Gorakhpur: People roaming around congested streets without masks, the poor struggling to get free rations, and daily-wagers and labourers finding it tough to survive with no income amid the Covid-19 lockdown.
This is the situation in Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s pocket borough Gorakhpur, where the extended lockdown seems to be taking a toll on the urban poor.
Although Gorakhpur has so far reported only four coronavirus cases and technically qualifies as an orange zone, residents complain the district administration continues to enforce restrictions that should have been done away with in the area during the current phase of the lockdown.
For example, rickshaw pullers are still off the roads even though central government restrictions reportedly allow them to ply in orange and green zones.
This, even as other social-distancing regulations are flouted with abandon on the city’s congested roads as local residents throng shops in groups without masks.
It doesn’t help that many among the poor claim that the government assistance promised to help them tide over the lockdown hasn’t yet arrived. Be it the Rs 500 cash transfer promised by the central government or the monthly assistance of Rs 1,000 assured to out-of-work daily-workers by the Uttar Pradesh government.
The government has instructed officials that those without a ration card shouldn’t be denied free foodgrains during the lockdown, but many beneficiaries claim the promise is not playing out on the ground.
ThePrint reached the district magistrate of Gorakhpur through text messages and phone calls Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday but got no response. The local unit of the BJP, meanwhile, said they would look into the claims.
‘Skipping every other meal’
Sudhama Devi Rajbhar, 73, says she has been skipping every other meal because her son, a daily-wager, has not been working since the lockdown was announced on 25 March.
A resident of Kanshi Ram Colony in Gorakhpur, Sudhama doesn’t have a ration card and claims she’s not been getting free rations during the lockdown despite the promises made by the Yogi Adityanath government.
“Kabhi khaate hai, kabhi nahi khaate hai, issi tarah kaam chal raha hai (we eat sometimes, we don’t on other occasions). I used to have a white ration card, but I fell sick and, for two months, could not go (to avail of rations) so they struck off my name,” she said.
The white ration card Sudhama referred to is part of the state’s colour-coded public distribution system where the poorest of the poor are issued a pink ration card and the others below poverty line get a white one. Both cards afford foodgrains subsidised to varying degrees. Under normal circumstances, the pink card gets beneficiaries a fixed quota of foodgrains under highly subsidised prices as low as Rs 2-Rs 3 a kg. However, lockdown aid qualifies them for free foodgrains, while the white-card holders are getting them for a subsidised price.
On 17 April, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had announced free foodgrains during the lockdown for the poor and needy regardless of whether they have a ration card. But many Gorakhpur residents say the assurance is not playing out on the ground.
“I have an Aadhaar card but the shopkeeper doesn’t listen,” said Sudhama.
“My husband is dead and my son is a daily-wager… Because of the lockdown he has also not been working. We skip our meals to survive, what else can we do?” she told ThePrint.
Durga Devi, a resident of a colony for urban poor set up under the Kanshi Ram Sehari Gareeb Awas Yojana at Taramandal, said her family hadn’t received any rations “since the lockdown began”.
“My son is currently unemployed as he is a daily-wager. I have an Aadhaar card but the ration shop doesn’t give me anything. How can we survive like this?” she added.
Asked about the complaints, Rajesh Gupta, the Mahanagar district president of the BJP, Gorakhpur, said they would look into it.
“We on our own have been preparing a list of such people and sharing it with the administration for action, although the administration has also been doing it on its own,” he added.
“Once we provide the list the administration verifies and provides all help that they are eligible for. At the party level also, we are providing ration to the needy. As far as Kanshi Ram Colony is concerned, I will get it verified and provide all necessary help.”
Gorakhpur residents with white ration cards say they have been receiving foodgrains, but the lack of income is making survival difficult. They have the foodgrains, they claim, but how do they buy cooking oil?
“My husband is a rickshaw driver… apart from rations, we have not received any help. Police are not letting him work. We were told that money will be transferred into our accounts as we are poor, but nothing has happened,” said Chhaya Devi.
“You can’t just eat raw wheat and rice, you need to cook it too. Where do we get oil and other vegetables?” she added.
Many like Chhaya Devi are upset that while the lockdown has been eased to allow certain activities like government construction work, they are still not being allowed to go out for work.
“Before the lockdown, I used to sit at the Sehjanwa chauraha (roundabout) and was able to get work. But since the lockdown the Rs 500 I used to earn daily has stopped. I am finding it really difficult to survive and have managed to get by so far with some food kits distributed by NGOs,” said Ashok Singh, a daily labourer.
Many residents also claim they don’t have a labour card under which they could have received Rs 1,000 during the lockdown.
“I am a daily-wager and used to earn Rs 400 every day but since the lockdown in March work has completely stopped and now we don’t have much savings left,” said Rajan, another resident of the colony who has been living here since 2011 and does not have a labour card.
“We don’t get free rations although it was mentioned in the newspapers that the CM has announced it. When we go out to work, we are stopped by police,” he added. “You tell us how long we can survive like this? The administration must look into our problems.”
CM’s pocket borough
Gorakhpur lies in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Until 2017, when he was appointed UP Chief Minister, Adityanath was serving his fifth term as its MP. He is also the head of the Gorakhpur mutt, a position that lends him immense power in the area.
The seat is currently represented by actor-turned-politician Ravi Kishan, a BJP colleague of Adityanath.
As one of India’s largest states, the Uttar Pradesh government had its task cut out managing the Covid-19 crisis. On its part, the Adityanath government claims to have assisted crores with its free and subsidised foodgrains as well as the labour grant.
While the state has been taking some steps to kickstart industry, Adityanath has gone on the record to say that any relaxation in restrictions will only be made after careful consideration to ensure it doesn’t weaken the state’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 82 people in the state so far.
In Gorakhpur, as in many other places, the need for tighter restrictions is underlined by the hordes of migrant workers returning from the cities, as the district administrations try to nip all prospects of a potential Covid surge.
In the meantime, people like Pappu Rajbhar, another resident of the Kanshi Ram colony, say they are still awaiting the aid promised.
“I don’t have any ration card and neither a labour card. I am a daily-wager. For the past 1.5 months I have been sitting at home… I checked with the district magistrate and he said we have been providing rations to everyone,” said Rajbhar, a Congress worker who claims he has been raising the issue but nothing has happened so far.