Sunday, March 29, 2009

On the margins and nowhere to go


Photo: (From left) Shanta, and Manju with her two children

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8 a.m., near a busy traffic junction at Kochi, a family sits on the sidewalk, as buses and cars speed past. Father Vasu is sipping a cup of tea. His wife, Shanta, is chewing a betel leaf. Their daughter Manju, 20, is playing with her two children, Shiv, 3, and Mani, six months old.

“We have been living on the streets for years,” says Shanta, 58. “A bus ran over my husband’s foot and he cannot walk now. As a result, he lost his job selling medicines.”

The family depends on Manju, who takes the children along, as she asks for alms from drivers and passengers as they wait at the traffic signal.

“I get one or two rupees all the time,” says Manju. She starts begging at 8 a.m. and does so till 4 p.m. “I earn between Rs 100 and Rs 150 a day,” she says. “People feel pity when they see the children.”

The family is originally from Rajahmundhry in Andhra Pradesh. “We are the second generation,” says Shanta. “We have no link with our relatives there.”

None of them have been inside a school. And Shanta laughs when she is asked about whether she will vote in next month’s Lok Sabha elections. “We stay on the road, Sir,” she says. “No political party is interested in us. We don’t have any voter ID cards.”

Does she know anything about politics? “I heave heard of Gowriamma (veteran Kerala politician), Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi,” she says.

What about Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan?

“Once I saw him while he was traveling in a car,” says Shanta. “I have heard of the Congress and the CPI (M). I don’t feel bad that we don’t have voting rights. Survival is more important.”

Survival is also more important for plumber Bhaskar, 40. He is waiting, with other workers, at the bus stand near Kaloor waiting for contractors to hire them on daily wages.

“I have been working in Kochi for the past three years,” he says. “I am from Berhampur in Orissa. There are no jobs there.”

Bhaskar has four children, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from three to fifteen. “I earn between Rs 300 and Rs 350 a day but nowadays, I am idle for two to three days a week, because of the slowdown.”

Does he feel sad that he will be unable to vote next month? “Definitely,” he says. “I would like to vote, but feeding my family is paramount.”

So who would Bhaskar vote for, if he had the chance? “I can’t tell you that,” he says, with a smile. “That is the secret of every voter.”

Has he been approached by the local parties to cast some bogus votes? “No, not yet,” he says. “But I will be ready to do so, because that will enable me to earn some money.”

But Murugamma already has an experience of bogus voting. A worker from southern Tamil Nadu, she is waiting to catch a bus.

“Parties used to give Rs 100, apart from train and bus fares,” she says. Interestingly, she says, their votes are sought after, more for local body and Assembly elections rather than parliamentary ones.

“Representatives of different parties would come to our colony and canvass for votes,” she says. “If we agree, they will arrange for a tempo to pick us up from the station or the bus terminus.”

But Murugamma says that this time she will ask for more. “We are earning Rs 250 a day, so why should we be satisfied with the Rs 100 the parties give all the time.”

Gautam Ghosh, 34, is shocked at the idea of bogus votes. “I am an honest man,” says this worker from Bongaon in West Bengal. He is working in an underground car park of a building that is going to be a supermarket. Back home, there is a widowed mother and younger brother who are dependent on him.

“There are no jobs in West Bengal,” he says. “That is why I have come to Kerala. I live on the site and earn Rs 175 a day.”

Does he feel bad that he will not be able to cast a vote? “Yes, it the only right the common man has,” he says. “And it is also the only time the politicians are at our mercy. But our family is going through financial difficulties, so earning money is more important.”

Gautam, who failed his pre-degree exams, says, “But there is no doubt that we people are fools, for voting for these politicians who don’t care a damn about us.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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