Kolkata

How beggars’ children are running households during lockdown

Pratima Majhi (red dress) and her daughter Priyanka. School going Priyanka's food ration is staving of family's starvation for now.

Pratima Majhi (red dress) and her daughter Priyanka. School going Priyanka's food ration is staving of family's starvation for now.   | Photo Credit: Suvojit Bagchi

With no cash coming by, families are depending on free rations that are given to school-going children

Five-year-old Priyanka is the last hope for a family of three, residing in one of umpteen shanties on Strand Road in the city’s central area. The family – Priyanka, her two-year-old sister and mother Pratima Majhi – will run out of their stock of grains, lentils and potato soon. The next meal is uncertain as access to food is difficult owing to lack of money, which has stopped flowing into the family of mother and daughters.

“The vehicles have stopped plying on road. Our income has stopped,” said Pratima Majhi, after a long pause. The Majhis are one of nearly 40,000 homeless families of Kolkata as per a 2009 government survey. The family begs to survive.

“We will go foodless and cashless from Thursday night,” said an unusually thin mother. But there is hope.

“Early morning on Monday, we have been told to come at nearby Saraswati Vidyapith where she [Priyanka] studies and they will give us ‘du kilo chal, one kilo aloo’ [two kg rice and one kg of potato],” she said. The “real” problem will, however, start from Friday morning and continue till Sunday night, when the kids and the malnourished mother will go without food.

The house of Majhis1: Pratima Majhi (hand in head), narrating how the daughter's 'income' is keeping the family alive.

The house of Majhis1: Pratima Majhi (hand in head), narrating how the daughter's 'income' is keeping the family alive.   | Photo Credit: Suvojit Bagchi

 

She crossed the road while chatting and entered another shanty, relatively bigger in size. Here lives Ruma Majhi, a distant relative of Pratima, and her family of four. Ms Majhi sells vegetables under the flyover that drops at Howrah station but she too was apprehensive about supporting a family of three.

“We are in deep trouble too with illness and I am not sure if we can support them after Thursday,” said Ms Majhi. None of the women and men in the two families had a proper mask or sanitiser. But they are using bars of washing soaps to clean hands, she said.

The condition of Naskars, residing on the pavement, next to the elite Calcutta Rowing Club in southern lake, is far worse. They have a nine-month-old son and a 12-year-old family member, Swastika, in the family of five. Swastika, who studies in Standard V in Rajendra Nath Vidya Bhavan in nearby Lake Avenue, is now the bread-winner of the five-member homeless family, which begs to survive.

Family of Naskars: Debi Naskar (on left), with her grandson, nine month old Surjya, and daughter in law at south Kolkata lake. A child in the family, Swastika's meal from school is staving off starvation.

Family of Naskars: Debi Naskar (on left), with her grandson, nine month old Surjya, and daughter in law at south Kolkata lake. A child in the family, Swastika's meal from school is staving off starvation.   | Photo Credit: Suvojit Bagchi

 

Swastika has a clear sense of the crisis and knows her job perfectly.

“Last Monday, a few kilos of rice, potato, onion, oil were distributed, which will run us the week. We will have to plan for next week,” says Swastika. The beggars who are settled in one place and send kids to government-run primary schools are largely dependent on the school-going kids of the family as they are receiving the free ration as the part of the project to feed school-going kids, experts said.

But what if the child is gone?

“We will die…” said a sobbing Devi Naskar. Ms Naskar’s daughter-in-law’s sister is Swastika. She stays with her parents elsewhere; the day she leaves, the Naskars will be in trouble. “Our ration will stop, as we do not have a school-going child in the family, my son is nine months old and we will starve to death,” said Babulal Naskar, her son. But, non-government officials, who work closely with the State government, told The Hindu that it is difficult to dispatch the homeless to shelters.

“There are 36 shelters for the homeless and the State government launched a drive to admit homeless people to those centres and made some basic arrangements to provide food and hygiene. But as soon as the women and men see the officials, they are running away or hiding in the bylanes,” said a senior official of a top NGO, on condition of anonymity. The reason, he said, are multiple.

“Firstly, the homeless person is deeply scared that she or he or the family will lose the place where they are residing for many years. Secondly, the shelters are not conveniently located,” said the official, who has authored reports on homeless.

Moreover, space is also not adequate in the night shelters. With a little more than 40,000 homeless people in the city, there are 36 shelters, each with capacity of about 50. So, shelters can house about 2,000 persons, while there are about 40,000 people on the streets of Kolkata with a makeshift residence. Twenty-five percent of them are children. But one approach of the State government is commendable, the officials said.

“Very quickly, the administration has managed to put in place a basic food supply line, mainly in schools. It is not adequate but will stave off starvation deaths for now. This could be possible as the majority of Kolkata’s homeless were documented and pushed to send their kids to schools where they could study with kids of lower income group families. “It was indeed wise to send the kids to school,” the official said.

And, nobody knows it better than the members of the Majhi or Naskar families.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 3:02:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/how-beggars-children-are-running-households-during-lockdown/article31178761.ece

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