Thousands of people are struggling under lockdown but government has offered no real solutionThe government must see life beyond lockdown and start programmes to support low-wage workers, the poor and the vulnerable, labour experts say.
On a recent Friday evening, Mohan Bahadur Budhathoki was sleeping outside a shuttered shop in Kalimati.
Between him and the cold, cement floor was just a thin bed sheet; his bed for the night. His pillow, a beat-up backpack containing his clothes and belongings.
[Visual story: Plight of daily-wage workers]
He had to be up at 2am for his job, loading vegetables onto trucks at the Kalimati Fruits and Vegetable Market.
The 39-year-old, who hails from Ramechhap, has been working as a porter in the Kalimati area for the past six months. Jobs are hard to come by these days due to the Covid-19 lockdown. And with the local eateries closed down, even managing a two-square meal is difficult.
Ever since the government enforced the lockdown on March 24, Budhathoki has been mostly relying on food handouts organised by the local volunteers.
“More than this disease, I am afraid that I might die of starvation. There are hardly any jobs in the day and how am I supposed to live if I don’t make any money,” Budhathoki said.
The fruit and vegetable marketplace, where trade begins from early in the morning, is the only place where he can get work these days. So it is important that he is up early.
There were over a dozen people who were sleeping in shop fronts on this particular evening, all of them porters like Budhathoki. They have made the street their home. A few hundred rupees they earn are spent on food and they cannot afford to pay rent. Then there are also those like Budhathoki who are also supporting their families back in their villages with their meagre wages. He has a wife, a teenage son and an asthamatic father back home.
“How am I going to send them money when I’m living off handouts here?” Budhathoki said.
The fear of starvation was palpable in Budhathoki and his companions. A recent death of a porter in Kirtipur had fuelled their fear.
For them, it seemed, the current pandemic was a non-issue when even leading a hand-to-mouth existence was getting difficult.
“We know that two police officers were infected in Kalimati, but we have nowhere else to go,” said another porter, a man in his forties who did not wish to be identified.
He said he came to Kathmandu from his village in Sindhupalchok after his family home was destroyed in the earthquakes of 2015. He has been working as a porter and living in the street of Kalimati for the past five years.
“All the shops are closed, there are no jobs during the day. The poor like us are dying due to hunger, but the government has continued to extend the lockdown,” he said.
The government has extended the lockdown by two weeks until June 14.
Binaya Shrestha, the deputy director of Kalimati Fruits and Vegetable Market Development Board, said there were more than 800 porters in Kalimati and nearby Balkhu.
“Many porters returned to their villages due to the lockdown, but there are still around 200 of them. Many sleep outdoors and they come to work early in the morning. They are vulnerable in so many ways,” Shrestha said.
According to the data available by the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), there are over 50,000 porters in Kathmandu. It is estimated that over 2,000 of them are still working during the lockdown.
Ganesh Gurung, a labour and employment expert and a former member of the National Planning Commission, said the state had failed the poor and the vulnerable by ignoring their plight during the time of pandemic.
“The government’s apathy and lack of plan has put thousands of lives at risk. The government has been extending the lockdown without offering any solution. If this continues, more people will die of hunger than the Covid-19,” Gurung said.
The lockdown has stopped the earnings of tens of thousands of daily wage workers, people from the informal sector and low-paid working class people across the country. Furthermore, there are doubts their situation will get better after the lockdown is lifted. The coronavirus pandemic has upended the global economy and Nepal is no exception.
That the economic fallout from the pandemic will hit hard the country’s poor and the vulnerable is a foregone conclusion. Still, the government has not come up with a promising plan to address their issue.
Ganesh Bahadur Budhathoki, a cycle-rickshaw operator from Kathmandu’s Jaisidewal, has not earned a single rupee in the last two months.
“Life is getting very difficult. To live you need to eat, but I don’t have money to buy food,” said the father of three.
He said his rent was due for three months and his family was running out of food supplies.
There are over 800 rickshaw operators in Kathmandu, according to the Rickshaw Chalak Sangh. The lockdown has hurt their means of income.
“The past three months, the period when tourists visit Nepal, would have been our season of earning good money. But the coronavirus pandemic stopped everything,” said Krishna Mishra, chairman of the Sangh.
Mishra has been riding the rickshaw in the Thamel area of Kathmandu for the past 35 years. These days, he said he was struggling to look after his family.
Janak Chaudhari, general secretary of GEFONT, said there was a risk of tens of thousands of daily wage labourers and people in the informal sector falling into extreme poverty if the government did not step in to help them.
“The lockdown extension has not helped the cause of these people. The government should be serious regarding their concerns,” Chaudhari said.
He said the brunt of lockdown was also being felt by nearly one million transport workers and a large section of the 2.5 million-strong construction labour force.