Ghaziabad: Once pulsating with the shrill cries of fruit-sellers, pleas of beggars and unending footfalls of shoppers, the Vaishali market is today a ghost town. It’s multitude of stores selling almost everything from daily essentials to high-end electronics are shuttered and silent.
The biggest market in the working-class Vaishali suburb, barely 2 kilometers from the Delhi border, is now deserted and desolate, emblematic of the catastrophic halt of commerce across the country because of the lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lockdown has also exposed the plight of the society's underbelly -- the countless beggars who survive on the charity of people at the market to buy food, and the daily wage earners, such as rickshaw pullers, who have no jobs, no savings, no social safety net but are too proud to beg.
While the initial days of the world's biggest lockdown didn't seem to have altered much, as days progressed it has begun to tell a chilling tale. The better-off going to market to pick up daily essentials, such as fruits and vegetables, are mobbed by beggars, many of them children.
Some children begging at intersections and sidewalks are from families that worked through the day in odd jobs to earn a hand-to-mouth income.A few, begged on the streets earlier, too, but now go without meals more often. Downed shutters and a near-empty market also mean fewer people, who used to dole out spare change.
"Maa, baapkaam par nahijate (mother father no longer go to work)," said 9-year old Raju, who begged for a few rupees to buy a meal.
The beggar kids include ragpickers and children of factory workers and daily wage earners who have exhausted all of their little savings.
That roadside tailor on a makeshift bench, who would stitch and mend for captive customers living in housing societies and flats in the area, the chaiwala whose humble tea stall was a place to unwind for those working in this once-bustling market, and the hawker who would sell knick-knacks, jewellery and other trinkets – are all struggling to feed their families.
A rickshaw puller, on seeing a good samaritan, jumps out of his rickshaw to ask for money. He hasn't eaten for some time and wants to buy a banana, he says with all the dignity he can muster. Having earned an honest living, ferrying passengers in his cycle rickshaw for years, pleading for money from occasional passers-by is an act driven by desperation, he says.
Another rickshaw puller says he hardly gets any passengers, and police, once in a while, drives them away. It's difficult to make ends meet, he says.
Once every a few days, someone pulls his car over, bringing food grains and pulses for free distribution but the seekers far outnumber the supplies.
“My family has seven people. How long will 1 kilo flour last for all of us?," asks Suman, who works as a housemaid.
The two houses where she worked have paid her full wages for March despite the lockdown, but extended lockdown beyond April 14 could cast a shadow on her future earning, if any of the households employing her refuse to pay citing full month of absenteeism, she says.
There are others like her who can no longer go to work, as housing societies have barred their entry for fear of the deadly virus. Terrified by the possibility of savings drying up, these women, who work as domestic helps, now try their best to leverage the doles that good samaritans give once in a while.
On a good day, when food packets are distributed by the residents of nearby societies, it is one meal less to worry about, they say.
They are also not entirely thrilled about the government package as they say wheat is being offered when there are no flour mills in operation. Also, many don't have ration cards.
Struggling through the day was always tough, they said, but the sudden, unprecedented crisis has now put life and livelihood under threat.
Roaming about barefoot, with clothes in tatters and face exposed, Raju contrasts starkly to the masked passers-by he trails. Lack of mask and ignoring repeated calls for social distancing can mean obvious risks, but driven by hunger, and circumstances, that is a chance he, and others like him, are being forced to take.