Electricians, plumbers, part-time house helps and other workers took tentative steps back to work on Monday as large parts of India, including the national capital, entered the third phase of the lockdown with curbs eased in some places.
As spring slipped into summer and the lockdown, which began on March 25, continued, people waited eagerly for electricians to service air-conditioners, plumbers to repair washing machines and broken taps, domestics to get back for the deep cleaning that never did get done and a host of other urgent jobs.
On the other end of the spectrum were the band of workers, trained in myriad necessary jobs that keep the household machine going smoothly, who found themselves without jobs and money.
Many of them, like Manoj Koli, an electrician for over 20 years, said they were reduced to scrambling for food and the lifting of some lockdown restrictions will hopefully mean a semblance of normalcy.
I haven’t earned a single rupee since March 21. It will be difficult to get back to work until electrical shops selling spare parts like wires and sockets also open. It is still too early to tell, Manoj told to media.
With some electrical shops now open, that problem should hopefully be resolved. But I should get some work before all of that, the electrician, who lives in south Delhi’s Dakshninpuri locality with his parents, wife and children, added.
The lockdown, to curtail the spread of coronavirus, has been extended for two weeks till at least May 17. Several restrictions have been lifted and several remain.
Declaring that the time had come to reopen Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Sunday evening, “Self-employed people like technicians, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, sanitation workers, domestic helps, and people involved with laundry and ironing are allowed to work.”
Navigating the coronavirus crisis, which has pushed Indians into the four walls of their homes, has been traumatic for everybody, but most of all perhaps for those like Manoj who depend on their everyday work to make a living.
He said the pandemic could not have come at a worse time.
Every April, he would be flooded with calls for AC servicing and repairs from his clients and could manage to make as much as Rs 40,000 a month.
This year, the calls didn’t come and neither did the money.
There are lakhs of people like Manoj.
According to Rajesh Kumar of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), the Delhi government does not have any official records of the numbers of unorganised skilled labour, including plumbers,electricians and carpenters. But it could be as high as six-seven lakh.
The government should have created a record of these people before announcing a lockdown. It is understandable that the lockdown has been extended, but the government should have also been prepared with solutions for the problems of all kinds of people in the state, the IFTU general secretary said.
Subhash Mohanty, a plumber, said he is grateful he could procure the Delhi government’s rations soon after the lockdown was announced.
There has been no work for the last one month. I got some calls for work in the last few days, but I had to turn them down because there is a coronavirus case in my area, and I cannot step out of here, Mohanty, who stays in Tughlakabad Extension with his wife and two children, said.
Bikram Kumar, who works as a carpenter in south Delhi localities, said surviving the lockdown is getting more difficult each day and he can’t wait to get back to work.
On a good month, he would make between Rs 10-20,000 a month, a part of which he would send to his home in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh district where his wife and four children live. Since the lockdown, he has barely managed to make enough to feed himself and said he has been surviving on biscuits and water.
Had there been public transport, I would have gone back home. At least, we have produce from farms. Now crops are also getting spoilt because nobody is there to harvest them, Bikram, who lives with his nephew in Lal Kuan area near Okhla industrial estate, said.
The last few weeks have been an emotional and financial drain for those like Kobita who came back to work on Monday to clean and cook in homes.
During the lockdown period, I tried to go to some of my employers’ houses to collect my salary but was stopped by police. Today, many junctions, opened up, and it was a relief. I was getting worried that many of my employers won’t call me back at all, said Kobita, who works in Chittaranjan Park in south Delhi.
With no public transport, she now has to walk about 30 minutes from her home but is not complaining.
“At least I have work,” she said.
If Kobita, Manoj, Subhash and Bikram are desperate to get back to work, homemakers like Lata Srinivasan are equally anxious for them to attend to long pending jobs.
Almost every house is in need of an electrician who can service their ACs, but most are wary about inviting any outsider into their homes for fear of contracting the disease that has infected over 42,000 people in India and killed at least 1,373.
The total number of cases in Delhi has crossed 4,500 with 64 fatalities.
Srinivasan (68), is stuck with two unserviced ACs and a broken refrigerator in this heat and could not do anything about it because her society was not letting in any service personnel in.
Her 10 year-old fridge finally gave up three days into the lockdown, and since then she has been figuring out ways to prevent her perishable food from going bad.
I was buying vegetables once in two days, and keeping them in the open under the fan, Srinivasan, who lives in an apartment complex in IP Extension in east Delhi, said.
Her society allowed electricians and plumbers to work from Monday but with strict instructions.
We need to buy masks, gloves, and sanitisers for the technicians. They need to fill up a form giving their personal details at the society office, where their tools will be sanitised, and then the employers need to escort them to and from their houses so they don’t go anywhere else, she said.
With the lockdown being relaxed somewhat, she is hoping day-to-day life will become smoother.