Since March 25, 2020 subsequent lockdowns have imperiled millions of Indian families who rely on daily and monthly earnings to make ends meet. Work in the informal sector vanished overnight as no one was allowed on the streets and the fear of the virus kept people at home. With Covid surging through the country, expenditure on healthcare ate into savings and there were mounting bills for internet connectivity just to remain in school.

The students of St Xavier’s College (Autonomous) Mumbai spent the early months of the semester (2021-22) working with PARI Education to record the stories of everyday Indians who were weathering the lockdowns. The outcome of this collaboration is a series of articles – Lives under lockdown: at Tithal beach, Valsad and Suburban Mumbai and Benaulim’s Crasto family: living by bread alone.

The three stories in this set:

Everyday I woke up and put on my armour is about Zeenat Siddiqui, an agricultural contractor in Dehradun district’s Jassowala village, who took up her father’s occupation when she was 13 years old.

Driving his dreams is a story of driver Charan Singh Kashyap from Badaun district’s Khera Buzurg village who loves his job and aspires to own a travel agency someday.

In Ironing out a future for his boys Bakelal Chaudhary talks about how he’s working as an istriwalla in Koparkhairane, Navi Mumbai to provide for his sons what he could not have – an education and a comfortable life.

‘Everyday I woke up and put on my armour’

Location: Jassowala village, Vikas Nagar tehsil, Dehradun district, Uttarakhand

Zeenat supervises farming and horticultural work on a contract agreement made with its owner. Illustration by Antara Raman

“I took up the job of a contractor at the age of 13. It was a battlefield for me every time I tried to conduct business with my clients,” says Zeenat Siddiqui, an agricultural contractor in Jassowala village.

“My competitors would argue that I was a woman and too young to know this business. Everyday I woke up and put on my armour,” adds this spirited 26-year-old who didn’t give up and is among the few women in her field.

Zeenat supervises farming and horticultural work on a contract agreement made with its owner. Her responsibilities include tilling the land, spraying insecticides, ensuring a healthy yield and giving daily reports to the land owner. During the season, fruits such as guavas, lychees and mangoes are plucked and sent to the mandi where they are sold. “I can earn about 30,000 rupees a month for this work,” she says.

Jassowala village lies in Vikas Nagar tehsil, approximately 33 kilometres from Dehradun, the capital city of Uttarakhand. “A woman contractor is still something new here [in the village]; being one of the first in this male-dominated field has had its own challenges,” says Zeenat, who enjoys the financial independence it allows her.

Zeenat’s family have been agricultural contractors for three generations, including hers. “My dream was to study and become a doctor, but my father met with an accident and couldn’t run the business anymore. This was when I took it up,” she says. Zeenat’s family include her father Mohammed Islam, 58, her mother Rukhsana, 45, and three sisters – Nisha, 24, Shahista, 22, and Gulafsha, 16. Her mother was her guide as she took to learning the ropes of their family business. “She always found time to help me, even with her hands full with taking care of the household and with giving my father the special attention and care he needed,” she says.

Zeenat wants to find a way to finish high school while working. Her younger sister Nisha runs a shop selling cosmetics and bangles for women. “My family is important to me and spending time with them is how I relax. I have a set routine: I wake up at 6:00 a.m. and leave for work between 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. I am quite organised and stick by this routine,” says Zeenat. She enjoys going to nearby Mussoorie or on small picnics on her day off.

The pandemic and lockdowns posed new challenges for Zeenat: “The labour we use usually comes from nearby villages and they couldn’t come due to the lockdown-imposed travel restrictions and the health risks,” she says. The pesticides used by her, usually come from Dehradun, and during the pandemic, the insecticides could not be delivered. “All this resulted in poor yield and so I have learnt that I need to be prepared in case another situation like this arises in the future,” she says and then adds, “Even though Covid-19 had put a stop to my business, it did not put a stop to my spirit.”

Student reporter: Serena Mann

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Driving his dreams

Location: Khera Buzurg village, Badaun district

Meeting people and spending long hours on the road has given Charan a wide network of contacts. Illustration by Antara Raman

Charan Singh Kashyap drives a school bus for 10 months of the year. When schools are on vacation, he switches to driving private buses across states, and even out of the country. “I once started from Maharana Pratap ISBT Kashmiri Gate – the Delhi Transport bus station in Delhi and ended up in Kathmandu, Nepal,” he says, speaking casually about a journey of over 1,000 kilometres.

“I still dream of visiting Goa,” he adds.

Meeting people and spending long hours on the road has given Charan a wide network of contacts and the idea for an alternative business: people now reach out to him to arrange both big and small buses. “I organise their transport and earn a commission from that,” he says. “Travelling to several destinations made me realise that there is a lot to learn from everybody. Once, when I was going to Uttarakhand, I faced a challenge when trying to reverse the bus. It was the chaiwalas and locals from the area who helped me do it,” he says.

Before the pandemic, his day started at 5:00 a.m. and ended around 9:00 p.m. He would pick up and drop students from three different schools. When the schools had their winter and summer breaks, he would switch to driving buses across the country.

In March 2019, when the lockdown was announced and both schools as well as the travel business shut down, Charan decided to return to his hometown Khera Buzurg, a village in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh. He left on a motorbike – a journey of four hours. But soon after he got there, he began driving again, this time taking desperate migrants to their homes to Bihar and Uttarakhand. “There was chaos due to the lockdown and some migrants even started making their way home on foot,” he says, explaining how he decided to help out. “I used to carry a stove and Maggi noodles with me, and when I needed to rest I would stop the bus on the side of the road and nap for an hour or two.” Charan says a trip from Delhi to Bihar would take up to 36 hours on the road, with no stops.

Charan’s only worry is if schools go online again, his income will take a hit. Photo by Anuja Jain

After the lockdown ended, he returned to Delhi as the personal driver of a family but quit in 10 months and went back to driving school buses. He estimates that he now earns around Rs. 80,000-1 lakh a month from his various jobs. Charan’s main worry is that his income will take a hit if schools go online again. He has a dream of owning a travel agency and buying buses – while his larger plans are on hold until he can afford it, he has succeeded in saving enough money to buy a bus which he uses for his work – in school and outside.

Now settled in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad, Charan is happy and says that he misses spending time with his family, especially his mother who he only manages to visit every few months. He lost his father at a very young age and was raised by his mother Ramvati, 57 and his older brother. He has two brothers – Mohan Lal, 41 and Vijay, 31 and a sister Sheela, 28. Their main source of income was from farm produce, mainly sugarcane, wheat and mustard that grew on their two bighas of land. The eldest brother, Mohan Lal who was a driver and Charan’s inspiration, would also send money home to support the family.

At the age of 14 he decided to join his brother in Delhi and it was from him that he learnt the skills. “Mohan Lal used to take me along with him when he used to drive,” he says. Charan stayed with him in Ghaziabad and got a job driving for a company in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. “I had a licence only for Light Motor Vehicle (LMV) in the beginning, but from 2008 to 2016 I drove a bus until the service was shut down,” he says.

His next job was to drive a school bus, and he has been doing that now for 18 years.

Young Charan dropped out of school before he could get started – in Class 1. “I went to school, but I wasn’t interested so I left and would roam around my home or go to fields to pass the time,” he says, recounting parts of his childhood. “Sometimes I feel sad when I can’t read messages that come on the phone. At such moments I think that I should have studied,” he said.

Student reporter: Anuja Jain

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Ironing out a future for his boys

Location: Koparkhairane, Navi Mumbai

He gave up the idea of pursuing a college education and the dream of becoming a teacher to help out at home. Illustration by Antara Raman

The faint scent of ironed garments and spices fills the air in Bakelal Chaudhary’s home. An istriwalla [a person who irons clothes], he has his own version of a ‘work from home’ set-up – piles of ironed clothes, a bed, a kitchen-stove and a cabinet jostle for space in his roughly 10-square-foot home.

It is here that 45-year-old Bakelal works, eats and sleeps. This room in Koparkhairane, Navi Mumbai is rented for Rs. 8,000 a month. “When I started here there were several new buildings and just my ironing stall, so customers sought us out,” he says. Before the pandemic, he had around 100 customers and two workers to meet the demand. “Today, with difficulty, I have about 35-45 customers,” he says.

Bakelal’s profession of ironing and laundering clothes is an inherited one. His parents are farmers, cultivating five bighas of land; they are also istriwallas in Dhamaur, Allahabad (now called Prayagraj) in Uttar Pradesh. He is the second of three brothers; each of them goes to help out in the village during a different season. “If one brother goes during gehun season (rabi), another goes during dhaan season (kharif),” he says.

After graduating from Class 12, he gave up the idea of pursuing a college education and the dream of becoming a teacher to help out at home. Twelve years ago he came to Bombay to earn an income, and today lives alone and works out of his one-room abode. He and his sons – Ayush, Ashish and Akash – want government jobs and the respect it brings. His eldest son is in his fourth year at IIT-Kanpur. But at one point it became difficult for Bakelal to pay the fees and he had to take a loan of Rs. 4 lakhs. He is slowly repaying the loan with income earned by ironing clothes. His second son is preparing for the Staff Selection Commission (SSC) to become a police officer, and the youngest son is in Class 10 and wants to pursue medicine. “I could not finish my education, but I work hard [away from my family] to pay my sons’ education,” he shares.

Piles of ironed clothes, a bed, a kitchen-stove and a cabinet jostle for space in Bakelal Chaudhary’s roughly 10-square-foot home. Photo by Navya Modi

When the lockdown started, Bakelal along with other Koparkhairane istriwallas booked a truck and paid Rs. 5,000 each to go home. On reaching, he was quarantined for 21 days, staying in a separate house near the village. “The government provided us with [things like] ration and food. Post-quarantine we couldn’t do anything at the village except help around a little, we would make just enough yield to eat but not to sell,” Bakelal says.

“After the first lockdown, when I came back to Mumbai, work was slow. But going back to the village wasn’t an option because I wouldn’t have been able to make enough money for my children’s education,” he says. “My sons want to get government jobs as it is respected by everyone in our village. I am working to make their dream a reality so they can get this mahatva [importance] and I will have an alag rutba [be a class apart].”

Student reporters: Vipasha Modi and Navya Khetawat

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Editor's note

Students of St Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Mumbai spent the early months of the semester (2021-22) working with PARI Education to record the stories of daily and monthly wage earners, across occupations, who had weathered the lockdowns.