Bengal goes into lockdown! At the time of writing this article we are already in to the second day of the proposed 15 day stretch of restrictions. The politicians in Delhi and Kolkata are busy playing “Catch Me If You Can” and throngs flood the bazaars in a frenzy of panic buying. Long faces surmise in muffled voices “This isn’t the end! They will stretch this lockdown further.”
As I stand in front of the shanty stall of my favourite vegetable vendor, he shakes his head in shock. “Just three hours to do business? The surplus will rot Dada. I’ll have to throw it onto the streets. Let the cows feast. I’ll have to pick up less from the farmers from tomorrow. You might not get enough. Be prepared.” – My friend nods his head and declares in a grim voice. The pain of losing a sizeable chunk of his income shows all over his face. I look on helplessly.
I move on to the grocer and he laments, “Fresh milk will spoil in the refrigerator. Can’t keep it running all day in a closed shop Dada! Where will I pay the electricity bill from?” He is right. My hometown buys its milk in packets from grocers, while the milkmen sell their produce to the sweet shops. Sweet shops can stay open for seven long hours: ten in the morning to five in the afternoon. All other shops need to open at seven and close sharp at ten in the morning. When the clock strikes nine at night we must all get back inside our pigeon holes and not leave till five at dawn. Those are the rules.
A jeep full of angry faced cops pries the crowd for flouters of the mask-rule. “Social distancing” has gone for a toss in the chock-a-block marketplace. It doesn’t matter if people rub shoulders and it didn’t matter during the elections. Apparently the virus spreads only through noses peeking over masks during lockdowns. No one knows how the cops will behave this year. We can only speculate. If the man in charge is kind, he will rein in the batons. But that seems unlikely in the hot and musty weather.
They had used their batons like baseball bats last year. Daily wage labourers in desperate search for work, famished rickshaw pullers, fathers in search of milk for children and so many more like them weren’t spared the rule of the mace. As I begin to trudge back to my place I meet my friend, the security guard. He works for an agency that employs all the security guards at the local malls. They had had to suffer a substantial pay cut last year during the lockdown. The malls are normally the first places to close down in such scenarios. The situation looks grim once more. “What do I do if I am laid off? There are talks in the office, you know!” His face contorts in unspoken agony. I can only imagine what will become of Nibaran, the tea seller.
My wife and I are his regular customers in the afternoons. These are only glimpses of the larger disaster that looms over my city. We aren’t doing well on the economic front. Over the last three decades Durgapur has slipped down towards an uncertain future. Now, a great majority of her people must decide whether to die of some disease or starvation. For most the possibility of death due to disease is a chance they are willing to take because death due to starvation is slow but certain.
Durgapur is a microcosm of West Bengal. It is as stratified and demographically diverse as the rest of the state. It was carved out of a jungle and a small village in a nascent Indian Republic, when Soviet styled rapid industrialization was in vogue. Huge mills churning out steel and large mining equipments were raised and Durgapur was soon dubbed the Ruhr of Bengal. Over the years many people migrated to Durgapur from other parts of Bengal looking for work in the State run mills. A small population came from neighbouring Bihar and it has consistently grown into a decisive vote bank now. This city’s demography was once dominated by these State run mill workers. Shopkeepers and small businessmen made up a small minority. That equation has changed vastly now. With a continuous decline of the industrial behemoths the local people don’t look to them for employment. The children of the original settlers, who built the fledgling factories into the present day mammoths, have been largely ignored by the country. The industry ranks are now filled by a small number of government officer, a handful few workers in government payroll, and a crowd of “petty” labourers working in contractors’ payrolls. These “petty” labourers are the locals and their employment is subject to the whims of the Trade Unions.
In present times this city’s humans are for the most part big and small traders and private sector employees. It is safe to presume that public sector employees are grossly outnumbered and this bares the fault line. The public sector employees are frowned upon and the repugnance has only increased with passing time. The apparent social security that comes with a government job makes them look like elite class to the rest. Easy loan schemes and bespoke offers from banks and car dealerships for these people reek of discrimination and serves only to exacerbate the rift. The popular sentiment here is strongly against the lockdown. There is also this undercurrent of erroneous belief that these restrictions have been shoved down the throats of millions because of the constant lobbying by government employees. There is palpable class tension in the air and we might be sitting on a ticking time bomb.
In this grand commotion one thing gives me hope though – Mamata Banerjee’s U-turn from her stand! Right before the elections she had told the press in an elaborate conference that lockdown was something she would never enforce because too many people would have to suffer. She came across as a messiah then but I wasn’t going to buy it and I was ridiculed much for my apprehensions. Riding the “No Vote to BJP Wave” and aided by her charisma as a street fighter she came back to power on 2nd May 2021. And what does she do after coming to power? She enforces a lockdown barely two weeks into her third term! She has certainly lived up to the high standards set by Indian politicians! I stand vindicated and my detractors can roam around with long faces.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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