60-year-old Akhtari Begum, a widow shut her eight power looms running furiously at her dimly-lit boxy house of Mominpura colony of Madhya Pradesh's Burhanpur district due to the lockdown.
She along with her two daughters ran these power looms after her husband passed away and somehow made both ends meet. But, her ordeal begun after the imposition of lockdown. The power looms are shut, ration and little savings have gone dry in three weeks of lockdown. Since last two days, they are consuming boiled rice, salt with home made pickle that they prepared with the help of neighbours.
More so, the electricity department disconnected her connection due the unpaid bill of previous month which was around Rs 4,500. The Department charges Rs 4.61 a unit to power loom workers.
With no work, money, food and electricity in a scratching summer, she has been facing a tough time. "Khana pahle khatam ho gaya tha, ab bijli Bhi kaat de hai. Agar bijli bill de dete to bhuke mar jate q ke lockdown me sb mehga ho gaya hai. Lagta hai garmi se mar jau ge. (The ration has already finished and now they have disconnected the power connection. If we would have paid the electricity bills, we died of hunger because the items have gone costlier due to the lock down. I think, I would die of scratching heat.)" she said over the phone.
The story of 40-year-old Reyaz Ahmad who lives in the same colony is no different. Cooped up in a 20-by-30 feet house, he was running a power loom unit and worked hard to feed the four member family. Along with him, his two children and wife share the same room, with two doors on just one side, where they cook, eat, study, watch TV and sleep. They only step out to use to toilet.
Since the lockdown was imposed, his machines are silent and the family is forced to eat boiled salted rice with chili.
Just like Akhtari Begum and Reyaz, there are around 1.75 lakh people dependent on 45,000 small-scale power looms, operating out of home, rooms or unorganised small workshops.
Those who were working in the big power loom workshops and earn Rs 250 to Rs 300 for a 12-hour a day have become jobless. They too, are on the verge of starvation.
"The power loom owners, workers who have been trying to cope up with the disastrous notebandi and flawed Goods and Services Tax (GST) has been facing another challenge of starving and disconnection of power," Ramesh Kumar Kochar, member of Burhanpur Power Loom Bunker Association told The Logical Indian.
Burhanpur emerged as a hub of power loom manufacturers in 1990 and manufactured cloths export to foreign countries including China. The business was thriving and booming since 2008 when the BJP-ruled state government hiked the rate of electricity from Rs 2 to Rs 4.61 a unit. Demonetization and introduction of GST further deteriorated the business, as a result of which, thousands of power loom units had shut after 2016.
Above all, the biggest threat looming before the power loom workers during the lockdown is disconnection of electricity. 80 per cent of the power loom owners run their machines in small, dark rooms or in hall and live in the one corner of the same room with their families. In such situation, the electricity is their dire need and they can't survive without it.
"We used to get electricity on subside rate Rs 2 per unit. But as the BJP rose to power in 2008, the Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan lifted the subsidy and since then we are paying half of our earnings on the electricity bills," Reyaz Ahmad Ansari, President, Burhanpur Power Loom Bunker Association, said, pointing at the high electricity tariffs.
"Lock down is the need of the hour to curb the rapidly increasing COVID-19 pandemic, but, the state government should also think about the power loom workers in such a difficult situation. They are already ran out of ration, food and money, I such a situation, when they direly need food, how they can pay the heavy power bills?" Reyaz asked.
Demanding waiver of two months electricity bills of power loom workers, Reyaz said, "When their is no work, power loom workers are eating salted boiled rice to survive, ran out of money and food, the government should forgo their electricity bill of at least two months."
"I have dashed off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan requesting waiver of two months electricity bills of power loom workers and small owners, but, received no reply till date," Ansari added.
Kanhaiya Mittal, district president of Madhya Pradesh power loom bunkar association insisted that "thrive this power loom industry, the state government should provide subsided electricity and declare special economic zone to Burhanpura. We have been demanding subsidized electricity for a decade, but, neither our MLAs, MP ever raised this issue nor the State government paid any heed to our demands."
When contacted, Collector Burhanpur Rajesh Koul said, "Forgoing power bill is beyond the limitations of the district admin. Only CM can do that since there is no power minister in the state."
It is worth mentioning that, till date, no COVID-19 case has been reported in Burhanpur, according to the District Collector. Around 50 blood samples have been collected but no one has reported positive for the virus.