Marjina Begum is in her early 50s, but she thinks of herself as old. Her poor health has made her infirm, but the weight and urgency of her responsibilities keep her moving.
She has worked as a domestic worker in Guwahati for 14 years to earn enough to raise and educate her daughter and look after her ailing mother. Marjina’s mother and daughter live in their village, a few km from Barpeta’s district headquarters in Western Assam. The name of the village will be withheld as her home is on government land.
Her teenaged son, who lives with her in Guwahati, used to work as a rag-picker and was an apprentice at a garage. He is now learning carpentry.
Assamese Hindu Mahajans from Barpeta town had occupied the land, and employed local labour to clear the scrub forests and make them cultivable. Marjina bought her house-site from one of them. Now, it has grown into a full-fledged village, but one which remains illegal.
Most of its residents are impoverished Bengali-origin Muslims like Marjina. Though they have lived there for several decades, most have no documents like ration cards or election cards. They remain illegal residents, a particularly dangerous status in Assam.
Every three or four months, Marjina takes a leave to visit her village and spend time with her family. She has no brothers – she buys medicines for her mother; pays for her daughter’s college fees, books and clothes; and stocks the house with food and other essentials to tide them over when she returns to work.
When the nationwide lockdown to contain Covid-19 spread was announced, Marijna was in her village. She had gone there a month earlier, while her son remained in Guwahati. Our colleagues in Assam, who are striving to provide food and other essentials to the most vulnerable families in rural Assam, met Marjina at her home.
Marjina Begum understands the importance of the lockdown – she thinks people should protect themselves from the deadly virus. However, she also thinks there should be some form of government aid, in the absence of which she has faced enormous hardship.
Before the lockdown she had bought and boiled around 40 kg of paddy and pounded it into rice. But there were four mouths to feed, and two weeks into the lockdown, the stock was almost exhausted.
Apart from this, her kitchen was empty. On some days, she managed to beg for leafy vegetables from neighbours’ fields. On others, her family ate the rice with just water and salt. “I had no problems before. We used to survive on what I earned,” she said. “Now we have fallen suddenly into very bad times…There’s no knowing how long this lockdown will continue.”
Through the safety net
After the lockdown, the government announced some protections for the poor – a direct transfer of Rs 500 to Jan Dhan account holders, free food grains for ration card holders under the National Food Security Act, and Rs 1,000 in cash. None of this has reached her.
During this period, neither a government official nor a local panchayat representative has visited her family to offer any help. She heard that the government had appealed to the families who had people employed in government, and other richer families, to support their poor neighbours. But her village hardly has anyone government employees and the rich have been tight-fisted.
In difficult times like these, people refuse to lend money even on interest. There are not many wealthy people in her village anyway. Almost all of the villagers are either marginal farmers or migrant workers like herself.
Her mother did manage to get a ration card. But since she doesn’t have a son, the officials marked her as the only member in the family. Though Marjina’s daughter lives in the same house, the officials refused to include even her granddaughter’s name in the ration card. Therefore, she is entitled to only five kg of rice per month.
A single mother
Marjina herself doesn’t have a ration card. Her name is included in the ration card of her husband’s family and they draw her share of rations. She had left her husband 14 years earlier, as he was violent to her. She hasn’t seen him since.
At the time, Marjina had resolved to educate her daughter at any cost, so that she daughter doesn’t have to experience the domestic violence and poverty.
In her younger days, Marjina used to work at more than 10 households. Now, she works full-time for one family for Rs 4,000 a month and two meals a day. Of this, she spends Rs 2,000 on her house rent.
“I have become old. Now, I can’t work as much I worked during those days,” she said. “I eat in the house where I work. I eat in the afternoon, then again at night and come home to sleep.”
One of her former employers allows her to use his ration card to buy 25 kg of rice a month. Marjina shares the ration card with his current employee, so she can use it every alternate month. The benefits of this are availed by her son in Guwahati. This amount of rice is enough to last him for two months, she said.
Ray of hope
Marjina has no agricultural land but her home is surrounded by fields. Her neighbors in the village have sown paddy. She said people were struggling to get the water for their fields during the lockdown but Allah has showered rains. When her neighbours will bring the crop home, she hopes, they all would be able to survive.
“No one will eat full meals while his neighbour starves. He will spare some of his food for his neighbour,” she said.
Marjina herself has mastered the skill of going hungry for days. She has seen hunger and abject poverty since childhood, when floods would often destroy crops and her village would face famine-like situations. “We have lived through difficult times. [At the time,] we cooked gruel with one handful of wheat flour and it was all we ate during the course of one day.”
She thanks Allah for keeping the villagers alive during that period. Now too, she believes, He will help them sail through this crisis. She said, “We are Muslims. I have heard that people’s souls remain alive for a week without food”.
However, she is saddened that if the lockdown continues, her children may have to endure the torment of hunger longer.