Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Out of Work School Van Drivers Change Jobs, Sell Their Vans, But Nothing Seems to be Going Right for Them

Since the last week of March this year all the educational institutions and coaching centres have closed down as a precautionary measure against the spread of the Novel Coronavirus pandemic in Manipur. People have been left to suffer in various sectors, particularly the poor and needy sections of the society.

More than two-thousand school van drivers in the state are in dire need of jobs and support since the closure of educational institutions means they have no way to earn from their van services for students. Some have changed their occupation for the sake of survival and to run their family, while others are finding it hard to start afresh in a new profession. Interactions with some van drivers have brought forth a variety of experiences in new professions and all of them had their share of sufferings to talk about.

A 54-year-old van driver from Sagolband Tera Loukrakpam Leikai, Imphal West felt sorry his two sons had to drop out from school as he is unable to afford their expenses for school admission, books and other accessories not having earned anything in the last 6-7 months from the van service he runs. His sons went along with his decision as they understood their financial support was exhausted. The driver brings home only the basic needs, aided by food items supplied by the government and with help from his brothers, sisters and other family members. His uneasiness is calmed only when he considers there are many more people around the world in suffering due to the pandemic, and his condition is no better or worse than them.

He also narrated plans for starting a new business but without any money his plans have gone nowhere beyond dreams. Now he is forced to sit at home without any earnings. He also misses the students on his van whose sweet faces he has not seen for more than six months. The joy of parenting them on their way to school and back from school which he had been doing for the last five years seems distant now.

Another van driver from Thangmeiband Khomdram Selungba Leikai, who is 41 years, joined a private company in June this year with his van let out to them. As the processing of bills in the company takes time during the pandemic, even with the job it is still hard for him to run the family, he says. Also, the Marups (traditional contributing financial saving institute) have started this month with the lockdown being lifted, and it has created extra burdens for him. His neighbourhood is presently in the containment zone and this unforeseen problem has confined him at his house rendering him flat broke. His wife who works at a private school is also not getting any further salary and it’s become impossible to manage his family on his little savings.

A van driver who has been serving for more than fifteen years, from Soibam Leikai Meri Leirak in Imphal East, did learn some skills of house construction during the pandemic. He started helping his friends in their work at construction just to pass time and at the same time to earn some money, and now is fully involved in construction work at his own house. Once he learns the skills of concrete masonry fully, he has decided to continue it by quitting the van service, he said.

Another van driver, who was working earlier at an NGO in Imphal and hails from Brahmapur Bheigyabati Leikai narrated that he left the NGO as his family could not survive on the meagre pay he was drawing. Since the van service stopped in the last 6-7 months, his family has suffered a lot. His family presently is run by his wife who works at a private hospital and he is chipping in with some savings he kept. He has thought of even working as a daily wage labourer to get some extra earnings but could not go ahead as he is concerned about his family prestige. He has been thinking of other plans too, such as rearing poultry or planting of vegetables, but has limited space and resources to begin. He has also appealed to the government to pay him for the van service utilized during the last Lok Sabha elections to help him tide over the pandemic crisis.

With van services at two schools in Imphal, a resident of Wangkhei Pukhrambam Leikai was managing his family smoothly before the pandemic and even had some savings. But during the pandemic, it’s become hard to run his family without the vans plying anymore. The van driver remained at home without any earnings for two months, after which he started rearing chicken and ducks at home. He next bought a Jersey cow for Rs. 70,000 in the hope of increasing his income and used to collect fodder for the cow from Hapta Kangjeibung, Kongba and other places where there is availability of grass and fodder. He was still unable to reach his previous earnings before the pandemic and to bear the expenses of all the marups which resumed this month and to run his family, he bought a Holstein Friesian milch cow worth Rs. 1.2 lakh recently with his savings combined with van fees dues cleared by parents for the van service. His misfortune was that just one week after he bought the cow, it got sick and died. Now he has lost everything, his cow and his savings too. Thinking it is due to his ill luck he has continued with his life on the little earnings from his poultry, selling eggs and meat. At least he could buy snacks for his children, he thought. His brother, who too runs a van service at the same school as him, is now engaged in carpentry work to support his family.

Some of the van drivers have started opening vegetable shops, fish and chicken centres and other activities for a livelihood. Some others are helpless, have nowhere to go or are unable to earn money for many reasons. There are some also who have sold their vans to start a new business. And it’s not only the van drivers who have suffered badly during the pandemic; there are others too. Who is to blame for this? The van drivers want the government to assist them in any form. The pertinent question is whether the government is able to help them or not, and in what way the government will be helping them and when?

In a media report, the World Bank has said more than 150 million people may fall into extreme poverty throughout the world by 2021 as a result of the economic contraction caused by the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. In its report, the bank said the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to push an additional 88 million people into extreme poverty this year, with total rising to as many as 150 million by 2021, depending on the severity of the economic contraction.

How long will people face such severe poverty and sufferings? Let’s see what the concerned authorities plan and whether they step in to make better economic conditions available particularly in the state and the country in general. Once the schools reopen, the van service will automatically be required to resume their services with the hope that there will be resumption of the van drivers’ previous lives before the pandemic, when they were able to manage their family smoothly. But, a pertinent question crops up – Most van drivers have changed jobs for survival during the lockdown, and hence will they return to their school van service when the parents need them?

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