Mohan Lal, a matador driver, is worried about how he will feed his family of six people including two children, as the essential supplies are fast running out. “We just have five kilos of rice and two packets of lentils left,” he says. Lal is the sole breadwinner of the family and he has exhausted all his savings to survive the back-to-back phases of the lockdown in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak.
As transport remains off the roads, private bus/matador drivers and conductors with meagre/no savings are staring at an uncertain future. Families of the transporters told NewsClick that they are running out of stocks, savings and are on the verge of starvation and if no immediate step is taken by the government, they will be left with no other option, but to launch an agitation.
Two days ago, private transporters across Jammu sat on a hunger strike demanding permission to operate passenger vehicles and a relief package to compensate the financial crisis faced by them due to the lockdown. The agitated transporters also gave two-day ultimatum to the UT administration after which they threatened to stop all the essential services including tanker and truck services. The protesters were later detained and released after a few hours.
“The protest was an attempt to make the deaf ears listen. For the last one week, we have been holding press conferences, but there was no response by the government until we sat on a hunger strike. Now, we have been called for a meeting and if our demands are not fulfilled, we will stop [transport for] all the essential services,” said T.S Wazir, Chairman of All J&K Transport Welfare Association (AJKTWA).
With ration running out, Ghulam Rasool, a passenger cab driver and his family, including five children, are surviving on one meal a day. Ghulam says that his family is on the verge of starvation and he has requested his owner to lend him some money. “We will die. Please do something. The lockdown brought our lives to a halt. I have five children at home and no work to do. After a few days, I will not be able to manage even a single meal.” Ghulam has no savings for the rainy days with his hand-to-mouth income.
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“The situation in Kashmir is very bad. I receive repeated calls on a daily basis, from drivers asking me from where they can get food and when they can resume driving. They are very desperate right now and the Jammu and Kashmir administration has completely ignored us,” said Shabeer Bhat, president, Kashmir Motor Driver Association.
What has made the situation worse for transporters across the UT is the back-to-back lockdowns, first due to abrogation of Article 370 and now, the deadly virus.
“We were just coming out of the Article 370 induced lockdown and now, this. We are the carriers of essential commodities and yet, the government is paying no attention to us,” said Wazir.
Transporters said that they were badly affected by the lockdown and demanded “revision in passenger fare, waiving interest on the loans taken by transporters for vehicles, waiving off the insurance and other fees during the lockdown period besides withdrawing all the toll plazas in Jammu and Kashmir”.
In the new guidelines on the lockdown, public passenger transport including buses, tempos, travelers, cab aggregators, auto rickshaws, etc. were allowed to move in the green zones, but with only 50% passengers.
“We want the passenger fare to increase. If a matador has the capacity for 30 passengers because of the lockdown, it is facilitating only 15 but with the same fare. Is that not a loss for us? The matador, will anyway, move around the city. It can’t cut short its passage,” said Matador Union President, Ved Singh Chib.
Transporters have said that if their demands are not met, they will sit on a chain hunger strike. “There is a meeting today, let’s see what happens. For us, it is a do or die situation. For the government, our lives are a joke,” said Wazir.
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