Recently, #KhabarLive visited some areas of Hyderabad’s old city and interacted with vendors and small businesses to find out how the extended lockdown has impacted their lives.

In Hyderabad’s Pathergatti market, several roadside stalls and pushcarts are seen selling clothes, plastic materials and kitchen utensils. One of these stalls, Yousufain handlooms and hosiery, belongs to Abdul Khadeeb. “It has been two hours since I opened the shop at 8 am, and not even a single customer has come so far. There used to be a time that I would sell products to make a profit, but today I sell to take home some money to survive,” Abdul shares, as he cleans the dust off his products at the shop. Paying the house rent has also become a herculean task for Abdul. “I stay at Fateh Darwaza. I have seven people at home. We stay in a small house and we pay a rent of Rs 6,000 per month. I have not been able to pay the rent for two months now. I have asked for time from the owner and told him business has not been happening due to the lockdown.”

All the shops at the market are temporary, and can be set up effortlessly and cleared within no time, in case the police visit for a crackdown on illegal roadside vendors. The Telangana government recently extended the relaxation hours of its lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. On May 30, when the state cabinet met, they decided to extend the lockdown for another 10 days. However, it was announced that the relaxation hours would be extended until 2 pm, from the earlier 6 am to 10 am. According to the new rules, shops and businesses have to shut by 1 pm so that everyone can be home by 2 pm.

While several small-scale businessmen and roadside vendors have welcomed the extension, many say that they are still struggling to make ends meet.

The effect on the poor
Hyderabad Member of Parliament (MP), Asaduddin Owaisi had earlier urged Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao not to extend the lockdown. Taking to Twitter, Owaisi reiterated how a lockdown is not the strategy to combat COVID-19. Owaisi also mentioned how a lockdown makes a public health crisis a law-and-order problem. Through his tweets, Owaisi strongly urged KCR to not extend the lockdown. Instead, Owaisi suggested evening curfews or a mini-lockdown for COVID-19 clusters. “Expecting 3.5 crore people to live for weeks with just a 4-hour lockdown relaxation is not fair at all,” Owaisi said in one of his tweets.

However, despite the MP’s strong objection, the Telangana cabinet decided to extend the lockdown for another 10 days while increasing the relaxation hours.

55-year-old Zaheer Jameel stands with five cotton shorts in his hand at the Pathergatti market. He has a bag below him filled with more shorts. Even while speaking to #KhabarLive his eyes look around for prospective buyers. He clearly has no time to waste, because in another two hours, he has to pack up and leave. When asked how business has been, Jameel said, “I am making around Rs 300 to Rs 400 a day now. After the costs are cut, hardly anything remains. Earlier, after a day’s business, I would have around Rs 1000 to Rs 1200 with me. Speak to any vendor, their story is as bad as the other.”

Ibrahim Shareef sits at the cash counter at Sagar Hotel, a small restaurant at the corner of one of the busy bylanes. According to Shareef, the restaurant has been around in Pathergatti for around 60 years. “The rent for a small restaurant space like mine is around Rs 2 lakh a month. The electricity bill comes to around Rs 15,000. Thankfully, this is my own property and I don’t have to pay rent. The shops that have to pay rent and salaries of workers are the ones who have been drastically impacted,” Shareef said.

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A little distance away, in one of Moghalpura’s narrow bylanes, Syed Sayeed can be seen carrying two sacks of subsidised rice on his moped, just collected from the ration shop. He uses the vehicle to push the heavy sacks, not having enough money to afford fuel. Though having to push the moped, it’s still easier than carrying the weight on his head. Sharing his grief about being out of work, Sayeed said, “I worked as a cook at weddings. I have been out of a job for a year now. I then began to work at a tent house for Rs 200 a day. Since they have also been out of work, they haven’t been paying me.” When asked about how he is managing the house, he said, “I have two children. My wife passed away earlier. We have been only eating rice and tomato chutney.” The tomatoes that Sayeed can afford costs around Rs 7 to Rs 10 a kilo, he said.

The lockdown has also adversely affected women, especially single mothers who have been the breadwinners for their homes. Waseem Fatima, 36, who was married off to a sheikh at a very young age and later disowned, has been doing zardosi work on blouses and selling them for a living. Speaking to #KhabarLive, Fatima said, “Since the pandemic, in the last two years, I have hardly had any business. The lockdown has made no major difference to me because I have anyway not been receiving any orders. The shopkeepers take orders from customers and would sublet the work to me. Now, I don’t get any orders. I stay with my child at my sister’s house. We’ve been struggling to even pay the rent.”

Sabah Begum’s family had recently bought gold worth Rs 25,000 for her brother’s fiancé, for their wedding. However, when it became difficult to even afford food, the family took the difficult decision to sell it back to the same jewellery shop. “Though it had just been a few weeks, they took back the gold and reduced Rs 1000 and gave us Rs 24,000 for the same jewellery. We had no other option in front of us,” recounted Sabah.

There are innumerable people like Sayeed, Shareef, Abdul, Jameel, Fatima and Sabah. Their stories of how the lockdown has impacted their lives and made living each day, a battle in itself, is sure to move one to tears. The hardship that the lockdown has caused has made life miserable. As the Hyderabad MP said in one of his tweets, “During the lockdown, the poor will either die of coronavirus or will die of starvation due to poverty…”

Shuttered schools left van drivers and contract workers incomeless
Van drivers, hostel workers and other contract workers dependent on educational institutions have lost their means of livelihood for over a year.

58-year-old Damodhar barely gets any sleep most nights, agonising over how he will sustain his household expenses in the midst of lockdown. Every time his wife tells him they have run out of atta or oil, his anxiety spikes over how they will buy more. Damodhar was a school van driver, who once woke up early every morning to pick up kids and drop them off at school before the pandemic. But as most educational institutions have remained closed since March 2020, Damodhar has been left without his usual means of livelihood.

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“I used to earn about Rs 30,000 every month after calculating all expenses. Ever since the pandemic struck, however, my life has been in shambles. I’ve hardly earned anything. Even for the days we did work, only 80% of the parents paid me and the rest didn’t. Since the lockdown till now, my vans are parked outside, collecting dust. Not having any earnings, I took a loan of Rs 2 lakh from somebody and paid him the interest upfront for a whole year so that he doesn’t keep asking. We sold off some of my wife’s jewels and pledged the rest for money. We are somehow surviving with that money now. The money lenders have also started asking for their money back now. But I have no earnings and they use very abusive language, which is very painful to hear,” said Damodhar, who had employed drivers for three vans he maintained, but now all have been left in the lurch.

To make matters worse, his wife fell ill a few months ago. “She suddenly started losing weight and becoming weak. We have visited the doctor several times, which is expensive on its own. Above that, they have given her medicines which cost over Rs 1,500 per month. Our situation is very bad. I’m only able to bear this because I have a hope that schools will open by December or January,” he added.

Damodhar’s plight is not an isolated incident. This is the condition of many contract workers who rely on educational institutions and tangential businesses, like government hostels, for employment.

Speaking to #KhabarLive another van driver named Asif said, “I had three vans. I used to drive one. The second was driven by my son and the third was driven by my son-in-law. But with no earning since March 2020, I had to sell off one van for just Rs 75,000 to sustain my family which I had bought for Rs 3 lakh. The pandemic came like a tsunami and I could say that it effectively washed away our home. These last three months, I have been riding an auto rickshaw that someone allowed me to borrow and from that I have somehow been able to get Rs 300 per day and barely survive. But that has also stopped in the second lockdown. Our future looks grim. Even if the schools do open, I don’t think many parents would like the work of a van driver due to current circumstances.”

While government relief packages of Rs 3000 do provide some relief for drivers, they explain that it doesn’t do much to sustain them for long. In many cases, drivers said the relief wouldn’t even cover rent for their houses.

According to Damodhar, the only thing that will ease their situation is reducing the road tax on their vehicles. “Currently, we have to pay over Rs 5,000 in tax on our vans per quarter. All we want is for the tax slab to be brought under the same category of school-owned vans which is around 600 per quarter. If the same tax continues, we will have to pay Rs 25,000 just in taxes to start driving again. This only worsens the longer this situation continues,” he said.

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Ghulam Khan, president of Telangana United School and LMV drivers’ union, noted, “Van drivers have been forced to sell their vans which are their only means of livelihood. Some have even become street vendors. Recently, we held an online protest demanding the government to provide a tax exemption for a year and Rs 7,500 economic package to each driver. However, the government has taken no such measures.”

More jobs affected
Gowramma used to work as a helper to the cook in a hostel in Gachibowli area of Hyderabad. She lives in a joint family consisting of seven members and is the sole earner in the family. She has worked in the hostel for over 10 years.

“I’m the only one who earns in our family. My husband drinks a lot and doesn’t go to work. For a year, I mostly haven’t had any work. When schools started to open up, I was asked to work as a night guard for two months and then again, it stopped. Payment is really an issue in the place I work. The contractor usually doesn’t pay the full amount and as we are only hired on a contract basis, they threaten to remove us if we try to question them. I have five months of payment pending for when I had worked before the lockdown in 2020 and it hasn’t been paid yet. There are no other jobs available here in and since the pandemic started, the opportunities have gone down further. Mostly, we survive on the rations given by the government, which isn’t sufficient. We only get 10 kgs of rice and 2 kgs of wheat. For any other expenditure, I have had to take loans,” said Gowramma.

“I don’t know how much longer I will be able to sustain like this,” she added.

Lack of salary payment is a common concern among hostel workers, who reveal a similar plight to Gowramma. Many also haven’t been paid for the little work they’ve been able to do since the onset of the pandemic.

A hostel worker named Shaileja has been working for 20 years at a hostel in Ameerpet area of Hyderabad. “The last payment we received was in March 2020. Since then I haven’t received a penny despite working from January 2021 to March 2021. My husband works as a daily wage laborer and is able to earn around Rs 6000 a month but it doesn’t suffice. Since March of last year, we have had to take a loan of Rs 50,000 and I’m unsure how I will be able to pay it off. I don’t know how long we will have a roof over our head. The landlord has threatened that he will throw us out if we delay payment of rent. My husband has also been unwell lately and I don’t know how long he can continue to work. We are in a situation where we don’t know if we will survive through this any longer.”

Some hostels workers told #KhabarLive that they have been forced to take up sex work during this period to meet their urgent financial needs.

Ramulu Naik, secretary of Telangana United Hostel Workers’ Union, said, “These hostel workers are facing extreme difficulty as schools, colleges and hostels have closed. There are no job alternatives for them and they have been left to work as daily wage laborers or join the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). The government hasn’t taken any measures to ease their situation yet.” #KhabarLive #hydnews