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The Covid Samaritans

Sweepers, delivery boys, electricians and plumbers, private security guards and garbage collectors are living dangerously to keep us safe and the city running. And what they get in return is paltry salaries, barely enough to sustain them

It’s ironic. There was a set of poor working-class people, daily wagers, labourers, construction workers, hawkers and peddlers who were forced to come out on the street and walk back home in face of pauperisation and imminent starvation during the ongoing lockdown.

There were some others like them, won’t call them fortunate — but they didn’t lose their jobs, for they were required to carry out the ‘risky dirty work’ to keep the cities running. They kept the supply of essential goods and services going, at the same time providing security and helping local authorities in the implementation of the lockdown, risking their own lives to ensure that the privileged middle and upper class, who could afford not to work (or work from home), remain safe within their dwellings for months.

They are sweepers, delivery boys, electricians and plumbers, private security guards, garbage collectors, so on and forth. Those who were forced to leave the city, labourers and casual workers in the factories, were their relatives and friends.

A native of Kendrapara district in Orissa, Gyan Ranjan Singh, 31, lives in a Noida village in a two-room rented accommodation with his wife, elder brother and his family. Both the brothers are plumbers in a nearby multi-storey housing.

In March, half of his plumber colleagues went back home, and some handful of them were left. His society (he doesn’t want to name the society as the builders/owners prohibit staff from speaking to the media) was one of the few which was sealed for weeks due to active Covid-19 cases.

He was working 12 hours a day for a salary of Rs 15,000 on a contractual basis, an arrangement which is similar to a daily wage. There were risks involved, and since all the residents were home, plumbing issues cropped up more frequently than usual. Gyan and his brother worked tirelessly for all these weeks to keep residents’ life hassle-free.

“I had the option to go back like some of my colleagues and people from my village who were working in the commercial (as in retail and factories, but have lost their job due to the lockdown) sector.”

Mulayam takes care of the security of one of the 26 towering buildings in Noida

There was a big risk involved. But he, along with his brother, decided to stay back as “water supply is very essential and somebody should be here to keep the things running.” Gyan would follow all the safety precautions, and would wash clothes and take a bath before he’d enter his house late in the evening after a hard day’s work.

A private security guard, Mulayam Singh, 50, is from the same village in Etawah district as Mulayam Singh Yadav — the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. He takes care of the security of one of the 26 towering buildings in Noida. “It’s better to be posted here than at the main gate,” he says in Hindi, “it’s less risky here”.

He explains that initially, no one thought that the lockdown would be so severely implemented. The residents, as a general practice, don’t take rules and regulations seriously. And they resist when they are prevented from moving around, leave or enter at will, “particularly the students who have rented an apartment here and live in a group. They get abusive and violent at times,” he says. It’s not an easy job, more so during the pandemic.

His colleague, Deepak Kumar from Begusarai in Bihar, is only 22, skinny and short, bony face dominated by big intelligent eyes, very talkative. His duty is at the main gate and he is fairly amazed at how fast time has passed. There were scary days, he remembers. “We felt we all will get infected and die and no one will ever know.”

But thankfully their worst fears never became a reality, despite helping the medical team, along with other guards, reach the residents who were suspected to be infected, and helping them be taken to the hospital.

Deepak was assigned the job to find out if any resident is in hiding while he or she is feverish or showing symptoms of Covid-19. He was constantly on the move. They were supplied with gloves and masks, but they are not of good quality.

Deepak was assigned the job to find out if any resident is in hiding while he or she is feverish or showing symptoms of Covid-19

“Poverty is the most serious ailment,” he gets poetic at will. “We play with death to keep people safe. And what do we get? Rs 12,000 a month. Half of it is spent on rent and food. There’s hardly any money left to send back home. I too have children and old parents to feed,” he declares, the words tumbling out in quick succession. His uncle’s family hit the streets and were fortunate to find a train home. He’s here, part of his family is back home; he’s not certain who’s better off.

Yoginder, a 17-year-old lad from a village in Greater Noida, delivers mineral water to houses. The lockdown days have been his busiest. There were days when he delivered more than a hundred 20-litre cylindrical bottles the size of a bucket. “I had no time to think,” he says as he would go from one building to another in his three-wheeler delivery vehicle, which acted as a bed at night.

Thankfully, because of the lockdown regulations, he was supposed to deliver the bottles to the entrance of the building, residents were to transport it to their respective flats. “I feel it was all fake. This disease is not real. How else would I survive? I was out in the open all of these days, meeting so many people,” he’s bewildered. His boyish enthusiasm is undiminished due to Covid-19, but he misses hanging out with his gardener friends who have gone back home — to Hapur district of Uttar Pradesh.

Life has to find a way to go on, it’s not an option. But it has to be said, these good samaritans are living dangerously to keep us safe and the city running.

(Cover: Gyan and his brother worked tirelessly for all these weeks to keep residents’ life hassle-free)