The magazine of the photo-essay
Jan/Feb 2022 issue
Lockdown HeroismKolkata, India
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by Shubhodeep Roy
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This is a story, which is very close to my heart. Each of these photographs is a document of a life; the lives of migrant workers trapped in a city, miles away from home. Large numbers of migrant workers from remote, rural regions of Bihar flock to Kolkata to work as helpers in household enterprises and as casual labourers. Indian migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic have faced multiple hardships. With factories and workplaces shut down due to the lockdown imposed on the country, millions of migrant workers have had to deal with loss of income, food shortages, and uncertainty about their future. Many of them and their families have gone hungry. Thousands who began to make the journey back to their villages on foot, without transport, faced further hardship. In response to this crisis, the Central and State Governments took various measures to help them and to later arrange transport for them. Heroism does not always mean a single act of bravery. Heroism is also about staying strong during harsh times. These workers are all heroes; they have fought hunger and poverty along with the virus. I was compelled to document their untold stories.
This picture was shot in Kolkata, India. I was out shooting in the street, where I noticed this man selling toy parrots, I found it very interesting as the man was totally odd in that environment. I ducked in the road in order to take a low- angle shot of the man holding those birds and luckily it was the time in the evening where all the birds (especially crows) were returning to their nests and that's how I got the shot. I have tried to juxtapose the real birds with those fake ones; this shot was taken during the 6 months lockdown, local vendors like this man were severely affected as they could not step outside the home and their business is falling down due to the restrictions imposed by the government, but still, this local vendor who has left his village and shifted to a big city (Kolkata) in search of a decent income has anyhow stepped out of his house risking his life to the virus and was selling toy parrots in hope that someone will buy them and he will earn some money. The reaction in the man’s face shows it all that “Hope is a good thing, probably the best of all things, and no good thing ever dies.’’ Apart from all the hardships and pain, this man believes that someday things will change and life will be better.
The Street Vendor - This picture was shot on an empty bus stand in Kolkata, India. I was in that area documenting the scene. Usually, that bus stand in the heart of the city is full of crowds and hustle-bustle, but due to the lockdown the area was deserted. I found this man selling balloons on the street, after having a little chat with him, he explained that how he has been severely affected by the lockdown, men like him, who have left their hometown and have shifted to big cities, hoping to earn some money for his family. And since the whole transportation system is closed they can’t even return back to their villages.
The Migrant Worker - This is my personal favourite in the series. I think the eyes of this brick kiln worker say it all.
The farm worker - India is home to about 120 million smallholder farmers who contribute over 40% of the country’s grain production and over half of its fruits, vegetables, oilseeds, and other crops. Much of the global share of food staples such as rice and wheat come from India, and almost half of the population in India depends on agriculture for their livelihood. But due to lock down the whole industry has suffered a huge setback, affecting many farmers. This shot was taken on the outskirts of Kolkata, where I met this man who works as a farmer and was recalling his experiences of being stuck in a foreign town without a proper source of income and food. Among steps announced to ease credit for small farmers, the government said that the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) will extend an additional refinance support.
The Labourer - This is a story of a labourer, working in an election rally, who has been stuck in the city since the lockdown. He was a construction worker, but due to the closure of the system, he was forced to quit his job and take up seasonal jobs just to earn his bread. When the government announced the lockdown, labour migrants in cities found themselves in the void of having lost their job, sometimes their housing, and in large numbers of cases their income. Many of them had no alternative but to return to their home villages and as transport was cancelled as part of the lockdown, often on foot, exposed to hunger, and risks of infection, harassment, and poor conditions of forced quarantine. Migrant workers that stayed in cities often found working conditions worsen.
The Fruit Seller - This is the story of Ram Das, a migrant worker from a small town in Bihar, India, and his horrendous experience during the Covid-19 lockdown in Kolkata, where he had migrated with his family to work as a local fruit seller in a market. This shot was taken in Kolkata, West Bengal near the Esplanade bus stand, where hundreds of workers were waiting, trying to board a bus for Bihar.
The Factory Worker - A shot of an unknown factory worker, still doing his job, throughout lockdown; risking his own life for the sake of his responsibilities as a father, a son, and a husband. Not all heroes wear capes, and not all heroes get recognized by society.
Hope Of A Father - A story of hope, a shot of an old man during the pandemic. Due to the lockdown, imposed by the government unemployment rate rises in every sector of the market. This old man's son was a labourer in Kolkata who had migrated from Bihar with his family and had lost his job due to the lockdown, but still, he believes that someday the sun will shine, and conditions will improve.
The Barber - I was walking through the streets of Kolkata, where I found a small old fashioned empty Barber Shop where a Barber was sitting. His business was declining day by day due to the effect of the pandemic.
The Shopkeeper - Non-essential shops were ordered to shut down during the lockdown. Only the essential services (Medicine and Grocery) were allowed to open for a short span of time. The workers of these small, non-essential shops were the ones who were affected the worst, as many of the workers and labourers were migrants and they were not even paid properly. This is a shot taken before the 2nd wave of Covid -19 when the guidelines of the lockdown were a little linear and these shops were given permission to open for a few hours only. Even after re-opening, these shops suffered huge losses due to fewer customers.
The Idol Maker - Kumartuli is a traditional potters' quarter situated in northern Kolkata, West Bengal, India. The city is renowned for its sculpting prowess. It not only manufactures clay idols for various festivals but also regularly exports them. The second wave of coronavirus has made the artisans of Kumartuli, , anxious that they are facing the same scenario of last year when Durga Puja organizers ordered smaller, less expensive idols to suit their reduced budget induced by the pandemic.
The Taxi Driver - A shot of Adinath Sahu a Taxi Driver from the city of joy Kolkata, who has migrated from a small town in Bihar to work as a Taxi Driver in the city. He is already without income due to the lockdown and finds it very difficult to pay house rent, dues for the vehicle and food expenses, his little cash reserves are depleted, and any further extension of the lockdown period is bound to push him and many other taxi drivers like him into desperation.
The Rickshaw Puller - The Government’s decision to impose lockdown restrictions has spelt trouble for daily wagers in the state. Hand-rickshaw pullers, whose livelihoods depend on ferrying people to and fro regularly, are facing a pecuniary crisis. A shot of a Fifty-year-old rickshaw puller Balbir Mahato who said that a good day would fetch him Rs.300-200, but now making Rs.30 to 40 is a big task.
The Garage Mechanic - A shot of an unknown garage mechanic working during the lockdown in order to earn some money, since most of the garages were closed. He hoped to gain some customers, but they were very few and far between and most of the days there were no customers at all.