Will India survive for the next 30 years?

"Before we die of Corona, we starve" : Where the home office is not the biggest problem, but bare survival

The boulevards of New Delhi have been swept clean. The air and water are as clean as they have been in decades. But inside it is dark, narrow and stuffy. From here, Rekha has never seen the sky, after all, the wall is sky blue.

She lives with her husband and three daughters on twelve square meters. A room with bed, kitchenette, sink and toilet. Without windows or privacy. Rekha is happy to have a roof over his head at all. They worked their way up with diligence and skill. They used to live next to the garbage dump.

But how are they supposed to pay the rent now? Where is the next meal coming from? Rekha is at a loss. “My husband is a scrap dealer. Now he is no longer allowed to work and we have no money, ”says the resolute woman, who has been on her feet since six o'clock. The one and a half year old daughter was restless. The father snuck outside - despite the curfew. He has to find something to eat, no matter how.

400 million people do not have an employment contract

A few days ago he was caught collecting rubbish and beaten with bamboo sticks by police officers. Anyone who is on the street “for no reason” can end up in prison for two years.

A curfew has been in effect across India for three weeks. It is the most comprehensive in the world. In a televised address on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended this until May 3. 1.3 billion people should continue to stay at home. The only exceptions are some professional groups such as doctors, police officers, supermarket operators, fruit sellers, petrol station employees and journalists. Everyone else should only take to the streets in an emergency to buy food or medicine.

The corona crisis hits the poor hardest. They live from hand to mouth, have no reserves or social security. These are not only beggars and homeless people, but also harvest workers, street vendors, rickshaw drivers, seamstresses, garbage collectors, household helpers and cleaners. More than 400 million people without an employment contract. The informal sector, the backbone of India's economic power. But these people are now in danger of slipping into deep poverty, warns the international workers' organization ILO in its latest report.

Five in a room without a window

India has taken the most rigid measures worldwide to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, but is not economically prepared for it.

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At first, each state made its own. Schools have been closed, travel and meetings restricted, and leisure activities canceled. Rekha could live with that. She can't afford the cinema or the gym anyway.

All three children have been at home since the beginning of March. “I was happy,” says ten-year-old Anshul timidly. Her favorite subject is math. Her parents wish that she would have an office job with a fixed salary one day. A dream that many in the neighborhood share.

It is a mixture of slum and village, in the middle of New Delhi, a metropolis of 18 million people. There are stone houses, legal and illegal, but also huts with corrugated iron roofs. Before Corona, there was hustle and bustle on every corner - like in an ant colony. It was hammered, sawed and welded, sewn and washed. Children and dogs chased their way through the dark alleys. Occasionally, Anshul and her nine-year-old sister would help the father with his work. The reusable waste trade was doing well.

A disease of the rich

In the evening there was a piece of chocolate and the equivalent of 15 to 30 euros for rent and food. They bought staple foods such as rice, wheat and lentils in the state “fair price shop” around the corner. The coronavirus seemed far away. Only 30 cases were counted nationwide.

The poor thought it was a disease of the rich. Flown in from countries they'd only heard of on television. Students from China, tourists from Italy - what did they have to do with it?

It got serious on March 24th. It was eight o'clock on Tuesday evening when Narendra Modi addressed the nation. Millions of people hung on his every word, including Rekha and her family. "If you live, the world is yours," said the prime minister, whom many poor idolize as a savior. With him toilets and electricity, a little money and hope had come. According to the United Nations, 271 million Indians have escaped poverty within ten years.

Now critics have warned that the number of unreported corona infected people in India is high because too little is being tested. Horror scenarios made the rounds: 300 to 500 million Indians would be infected by the end of July, the health system would collapse. While there are 8.3 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants in Germany, there are just 0.7 in India.

They lost their livelihood

"If you leave the house in the next 21 days, we will be set back by 21 years," said hundreds of tube televisions in Rekha's neighborhood. 21 days?! Her husband had never stayed home for so long. Short-time work benefits, dismissal protection, health insurance - foreign words for the family.

Narendra Modi wanted to buy time to increase capacity in hospitals and laboratories. But while the wealthy were holed up with supplies in their condominiums and single-family houses, the day laborers immediately lost their jobs and thus their livelihoods.

The same thing happened to Rekha's 22-year-old neighbor Radha, who cleaned for middle-class families. The equivalent of around 200 euros a month was raised when she went from door to door with a plastic bucket, cleaning rag and straw broom. In the end, she also wore a mask. "But then they said I shouldn't come back."

Home lessons? The mothers lack education

Since then, Radha has spent a lot of time with Rekha. The children watch TV, romp over the bed or draw circles on the wall. Lessons at home are out of the question; women lack the education to do this.

Many do not have the money for masks. Instead, the women pull their "dupatta" deeper into their faces. This is her scarf that hugs her hair and neck. Rekha, who doesn't know her age, has her fingernails freshly painted to match, pink and blue.

Everyone here is afraid of the new virus. "But I don't want to starve to death before I die of Corona," says Rekha defiantly. The district's state school now serves a free meal twice a day. “Rice”, Rekha bursts out, “but we are wheat eaters”. By that she means “roti”, flat bread made from wheat flour. The women come from Utar Pradesh, the most populous state in India. It is also one of the poorest. A cow and a piece of land have to feed many hungry mouths. The youth are moving to the big cities.

There is plenty to do in Delhi, Noida or Ghaziabad, for example on construction sites. New office complexes and high-rise buildings are constantly emerging. The day laborers toil late into the night. They sleep where they work. The laundry dries between the steel girders. The cell phone is the window to the world - or at least the link to those at home.

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Crowds close together

Four hours after Modi's speech, the country should stand still - markets, construction sites, factories, airports and train stations. Those who were lucky caught one of the last buses or trains to flee back to the country. They even traveled with them on the roofs.

Whole families set out on foot, hundreds of kilometers. Some died in the process. The images of the Exodus went around the world.

Crowds close together in times of the corona crisis - paradoxical. Politicians reacted: buses were reactivated, medical checkpoints were set up in front of villages, accommodation and food distribution in city schools. The government explains that around a million people can be cared for in New Delhi and the surrounding area. The stranded do not know how and when to continue.

Radha's husband has also been stuck for three weeks. The rickshaw driver had never returned from his trip to Utar Pradesh. Radha hardly sleeps, the worries are too great. “We have the biometric passport and should actually get something to eat, but we don't get anything,” she says indignantly. “Nobody will go hungry,” Finance Minister Nirmana Sitharaman promised on the second day of the curfew. The BJP government passed an aid package for the most vulnerable in society. Free food rations, gas bottles and direct payments. That sounded promising, thought Rekha and Radha. But so far nothing has reached them.

She has been digging through the garbage for 25 years

In the morning the women make their way to the main street. An aid organization is supposed to distribute food here. They haven't cooked for themselves in two and a half weeks. Some hungry people are already sitting on the side of the road. The sun is beating down on the bare asphalt. Dogs and cows roam about. At home, the older children take care of the little ones.

A young woman says that she came to New Delhi shortly before the curfew. She wanted to work. Now she has nothing to eat and sleeps in the open air, hidden between a few trees.

Guddi Devi lives with her youngest son in a hut made of wood and corrugated iron directly behind the garbage collection point. For 25 years she has been digging through stinking mountains in search of something useful. Paper, plastic and aluminum can be resold for a few rupees. She has to find more than ten kilos a day to make a living. Her husband, who did the same, died of cancer two years ago.

A photo framed by pictures of Hindu gods is a reminder of him. Next to it are found suitcases, a dusty fan and a refrigerator. There is no electricity or water, only a gas bottle for cooking. Your eldest son is addicted to alcohol.The family currently lives on food donations. "I am ready to make this sacrifice so that my compatriots stay healthy," says the woman in her forties, her mouth and nose hidden behind a black mask.

Stalls where you can't buy anything

A green delivery truck stops in sight. A woman wearing plastic gloves and a respirator is painting circles on the sidewalk. Distance is required, also when serving food. A policeman with a baton monitors the scene so that there is no riot.

"Some people get aggressive when they don't get anything to eat," says Surjeet Singh. He heads an aid organization that usually supports the education of migrant workers' children. Since the curfew, he and eleven others have been distributing food in the slums for several hours every day.

“We have already reached more than 2,000 families in need,” says Singh. “But many more suffer from hunger.” One employee takes photos, posts them on the Internet in the evening and calls for donations. In addition to established organizations, spontaneously formed initiatives also distribute food to the poor - provided the police allow it. Singh has also been denied access to the slums.

Today it remains calm. It's finally Rekha and Radha's turn. They leave their name and telephone number before they receive one of the coveted bags. Rekha heaves him onto her head. Ten kilos of rice and three kilos of lentils. That must be enough for a week. The two mothers hurry back to their apartments, past pharmacies and vegetable stalls from which they cannot buy anything.

1,300 Indians die of tuberculosis every day

A shop owner says his sales have slumped in half. “But the supply chains are working again,” says the man, beads of sweat dripping from his forehead. “In the beginning, the trucks were stuck at the borders. Fresh goods are spoiled. ”The mood in the district is very depressing.

The deeper you go into the labyrinth of houses and alleys, the darker it gets. It smells like fried garlic - and spoiled. The women stop. A dead rat lies on the ground. What did she die of? "Corona", Rekha bursts out. The children who rushed up laugh.

There are many diseases here, including deadly diseases. For example the dengue virus and malaria transmitted by mosquitoes. Or tuberculosis - a disease of the lungs caused by bacteria. It is the deadliest infectious disease in the world. In India, 1,300 people die from it every day. But nobody is talking about that at the moment.

On March 13, the first Indian died of the lung disease Covid-19. A 73-year-old man with a number of previous illnesses. A month later, according to the Ministry of Health, there are 358 corona deaths and 10,450 infected people.

"If I die, it would still be okay, but nothing should happen to my children," says Rekha, who cooks a handful of rice and lentils in the evening. She hopes her husband will be back soon. Intact. One of the daughters has a cough.

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