Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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For Migrant Workers in Manipur, Very Little has Changed from Early Lockdown Days till Now

Norbindo Malik has started attending to his duties as the lockdown has eased a little for everybody. In-between, for about half a month in the beginning of the lockdown in March and in April, he was feeling very impatient and went into a phase where he started thinking too much. But now he has overcome his restlessness and for the past month is cycling down to Langol where he has to complete a white washing contract given to him. He is out of his house by 8.30 am in the morning and comes back cheerful by around 4-5 pm in the evening after attending to his work at the site. As a migrant labourer he had initially planned to set out for Guwahati when his young nephew left him just before the Coronavirus broke loose. He is happy now that he didn’t go with him as, he said he would have been stuck in some quarantine centre and would not have had a chance to be with his wife and child here in Imphal.
Now Norbindo is earning Rs. 700-800 daily and his attention is on taking good food, something his family had been missing. As his wife and daughter do not like fish and chicken Norbindo gets vegetables for them. Also there’s a scarcity of fish and chicken so he finds green fleshy vegetables and beans a good substitute. This he finds to be a good diet till markets open and they can get a better variety of vegetables. He has also hired a tutor for his child and the money he earns is partly paid for the tuition classes. Norbindo seems to have come out a wiser man through the lockdown and is in very good spirits throughout the day these days. He was suffering a lot, he says, but with work coming up he is occupied mentally also and all the hardship has ended for the family.
His wife too is in a relaxed mood and talks about day to day topics like cooking food and not being able to visit the temple. With her husband’s mind clear now and wanting to keep busy as he was earlier she wants to take him and their child to the temple she visits on Sundays, once the lockdown is over and temples reopen. As of now both the temple she visits at Airport Road and the Kalibari at Thangal Bazar, where her husband goes on weekends, are closed. The family perform their prayers at home. She says they pray frequently for the pandemic to subside, all the more because some of their elderly devotees have fallen ill. She says one has to be careful also, but still as life will end one day, everyone should live freely.
The family braved the curfew a few days back to observe the yearly death anniversary of Norbindo’s mother. Very few people came for the ceremony and they could not spend much on it due to the paucity of funds, for which God should forgive them, she says. Whatever little they have will be offered, she said quoting from the passage in the Bhagavad Gita that says a tulasi leaf, flower, fruit or a little water is enough to satisfy the Lord. And they got a lot of mental peace out of it, she says. During this time of disease they would be happy to take food only with a few potatoes or a little salt, as long as they are together, she says.
Others less privileged, however, are making frantic efforts to keep their home and business going and at the same time finding that it’s almost impossible. It is ill luck too for Manoj Kumar and Pappu Thakur who are barbers, a profession that would be the last to get back on the tracks it seems. They have been running from pillar to post for getting benefits from the government, for which they are eligible but have not received anything till now. They have approached the labour department, labour commissioner, district commissioner and finally the state’s chief secretary under the banner of the Manipur Barbers’ Association of which Pappu Thakur is the general secretary. They have asked for financial assistance, food grain aid and practically anything which will make their survival possible. Being in the most vulnerable section these days they go only for haircuts for people they know and who call them to their homes. Fortunately the landlord has not asked them for the rent till now.
During the pandemic, they say they would like to stay in Manipur only as Bihar, their home state, is not safe. Otherwise they find both the states okay for residence. They relate the instance of how a bridegroom died after a recent marriage in Bihar and how marriages are getting cancelled after that, citing why it is risky to go there right now. However, Ram Naresh Thakur, a tea hotel owner, has sent back two of his helpers back home to Bihar as sales, which have partially resumed, are much less than expected and he can’t keep the helpers idle. They boarded a train from Dimapur a few days back. Although the hotel is stocked with supplies the sales have not reached even the halfway mark and losses have been heavy, according to the owner who says the helpers will be called back when the sales are normal. Again, fortunately, the landlord has not asked for rent till now and both the barbers and the hotel owner are hoping they can pay a lump sum rent later on.
Another complaint becoming common among small time vendors and other businesses is the extortion resorted to by the policemen on duty. A sugarcane juice seller Raju (name changed), said he had been picked up by the city police and kept in their lock up for 12 hours before being released in the night after paying the police a sum of Rs. 2000. An innocent looking young man, he says he is harassed frequently by the policemen who demand money from him amounting to Rs. 500 and more. As it is a single sugarcane now costs Rs. 20 and profits are hard to come, he says. Raju lives alone as his wife had a miscarriage and left for her home in Bihar just before the lockdown had begun. He is very troubled how he will carry on with his work if the police keep harassing him. One only wishes the police themselves are restrained somehow from harassing the poor, just in the way they are trying to restrain the public during curfew.

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