At least on the surface, life doesn’t seem to have changed much over the lockdown in the Chamar and Musahar bastis on the outskirts of Lahan. Lack of basic healthcare, compromised sanitation, and widespread illiteracy in the face of abject poverty have characterised the lives of members of Dalit communities for long. Irrespective of health risks surrounding Covid19, life for them is precarious.
Their fears have an entirely different flavour compared to the anxieties of hypervigilant city-dwellers employing a host of measures to ensure the coronavirus stays at a safe distance. Although Udayapur, one of the Covid19 hotspots in Nepal, is just an hour’s ride away, residents of these bastis are much more worried about the economic implications of the very measures taken to contain the virus.
The bastis’ men, the only earners in their families, are now mostly idle. They know not what to make of this crisis that has suddenly stripped them of the meagre wages that barely helped them make ends meet in the past. Women, on whom caregiving duties have been foisted from time immemorial, carry on with the task of cooking and feeding as usual.
Upheavals of any kind–whether they be social, political, or disaster related–have historically distilled down to the Dalits, who occupy the bottom-most rung of Hindu society and bear the greatest brunt. The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, too, combine with centuries of discrimination and neglect, attacking their wellbeing in multiple ways, and causing an acute agony that somehow gets normalised only because it is persistent and unavoidable.
The masks, worn by many, are ill-fitting given their context and needs; the cloth slapped across their faces does little to protect them from the imminent dangers of poverty and starvation. Are the masks meant to shield them from the coronavirus, or do they merely serve to symbolise how their unheard voices have gotten silenced while the nation attends to what it deems ‘graver’ concerns?
Khajni Devi Sada sits down to eat inside a tent built by her neighbours in Meterwa, Lahan. The 75-year-old recounts having spent her entire youth as a bonded labourer. She has never had her citizenship officiated, and without it, is ineligible for elderly pension as well as relief packages distributed by the local government. Many aged members of the Musahar community share this problem.
The bamboo basket made by Ganga Sahani (right) sells for about a hundred rupees at the local market in Sakhuwanankarkati.
Binda Sada prepares karela ko taruwa (fried bitter gourd) for her family of six. Her husband works as a carpenter, but has had no work since the lockdown began. For now, there are some vegetables left in her garden. After they get consumed, there will be nothing left to eat. “Hopefully, the government will withdraw the lockdown soon so we can get back to work,” she muses.
Many city kids are attending online classes, but in places like Meterwa, there is no internet, let alone online classes. A child from the Musahar community dozes off.
Women from the Chamar basti wait in line to receive relief packages made of 12.5 kg of rice, one kg of daal, half a litre of oil, and one kg of salt. Without any income, all 52 families living in the basti rely heavily on these packages for their survival under lockdown.
Men from the Musahar community chat in front of a local shop in Meterwa. Usually working as porters in Lahan, they have found themselves suddenly unemployed since the lockdown began in the last week of March. For them, it is not corona but hunger that evokes fear.
Eleven-year-old Phool Kumari mixes clay and straw to refurbish a wall of her house. As a second grader in times of corona, she occupies herself with household work rather than studies.
When he started to drive the rickshaw, Samit Sada was just nine years old. As a Musahar, few options were available to him back then. Samit has been making a living transporting goods and people on his rickshaw. Here, he waits for whatever little delivery work may come his way, a possibility made more difficult by the police discouraging movement on the streets.
Pristine skies and a fervently green backdrop belie the hardships faced by the Musahar basti. Women carry sacks of food that have come their way in the form of relief material. Virtually all are landless, many lack citizenship, and now, most have been rendered jobless. For Musahar families, the lockdown is choking all ways of making a living.