Sweepers, security guards, store workers: The everyday Covid warriors

Diksha Munjal Mumbai | Updated on May 21, 2020

As the backbone of structured urban living, these unseen workers keep the wheels turning amid the coronavirus outbreak

Tajinder Singh Tirsewal’s day starts at 6 am, collecting trash from the doorsteps of over 150 households in a building complex in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai. The doubled workload is shared by the 45-year-old’s wife Rajni and brother-in-law Ajay, as three other staffers in the team went back to their respective villages. The trio then moves on to the task of sweeping the complex premises and sanitising the elevators in each wing.

On being asked if he is scared to continue working during the outbreak, a perspiring Singh said through his mask, while gliding a cleaning cloth along the railing bar in the lobby: “There is a lot of fear, of course. We collect the garbage of so many households without knowing who went out and who is healthy. But the building has given us a livelihood for nine years now; we could not just leave it when such a situation arose.” Singh hails from Karnal district in Haryana and is the eldest of three brothers; his brothers back home have been out of work since the small manufacturing unit where they were employed had to shut shop in April.

Since the beginning of the nationwide lockdown, the family of four, including Singh’s 14-year-old son Pawan, have been living in a small room in the complex. Singh’s son has been undergoing treatment for epilepsy since age 10, and the lockdown has posed difficulties in getting proper treatment and medication.

As urban professionals across fields brace for work from home to become the new norm in the Covid-19 era, working remotely remains an impossibility for sanitisation and cleaning workers, security guards, local store staff, logistical staff and all those who compose the basic structure for systematic urban living.

Duty calls

As metro cities see a considerable surge in the shift to online shopping for essentials during the lockdown, it is the logistics workforce that make this new normal possible, including the delivery men who are at high exposure points every day.

Dildar Ali, a 44-year-old delivery agent working with grocery e-retail company Grofers for two years, has been delivering groceries in and around the Grant Road area of Mumbai during the lockdown. Along with the long hours of shift, Ali is observing Roza (fast) every day, in the holy month of Ramadan, during which he cannot consume food or water from dawn till dusk.

On being asked if he’s worried about his safety, going out to work every day during the lockdown, said Ali with a sense of responsibility evident in his voice: “If I get scared and sit at home, who will fulfil my duty? You get your groceries and I get to keep my livelihood, it’s only fair.”

Ali resides in Byculla with his wife Hafiza, his two daughters and one son. “They’re worried for me, but more than that, they’re proud of me for being brave in this scary time,” said Ali, stating this as the reason for his motivation to continue working.

Home away from home

Mumbai is home to lakhs of migrants who come to the city from all over the country, in search of jobs and a better living for their families. Over the decades, the city’s migrant population has transformed the socio-economic fabric of the financial capital.

The 2011 Census data released last year by the Ministry of Statistics showed that of the total population of Mumbai, 43.02 per cent were migrants. This includes both inter- and intra-State migrants. Disparities in the overall development of regions, reducing reliance on agricultural sectors and transition to modernising economy are some of the drivers of migration.

One such migrant is 39-year-old Mahesh Vanjare, from the Satara district of Maharashtra. Vanjare has been working as a security guard in an old housing society in South Mumbai for the last four years. He did not go back to his home town before the lockdown was imposed.

“I decided to stay back because I have a secure job here and the people of this society have been nothing but nice to me for the last four years. How would they look for a new guard in the middle of the lockdown if I packed my bags and left?” asked Vanjare.

He expressed the desire to go back home for a whole month after the situation settles down. “I may be away from my family and they worry about my safety, but I did not want to risk their lives by going back now.” Vanjare has a family of three back at home in Satara: his mother, wife and 15-year-old daughter.

As the nationwide lockdown brought about the reverse migration of thousands of migrants and stories of the woeful long journeys of bare-footed migrants to their homes, it also highlighted the arguable social standing of migrants in the country’s food chain.

Faith and safety

On a Tuesday morning in a small general store in Navi Mumbai, 29-year-old Raman is arranging freshly-arrived bread packets on the front rack, his face covered with a mask. He places a marigold flower on the counter in front of a small picture frame of Lord Hanuman.

On being asked whether he fears to risk his health working in the shop during the pandemic, he answered with a question, “Didi, darr kaise nahi hoga? (How will there not be fear?). But we are following all the rules, we wear masks and gloves, clean the shop twice a day and close it before the 5 pm deadline everyday.”

“We are doing what we can, the rest is in his hands,” he adds, pointing at the picture frame. Raman is one of the two boys who work in the store, both of them came to Mumbai from Madhya Pradesh 8 years ago.

People like Raman, Ali, and Singh are some of the many unsung warriors of the coronavirus who are running the show during the nationwide lockdown, risking their lives every day to make the carriage of daily essential tasks possible.

Published on May 21, 2020

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