Poor in dire straits as lockdown triggers joblessness, limits access to food

Ragpicker Appa Rao has eight packets of biscuits to survive on in Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar

March 27, 2020 12:01 am | Updated 12:01 am IST - BHUBANESWAR

Appa Rao in Bhubaneswar on Thursday.

Appa Rao in Bhubaneswar on Thursday.

Hundred hours have passed since ‘janata curfew’, dubbed as a dry run of the prolonged lock-down imposed in the country for COVID-19, Ohi Appa Rao (60), a ragpicker, has had just eight packets of biscuits to survive on.

Appa Rao considers himself lucky for having access to biscuits as some benevolent passers-by stumbled upon him while he was sleeping empty stomach under Rajmahal Flyover, a busy junction before the lockdown in Bhubaneswar.

“My friends who go to pick discarded plastic and bottles along with me must be having a terrible time. I don’t know where they are. I get about ₹50 a day by selling plastic. It’s enough for me to survive for a day. Now, even if I start collecting discarded polythene and bottles where would I dispose them and get money to buy ration?,” asked the rag-picker, who had made Bhubaneswar his home after migrating from Andhra Pradesh eight years ago.

On a normal day, he would go to any Aahaar Centre that sells subsidized food at ₹5 per meal and sometime get leftover food in residential colonies. Appa Rao does not figure in any list of the poor under public distribution system.

The population of distressed poor both in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack runs into lakhs.

The lockdown announced by the government to prevent spread of COVID-19 could sound the death knell for them before the virus actually knocks them down.

Kanta Pradhan, a maid, appears to be on a better footing. She has been paid one month’s advance salary of ₹2500. But this is not enough for the family of four as her husband in Salia Sahi, the biggest slum of the State, has become jobless following the lockdown restrictions. “If any emergency like health issue comes up, we will surely starve,” she said.

In order to avoid crowding at Aahaar Kendras (centre for subsidized food for the urban poor), the State government has closed down 102 such centres.

Only 36 are functioning near hospitals.

When asked if the State government has any plan to reopen Aahaar Centres for poor who have found themselves in a difficult situation, G. Mathi Vathanan, State Housing and Urban Development Secretary, said, “at present there is no such plan before the government to reopen Aahaar Centres. We would soon come up with a plan to provide them food.”

Shutting down of roadside eateries has made the matter worse.

Virus fear

Following Prime Minister’s call for encouraging service providers, some volunteers have started serving food to on-duty police personnel. However, the charitable organisations are clueless on distribution of cooked or dry food to the urban distressed people. They fear for COVID-19 as well as high handedness of police.

In rural pockets, community often helps poor villagers at the time of crisis. But this time, people are reluctant to come out in fear of contracting the virus.

‘Home delivery’

“The denial of access to food in the districts and towns under lockdown need to be addressed through home delivery mechanism adhering to social distancing. The government must resume emergency feeding programmes that had been discontinued for years in several parts of Odisha,” said Sameet Panda, a lead campaigner of Right To Food campaign.

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