastfood joints, street vendors, taxi drivers and parking attendants who will be out of jobs. Many have returned to their villages but a few have remained, still hoping that things will normalise somewhat in some time. Most do not have sufficient ration or access to cooked food. Free meals being served by NGOs, social organisations and citizens’ groups cannot cover them all.

As of now, a few hoteliers and restaurant owners have extended a helping hand. Their workers have been allowed to stay and eat with the assurance that there will be no cut in salaries. But not many are so generous.  But not all can afford to be that generous. Sanjay Sood, President of Shimla Hotels and Restaurants Association, says the state government must come-out with a relief package for the industry entailing waiving of certain taxes, dues, water and power bills. “There could be sharing of responsibility —  maybe 50:50 —  between the government and hoteliers to protect the interests of the workers,” says Sood.

Shimla Municipal Commission is doing its bit. Commissioner Pankaj Rai says garbage collectors were paid their March wages a week before month end. Now, additional incentives and other benefits are being given to them. “The Corporation will engage workers for sanitation work in hospitals, buildings and colonies, though the non-formal work force will face loss of jobs and income”.

The Kashmir connection

One unique group of workers also rendered jobless is comprised of the more than 8,000 Kashmiri porters working in Shimla. Most are currently living in Shimla’s Jama Masjid, while some remain in cramped rented homes. “We can’t go back to Kashmir, and here there is no work and hardly anything to eat,” said Abdul Adil who has been working as a porter in Shimla for 25 years. “The police is sitting outside our doors, not even letting us peep out. If tourists don’t come, what will we do and how will we survive? Our families are waiting for money to feed the children. How long can we can live like this without government support?” he asks in desperation.

A particularly unlucky case is that of 37-yr-old Vikram Mehra from Jammu. He arrived in Shimla in search of a hotel the day before lockdown. As misfortune would have it, he lost all his belongings, mobile phone and also wallet at the local ISBT. Left with no means of survival, he approached the police and registered an FIR. But before even beginning an investigation into Mehra’s complaint, the police sent him to a quarantine centre. “Though he has completed his mandatory quarantine period, the gentleman neither has a job nor money to take care of himself,” said Ankur Chauhan, CEO of Sriram Hospital, where the government has set up a quarantine centre. “He is stuck here till the lockdown is fully lifted”.

Not that Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur is unaware of the plight of people like Mehra or the daily wage workers. But he has his priorities clear. “Right now, the issue is containing coronavirus spread and saving lives,” said Thakur. Once things improve the government will reach out to all the affected sections, including migrant and other labour and daily-wage earners and those involved in the tourism and travel industry”.

When that will happen, and what will be fate of the jobless and hungry till then, is the million dollar question.

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