58-year-old Damodhar barely gets any sleep most nights, agonising over how he will sustain his household expenses in the midst of lockdown. Every time his wife tells him they have run out of atta or oil, his anxiety spikes over how they will buy more. Damodhar was a school van driver, who once woke up early every morning to pick up kids and drop them off at school before the pandemic. But as most educational institutions have remained closed since March 2020, Damodhar has been left without his usual means of livelihood.
â€śI used to earn about Rs 30,000 every month after calculating all expenses. Ever since the pandemic struck, however, my life has been in shambles. Iâ€™ve hardly earned anything. Even for the days we did work, only 80% of the parents paid me and the rest didnâ€™t. Since the lockdown till now, my vans are parked outside, collecting dust. Not having any earnings, I took a loan of Rs 2 lakh from somebody and paid him the interest upfront for a whole year so that he doesnâ€™t keep asking. We sold off some of my wifeâ€™s jewels and pledged the rest for money. We are somehow surviving with that money now. The money lenders have also started asking for their money back now. But I have no earnings and they use very abusive language, which is very painful to hear,â€ť said Damodhar, who had employed drivers for three vans he maintained, but now all have been left in the lurch.
To make matters worse, his wife fell ill a few months ago. â€śShe suddenly started losing weight and becoming weak. We have visited the doctor several times, which is expensive on its own. Above that, they have given her medicines which cost over Rs 1,500 per month. Our situation is very bad. I'm only able to bear this because I have a hope that schools will open by December or January,â€ť he added.
Damodharâ€™s plight is not an isolated incident. This is the condition of many contract workers who rely on educational institutions and tangential businesses, like government hostels, for employment.
Speaking to TNM another van driver named Asif said, â€śI had three vans. I used to drive one. The second was driven by my son and the third was driven by my son-in-law. But with no earning since March 2020, I had to sell off one van for just Rs 75,000 to sustain my family which I had bought for Rs 3 lakh. The pandemic came like a tsunami and I could say that it effectively washed away our home. These last three months, I have been riding an auto rickshaw that someone allowed me to borrow and from that I have somehow been able to get Rs 300 per day and barely survive. But that has also stopped in the second lockdown. Our future looks grim. Even if the schools do open, I donâ€™t think many parents would like the work of a van driver due to current circumstances.â€ť
While government relief packages of Rs 3000 do provide some relief for drivers, they explain that it doesnâ€™t do much to sustain them for long. In many cases, drivers said the relief wouldnâ€™t even cover rent for their houses.
According to Damodhar, the only thing that will ease their situation is reducing the road tax on their vehicles. â€śCurrently, we have to pay over Rs 5,000 in tax on our vans per quarter. All we want is for the tax slab to be brought under the same category of school-owned vans which is around 600 per quarter. If the same tax continues, we will have to pay Rs 25,000 just in taxes to start driving again. This only worsens the longer this situation continues,â€ť he said.
Shanmugam PS, president of Karnataka United School and LMV driversâ€™ union, noted, â€śVan drivers have been forced to sell their vans which are their only means of livelihood. Some have even become street vendors. Recently, we held an online protest demanding the government to provide a tax exemption for a year and Rs 7,500 economic package to each driver. However, the government has taken no such measures.â€ť
More jobs affected
Gowry* used to work as a helper to the cook in a hostel near Yadgir district of Karnataka. She lives in a joint family consisting of seven members and is the sole earner in the family. She has worked in the hostel for over 10 years.
â€śI'm the only one who earns in our family. My husband drinks a lot and doesnâ€™t go to work. For a year, I mostly havenâ€™t had any work. When schools started to open up, I was asked to work as a night guard for two months and then again, it stopped. Payment is really an issue in the place I work. The contractor usually doesnâ€™t pay the full amount and as we are only hired on a contract basis, they threaten to remove us if we try to question them. I have five months of payment pending for when I had worked before the lockdown in 2020 and it hasnâ€™t been paid yet. There are no other jobs available here in Yadgir and since the pandemic started, the opportunities have gone down further. Mostly, we survive on the rations given by the government, which isnâ€™t sufficient. We only get 15 kgs of rice and 2 kgs of wheat. For any other expenditure, I have had to take loans,â€ť said Gowry.
â€śI donâ€™t know how much longer I will be able to sustain like this,â€ť she added.
Lack of salary payment is a common concern among hostel workers, who reveal a similar plight to Gowryâ€™s. Many also havenâ€™t been paid for the little work theyâ€™ve been able to do since the onset of the pandemic.
A hostel worker named Shileja* has been working for 20 years at a hostel in Bijapur. â€śThe last payment we received was in March 2020. Since then I havenâ€™t received a penny despite working from January 2021 to March 2021. My husband works as a daily wage laborer and is able to earn around Rs 6000 a month but it doesnâ€™t suffice. Since March of last year, we have had to take a loan of Rs 50,000 and I'm unsure how I will be able to pay it off. I donâ€™t know how long we will have a roof over our head. The landlord has threatened that he will throw us out if we delay payment of rent. My husband has also been unwell lately and I donâ€™t know how long he can continue to work. We are in a situation where we donâ€™t know if we will survive through this any longer.â€ť
Some hostels workers told TNM that they have been forced to take up sex work during this period to meet their urgent financial needs.
KV Bhat, secretary of Karnataka United Hostel Workersâ€™ Union, said, â€śThese hostel workers are facing extreme difficulty as schools, colleges and hostels have closed. There are no job alternatives for them and they have been left to work as daily wage laborers or join the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). The government hasnâ€™t taken any measures to ease their situation.â€ť