It's past 8: 30 pm on Wednesday, day one of the newly imposed lockdown in Telangana's Hyderabad, and 28-year old Eeresh, a ragpicker by profession, was planning on sleeping hungry again. "I haven't eaten anything since yesterday," he says. Eeresh, along with his two other ragpicker companions, was settling down to sleep on the footpath. “Last year I went hungry for several days during the three months of lockdown. We hoped people would donate some food packets like they did last time, but no one came with any food,” he adds.
The Telangana government on Tuesday, without any advance notice, issued a statewide lockdown for 10 days between 10 am and 6 pm from May 12 to May 21. Several rules and regulations were issued for the public to follow, but there wasn't any clarity on relief efforts being undertaken in the state government’s orders. The economically weak have been left to fend for themselves again this lockdown. Though the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) operates 140 Annapurna canteens for the needy, these canteens function only for limited hours. As part of their relief efforts, the municipality claims it will open launch an additional 102 canteens from Friday, and has shared a list of locations.
Eeresh, Nageshwar Rao and Nilesh, all ragpickers with no permanent addresses, were near the Ratnadeep Supermarket at Dharam Karam Road of SR Nagar. All three men said they were unable to source food all through the day due to the lockdown. None of the three men have an Aadhaar card that would help them avail state support through rations. “We don’t have any permanent address, so how can we get Aadhaar?” asks Nageshwar. “You need a lot of documents for that, we don't have that,” he adds.
The three men were camped next to a mosque hoping for someone to donate food. However, the mosques were empty due to the lockdown. They did not approach a night shelter as they have no documents to submit. As most restaurants did not open for the day, they had no means to source food. None of them had any money on them either.
Eeresh has been a ragpicker since his father's death in 2009. “My mother died in 2000, and my father died due to his alcoholism. I have three elder sisters, they are all married and I lost touch with them,” he says. “I had their numbers written down on a piece of paper. The police picked me up for sleeping on the streets and I lost the piece of paper during interrogation. I haven't seen or heard from my sisters since,” he adds.
The group did not have any masks on and had a poor understanding of the coronavirus disease, its symptoms or prevention measures. “The police don’t say anything about us sleeping here as they are afraid to come near us. They fear we have the coronavirus disease and we work with garbage,” says Nilesh. “Even the people who give us money or food these days keep their distance, and are afraid to come near us,” he adds. The men have not reached out to the SR Nagar police for help fearing harassment.
Come Thursday morning the group hopes the scrapyard will reopen during the four hours of business and accept their plastic bottles. The men earn Rs 10 per kilogram of plastic bottles collected. “If I collect 5 kilograms I will earn Rs 50. It's not enough to fill your stomach with three meals a day, but enough to get tea and some snacks so I don’t die,” says Eeresh.
Khalida Parveen, a city-based activist, says she has already been receiving non-stop calls for COVID-19 related help. “Today I got a call saying a few people haven’t had food since yesterday and we managed to arrange some food. We will be cooking for 100 people and distributing packets from tomorrow,” says the activist. She points out that during the first lockdown too, many in the old city of Hyderabad struggled for food. Several non-profits had at the time worked with the GHMC and the police to distribute food packets.
Meanwhile, SQ Masood, another city-based social activist, has requested the Telangana government officials over social media to consider issuing passes for volunteers helping those in distress during the lockdown. "There hasn't been any announcement from the state government on relief efforts for the homeless and those going hungry due to loss of income," says the activist who added that Annapurna canteens havent been publicised.