“Sir, a few customers are here. Can I attend to them please? I have my earphones on, I will be listening to you.” Unmuting himself for a while, Muzzafar hesitantly sought his teacher’s permission before attending to a few customers waiting at his handcart to buy vegetables. “Taaji…saabji le-lo…” he shouted out one more time before going back to the science class on a smartphone.
It was Muzzafar Sheikh’s first day of online classes on AJune 15. “I could hear the noise – of traffic, haggling customers – in the background all the time. I was unable to decide on whether to concentrate on the class or sell vegetables,” the 14-year-old Muzzafar, a Class 8 student. He ‘attended’ that online session while selling brinjal and beetroot, cucumber and cabbage, and other vegetables from his handcart around 10 a.m. that day, in the bustling peak-hour market in the Malvani area of Malad in north Mumbai.
Muzzafar had borrowed a phone from a friend for a few hours for the class. He does not own a smartphone himself. “At the same time, time my elder brother, Mubarak [a Class 9 student] was also attending online class at his friend’s home. Papa was at work. I couldn’t shut down the cart. We had just re-started [work] on June 10, after three months,” he says.
The boys’ father, Islam, had rented the handcart in January. The family’s expenses were growing and they needed another source of income. Islam, who is in his 40s, used to work as a truck driver’s assistant, but had given up the job because of the poor income (though he resumed it in June). The boys’ mother, 35-year-old Momina, makes hairclips and sews gowns. The seven-member family includes two-year-old Hasnain, and two daughters, Farzana, 13, in Class 7 and Afsana, 12, in Class 6.
But barely two months after the handcart was rented, the Covid-19 lockdown from March 25 shut down the family’s fledgling vegetable business. “Papa was handling the cart first,” says Muzzafar, while he and 17-year-old Mubarak went to school from 7 a.m. to noon. Both boys helped their father sell the vegetables in the market after school.
“Until last year, we hardly earned 5,000 rupees [a month],” says Momina. The family has had to often rely on the help of relatives and neighbours. When Momina got a sewing machine from a neighbour, she started earning a little from sewing gowns in addition to making hairclips – around Rs 1,000 a month. But then her income too stopped during the lockdown. “Groceries, light bill, water expenses, school fees, were difficult to manage,” she says. “So we started selling vegetables, but this lockdown ruined everything.”
Like the Sheikhs, a large number of migrant families in India engaged in the informal sector, who manage on daily wages, were severely impacted by the lockdown. “Small traders, hawkers and daily wage labourers were the worst hit by the lockdown in April. Of the 121.5 million jobs lost in that month, 91.2 million were among these,” notes an August 2020 article in the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).
During the lockdown, the Sheikhs saw many returning to their villages – and thought of going back too, to Balapur village of Bahraich district in Uttar Pradesh, from where they had come to Mumbai in 1999 looking for work. They were agricultural labourers in the village and had no land of their own. “We thought of going to our village,” says Momina, “but were not getting any train or bus ticket. Then we got all that news of accidents of people who were walking, going in tempo. We didn’t want to risk that. So, we decided to stay back and wait for the situation to become like it was before.”
With both parents without work, Muzzafar and Mubarak tried to sell vegetables intermittently during early April amid stringent curfews and lockdown. “The havaldar hit Mubarak’s elbow with a lathi,” Muzzafar said, “while controlling a crowd at the market near home. After that, for one month we worked at another vegetable vendor’s cart in Malvani.” For this, each of them earned Rs. 50 a day until the month of May.
“By June, with lockdown restrictions easing, the boys started renting the cart again. After paying the rent for the handcart and tempo (to the wholesale market) and purchasing vegetables, together they got Rs. 3,000-4,000 a month in hand.
By that month, Islam too resumed his work as a truck driver’s assistant, earning, as he did before, Rs. 4,000 a month. “He goes on 9-10 trips [each of 2-3 days] outside Mumbai,” Momina says. “In-between he comes home, rests for 2-3 hours and leaves immediately for the next trip. He is working day and night.”
Momina also resumed work around the same time, but for a fewer number of days in a month. “From July I have started getting some work. But it lasts for 10 days a month, unlike 20 days before March,” she says. “The supplier said many factories have shut due to losses, so there are fewer orders.”
But while their livelihood avenues slowly opened up again, the school Muzzafar and Mubarak study in – Gurukul English High School and Junior College, a kilometre away from their home in Ambujwadi slum in Malvani – remained shut. It’s run by NGOs and has 928 students from kindergarten to Class 12. The school resumed classes in June, for the ongoing academic year – online classes.
“We have one simple mobile. So we borrowed khala’s [maternal aunt’s] mobile,” Mubarak explains. But one borrowed mobile is not enough for four siblings, especially when their timetables clash. So, their younger sisters – Farzana and Afsana, who study at the M.H.B Urdu School run by the municipal corporation, around two kilometres from Ambujwadi, go to a friend’s place for their online classes.
Muzzafar and Mubarak take turns handling their vegetable business and attending online classes on the borrowed mobile, sitting in their single room home in Ambujwadi slum to avoid a repeat the experience of that first online class from the market. It is still a challenge to focus on studies – up to three hours a day – along with 6 to 7 hours of work every day (only Sundays are off).
Every day, the brothers also take turns to go to purchase the vegetables – covering over 40 kilometres from Ambujwadi to the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) yard in Vashi, Navi Mumbai, in a tempo shared with other vendors. They had done this before with their father in January, when Islam rented the handcart. “We go around 12 in the night, return home at 5-5:30 in the morning,” explains Muzzafar. “Mostly I go, Mubarak doesn’t bargain properly. By 7:30 we wash and arrange fresh vegetables on the cart.”
After a long night at the wholesale market, attending online classes the next morning or afternoon requires an enormous effort at saying awake and being attentive. “Eyes get heavy during class. But I sprinkle water on my eyes or shake my head and control sleep,” says Mubarak.
Moving around the heavy handcart, with 15-20 kilos of vegetables, is also exhausting. “My shoulder pains, my palms burn. It hurts while writing,” Muzzafar says, while pushing the handcart through the narrow streets of Malvani. “We take turns. Today [November 28] Mubarak has a morning class. So I came to work. My class is at 1.30 in the afternoon.”
Many students from his school have faced similar hurdles. Farid Shaikh, founder and principal of the Gurukul English High School and Junior College, says, “Nearly 50 of our students are working at hotels, construction sites, selling vegetables. They often say they are tired or sleepy because of work. It is difficult for them to be attentive during class.”
“Many children in the slums of Malvani, Dharavi, Mankhurd and Govandi started working during the lockdown. They are still working,” says Navnath Kamble, programme head of Pratham, a Mumbai-based NGO that work on the education of children living in slums. “No access to device for online classes and unemployed parents are among the main reasons.”
Among them is 17-year-old Roshni Khan, who too lives in Ambujwadi, around 10 minutes from the Sheikhs’ home. She studies in Class 10 in the same Gurukul school, and started working at a cake shop sometime during the lockdown to be able to buy a second-hand mobile for online classes. Her father Saabir is a welder and mother Ruksana is a domestic worker; their parents came to Mumbai in the 1970s from Kalotaha village in Madhepura district of Bihar.
“Papa had a simple mobile,” Roshni says. “Their work had stopped from March, so buying a mobile [smartphone] was impossible.” The shop in Malad West where she works packing and selling muffins and cake decorations is five kilometres from Ambujwadi. “My friend told me about this job in March, so I joined,” Roshni says, walking towards a shared autorickshaw stand nearby. Every day, she spends Rs. 20 one-way to reach work.
Roshni bought a second-hand phone for Rs. 2,500 from her monthly salary of Rs. 5000 around mid-May. Then continued working, to help her parents run the house.
But her 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. work hours clash with her school timetable. “Some 2-3 times a week I miss afternoon classes,” she says. “I read missed lessons myself and clear doubts with my teacher over the phone.”
Seven hours on her feet at work wear Roshni out. “I feel so tired, I cannot finish homework. I often sleep without dinner. Sometimes I feel I already [have a job and] earn, so why do I need to study?” she asks.
That growing disinterest in studying, notes Pratham’s Navnath Kamble, is common. “Working children in slums,” he says, “are not very interested in education. And being deprived of a good education, leads to and increases child labour.”
Roshni has three younger siblings – Rihanna in Class 7, Sumaira in Class 5 and Rizwan in Class 4, all studying in M.H.B. School. “They go to their friend’s place for online classes because I take the mobile to work,” she says.
Their parents have resumed work in mid-September, but with cutbacks. “I was working at four houses, now I work at one. Other employers haven’t called me yet,” says Ruksana. This means she barely makes Rs. 1,000 a month, instead of the Rs. 4,000 she earned before March.
“Roshni’s father also now gets work only for 15 days [for Rs. 400 a day], instead of 25 days before March when he used to stand at Malvani labour naka,” says Ruksana. So their total monthly income, even after adding in Roshni’s contribution, is down to Rs. 12,000 compared to roughly Rs. 14,000 before the lockdown, when Roshni was not working.
“Our income has reduced but not our expenses,” says Ruksana, on items such as groceries, school fees, electricity bills, cooking gas cylinders, and foodgrains (the family does not have a ration card, they never got around to applying for one).
Ruksana is worried about the financial burden this had placed on her daughter. “Roshni is very young. I worry about her,” she says. “It’s too much responsibility for her.”
Meanwhile, Roshni continues to juggle work and online classes. As do Muzaffar and Mubarak. Schools in the city will remain closed till (at least) December 31, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has announced.
“We don’t mind doing both, study and work, no matter for how long. But I will never give up studies,” Muzzafar says, as he walks home to attend another online class. “Anyway now we have already got used to studying when exhausted, we will manage here onwards too.”