The afternoon sun beats down on her bent frame. But she plods on, a torn gunny sack in hand. She rummages through the garbage dumped in vacant plots and smiles when she finds an iron piece or a battery. Later, she will take her sack to the scrap dealer who will pay her Rs. 10 or Rs. 20, if it’s a good day. She is just one of the countless nameless old people who fight to survive. Two cups of tea, some buns and food given by roadside eateries is all that keeps them going.

Some of them have family — a spouse, sons and daughters — but they choose to work so that they don’t trouble their already-burdened children. Karuppusamy (70) travels every single day from Nanjundapuram to Madhampatti, nearly 15 km away, changing two buses. He is a farm labourer. “He leaves home at 7 a.m. and returns after 6 p.m. He is exhausted. His knees hurt. But, unless he works, how will we eat?” asks Velaatha (60), his wife. They have a son, also a daily labourer, who is married. “Our monthly earning is less than Rs. 3,000. I buy vegetables once a week. We manage with rice and kollu paruppu,” she says.

K. Rajeswari (70) sells keerai for a living. Since her husband died 20 years ago, she has been walking on the streets with a huge aluminium bucket perched on her head and plastic bags in either hand. Now, she’s too tired to carry the 10-odd kg bucket. She has a pavement shop near Sri Lakshmi Vilas hotel, Podanur, where she sells greens, vaazhai thandu and vaazhai poo. She has a daughter and three grandchildren, but likes to be independent.

“I go to the fields at about 11 a.m., bring home the greens, wash them thrice in water and start selling them from 5 p.m. to about 8 p.m. Earlier, I would sell in the morning too. That meant going to the fields at midnight.” After paying for transport, she makes about Rs. 40 to Rs. 50 a day.

“I eat, but I won’t say it is nutritious. Vegetables are a rarity. Since I sell greens, I cook the leftovers. My greatest fear is falling ill. How will my daughter look after her family and me?”

Velaatha’s neighbour Thangamma, with grey hair and sunken eyes, is unsure about her age. Everyday, for 30 years now, she has worked in a coconut grove. She sits hunched, sorts through the dried fronds and removes the sticks. It is a painstaking job. She makes about six brooms a day. Her daily earning? Between Rs. 10 and Rs. 20, way below the Planning Commission’s much-talked-of BPL criteria. “My knees ache, my shoulders ache, my fingers swell, but I have to keep working. I don’t want to be a burden on my son,” she says.

He pays her house rent. She buys readymade dosa batter for Rs. 10 once in two days and a couple of onions, chilli and tomatoes for chutney. The local government hospital takes care of her health needs.

“I’ve not slept well since my husband died 15 years ago. I worry about the future. Once in a while, I doze off. But, the mosquitoes wake me up soon enough.”

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