The no education no income trap and other challenges faced by the poor during the pandemic
Murali* sells flowers for a living. He is about fifty. His parents migrated to Bangalore from Jwalagiri, a village in Tamil Nadu in the late 60s. They found a place to stay in Chamrajpet. His father started doing odd jobs as a laborer while his mother started selling flowers near a temple in Chamrajpet. Murali has an elder brother and an elder sister. All three were born in Chamrajpet. While his elder siblings went back to Jwalagiri, Murali followed in his mother’s footsteps. He dropped out of school when he was in the eighth standard. Since then, he has followed the same routine. Go to the city market, buy loose flowers, sell them near the temple in Chamrajpet.
Murali got married in 1993. He has three children – two daughters and a son. Everything that he had saved was used up in getting his daughters married. He gave a hundred grams of gold for the elder daughter and two lakh rupees for the younger daughter as dowry. After the marriage of the youngest daughter, Murali went to the ATM to withdraw two hundred rupees. It was then that he realized that his bank balance had come down to a hundred and sixteen rupees. Murali believes that his son has done a lot better than him, he has after all completed his SSLC. Prasad, his son, got married recently and is now a father himself. All five of them – Murali, his wife, and his son’s family live in a small house in Chamrajpet. Most of Murali’s work gets done on his TVS moped. He and Prasad ride out by 3:00 am. everyday. Murali drops his son near the temple so that their regular spot is not taken by one of the other flower sellers. After dropping his son off Murali proceeds to the city market to buy flowers. Their work is done by 10 in the morning.
Murali needs about three thousand rupees every day to buy flowers. On a good day, he makes a profit of about five hundred rupees. On a bad day about two hundred rupees. Petrol used to cost about sixty rupees a liter when Murali bought his moped. It now costs a hundred rupees. His monthly savings after rent and subsistence food has been steadily declining. The only way out of this fix as Murali sees it, is for his son to start doing something else. Prasad has after all completed SSLC. He could get a job in a courier company, or he could work as a delivery executive. He would need a motorcycle to get either of these jobs. And the trouble has always been that Murali and Prasad have not been able to rustle up the money required to buy a motorcycle. Nobody is willing to stand as surety nor do they have anything that could be given as collateral for a loan.
Murali had hoped that a lot of his problems would get solved in 2020. Ever since he moved from his old house, he has been trying to get his ration card updated. He also hoped to get his BPL card. He had visited a lot of government offices and even spoken to the local counselor. All to no avail. A ration card and a BPL card would help him cut down his day-to-day expenses. He could then save money for that motorcycle. Even a used one can change their life for the better he thought. Murali also wanted to visit Tirupati. He wanted to get his grandson tonsured.
Murali’s lockdown experience
When the lockdown was announced Murali knew nothing about COVID-19. He did not know where it came from or how it spread. All he knew was that there was a big disease and that he had to be careful. In time he understood that everyone had to wear masks and wash their hands regularly. Even then Murali did not see what was coming. The city market was shut for a long time. Even the temples were shut. There was nothing to do. For the first time in his life, Murali was idle. Life was tough. There was no income. He kept hearing about the different schemes that the state and central governments had announced. But without a BPL card, nothing came to him. No free food grains. Murali had not been able to open a Jan Dhan account so there were no cash transfers for him either. He feels that unless you know the people who control the distribution of these benefits nothing will ever come to you. All he got was rations on his Aadhar card. He had to go through a lot of trouble for this as well. With no income, Murali began defaulting on his rent.
When the city market and the temple reopened normalcy returned to Murali’s life. The first thing Murali did when he started earning was to buy a bottle of hand sanitizer. He has been buying it regularly ever since. He paid off some of the rent that he owed but he is still behind. He dreads the day his landlord asks him to pay all the dues or vacate.
These tough months helped Murali realize something. He understood that the real reason behind all his troubles was because neither he nor his son had completed their education. Nor did they acquire any skill that was of value. He then decided that unlike him and Prasad his grandson would attend a private school, an English medium school. Unlike a government school, this will not be free. He will have to pay around twenty-five thousand rupees for five years, but he knows that this is something he just has to do. He cannot allow yet another generation to get caught in the no education, no income trap.
It was only when the second wave hit that Murali realized how dangerous this new disease was. His house is close to a cremation ground. He saw the crowds there. The stench of burning corpses was unbearable for weeks on end. He started hearing rumors about a local counselor arranging beds for about forty thousand rupees. He heard that hospital expenses could run up to three lakh rupees. For somebody who earned around fifteen thousand rupees a month, these figures were way beyond him. He told his son and wife that he did not want to get hospitalized in case he got infected. Thankfully he did not get infected. Nor did anyone else in his family. An NGO his daughter-in-law knew organized vaccine shots for him and his wife.
Hopes and prayers
Murali has done all that he can. He ensured that everyone in his family is always masked up. He continues to buy a bottle of hand sanitizer every month. He does not spend on anything other than the essentials. He will start making the rounds of government offices as soon as they open up to chase that elusive BPL card and to update his ration card. He hopes that the politicians who so enthusiastically organized for a voter ID for all of them will show some of that alacrity in helping him get these precious government documents. Murali has done all he can, the rest he says is in God’s hands.
*All names have been changed to protect identity