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Laundrymen, newspaper vendors struggle for survival

Diksha Munjal Mumbai | Updated on April 15, 2020

Tourists take a snap of Dhobi ghat, the oldest laundry hub in Mumbai (a file picture)   -  PAUL NORONHA

As their source of income dries up and savings start to run out, individual service providers strive to sustain themselves during the extended lockdown

31-year-old dhobi (laundryman) Babloo Yadav spends his mornings knocking on the doors of his customers to gather enough cash to buy the month’s essentials.

“I had not collected dues from a couple of customers as I knew things would get difficult by the third week. I just collected my last round of dues and got around ₹350 for buying the month’s ration,” said Yadav, who resides in a small rented room that also functions as his shop in the Geeta Nagar slum colony near Colaba, with his wife and two kids.

“If there was a way to send my kids to their grandparents in Deoria (UP), I would have. If the situation doesn’t get better, I will struggle to keep the family fed. I also have to pay the room’s rent on the 12th of every month,” a concerned Yadav said over a phone call.

Ever since the lockdown began, doors of the city’s households have stopped opening to see newspapers and milk packets at the doorstep, laundrymen and maids no longer ring the doorbell. The extended lockdown to battle the coronavirus outbreak has posed a battle of livelihood for people belonging to informal and semi-formal occupational groups in the country.

The indefinite wait

Before the lockdown, 20-year-old Deepak Rao spent his mornings delivering newspapers, his afternoons delivering packages for Amazon and the rest of his day studying at a diploma course centre for computer science in his locality near Panvel. “I have just been waiting for a call from either of my employers. Some newspapers have started rolling out their print editions, but we are not allowed to enter housing complexes so my boss is not acquiring the supplies. Amazon has only picked a few boys for the delivery of essentials that was started, but I haven’t received a call yet.” Rao started working after passing 12th grade to support his parents and pay for his diploma.

When asked about how he’s managing the household expenses, Rao said, with guilt discernible in his voice, “I was working so that my parents could keep their savings aside for my younger brother. Since I have been sitting at home, we have been forced to start using the savings to run the daily expenses.”

Deepak’s employer Raghu More, who has been running the newspaper vending business with his brother over the last five years, said “There are some newspapers that have started printing and want us to acquire supply from them, but there is no way we can distribute the papers. For a couple of days in late March, we tried leaving the papers at the building gates, but not many customers took their copies. We earn a meagre 75 paise on each copy, we can’t afford losses by acquiring supplies and not distributing them.”

Fear and uncertainty

Mumbai’s iconic open-air laundry Dhobi ghat, which brings to mind vibrant images of thousands of clothes hanging on ropes along its long aisles, seems to have lost its charm. The launderers have had to shut shop and uncertainty is in the air.

“In my 10 years of living here, I have not seen Dhobi ghat this quiet. The public is scared, I get so much new information about the virus on WhatsApp every day. If Modiji has decided to shut everything, it definitely must be dangerous, but the struggle is getting worse every day and I think I should have left for my village,” said 45-year-old Dilip Jha, a laundryman living in Dhobi ghat with his wife and two kids who have just given their 10th and 12th-grade board exams. Jha has two brothers back in his village in UP who run a small farm.

“I have no idea when I will be able to restart my business and even fellow laundrymen in the area are not sure whether customers will want to avail our services soon, as there is fear among people.”

Safety first

“From April 1, some newspapers started their print editions and we were informed that we can acquire the supplies. However, we have decided to not to acquire any supplies till this lockdown is lifted or even extended because it is not worth risking lives,” said Keval Bheda, who runs his father’s 40-year-old newspaper distribution business and handles delivery for the Versova area of Mumbai. “Most of my delivery boys live in the chawl settlements nearby so they’re at greater risk, some pockets of Versova have already been put on high alert since a case was detected. If we risk their lives by starting distribution, then we will be answerable to their families. I have tried to make them all understand that life comes first and so does their safety and that of our customers.”

Mahendra Dhamne, one of the delivery boys who work for Bheda, along with his younger brother, said: “Boss has promised to give us the full salary for March, including the salary for the last nine days of the month when we didn’t work, but we have been told to not keep expectations for April. I had thought we would be able to start delivering from April 14 but I just saw on the news that the lockdown will not be lifted till April 30 as the situation hasn’t improved.”

Dhamne expressed concern that the approaching days are starting to look bleak and so are their little savings. It has become difficult for his family to manage finances as both the brothers in their 20s are now sitting at home and their mother, who worked as a cook and domestic help, has also had to stop work.

Published on April 15, 2020

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