‘We have had to beg for food’: Dholak makers in Lucknow fail to hit a profitable note

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When you step into Mehboob Ali’s house, you can’t help but feel the dejection. The floor of his house is crooked, the paint of the walls peel at the slightest touch, the doors are damaged, which had been replaced after taking a loan from a neighbour. His house can come crashing down and his please for repairs have fallen on deaf ears.

Mehboob Ali and his family, who live in a government colony in Vasant Kunj near Dubagga in Lucknow, make and sell dholaks for a living. Like Mehboob Ali there are many families who make dholaks, there are others who make sil-battas (grinding stones), mops, and some even sell carpets.

The Coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have brought Ali’s life to a grinding halt. “We sold dholaks all across Lucknow and to the neighbouring towns such as Kanpur, Jhansi, Katibagiya and many more. How will we survive if we can’t travel and sell dholaks?” says Raunak Ali, Mehboob’s son.

Dholaks lying in Mehboob Ali's house, where the roof is on the verge of caving in. Image Credit: Priyansh Tripathi

The art of making dholaks has been passed down for generations in these families. “My entire family is invested in making them, so our family’s livelihood solely depends on us selling these dholaks,” explains Mehboob, adding, “We buy the raw material on loan from local moneylenders at high interest rates. We then make the dholaks at home and my son then takes them to other towns. He returns home only after he’s sold all of them, which could mean that sometimes he doesn’t return for weeks.”

“However, due to the lockdown, we can’t travel and sell our dholaks.”

Talking about the making of the dholaks, Raunak says that they source material like leather, ropes, nets and threads from his cousins in Delhi and each piece lands up costing Rs 1,200. However, they are hardly able to make a profit of Rs 100 on each piece. A hard bargain and their own desperation means they end up agreeing to whatever price they are offered.

The pandemic, especially the last two months, have been really hard for the residents of this colony. As one of them said, “There was hardly any food to feed our children and we have had to beg for flour and rice from home to home.”

The residents also allege that there’s been no help from the government and they have been left to languish in their own suffering. “The local pradhans have been allotted funds and ration, but they don’t distribute to us and pocket it for themselves,” says another resident, Akhtar Ali.

A broken dholak chokes a drain running along one of the houses in the government colony in Vasant Kunj. Resident complain that the government does nothing to help them. Image Credit: Priyansh Tripathi

Residents say that food is just one of their problems; they also have to contend with Covid-19 itself. Even though the number of coronavirus cases surged in Lucknow during the second wave, residents of the colony had little or no means to cope with the virus. They had no access to tests, hospitals, medicines, vaccinations or even awareness.
Families live in crammed houses, which means quarantine and social distancing is out of the question. Further, there is vaccine hesitancy in the area owing to the general lack of education.

“We have no idea what corona is, what corona looks or feels like. Even if we contract it in the future or we already had it in the past, we know nothing about it. There are no medicines, no medical regulations, precautions here. Well-off people don’t even pass by our colony. No one likes talking to us. It’s like we are outcasts,” chips in Raunak Ali.

Even the government seems to not take any notice of them. “The sanitation workers never clean the place. Even if someone does turn up, they do a half-hearted job of it,” complains Mohd Naseeb, another resident of the colony.

For these residents, living has been a constant hardship, but a recent food drive provided them with some relief. Through Mission Sanjeevani, Oxfam India along with the NGO Badlav, Commutiny – The Youth Collective, and the Yeh Ek Soch Foundation, dry ration and safety kids were distributed to 600 of the most marginalized and vulnerable families in the colony. The dry ration kit included rice, pulses, and oil, to meet the needs of a family of five for a month.

Oxfam volunteers hand out dry ration and safety kits to the residents of the colony. Image Credit: Priyansh Tripathi

The crowd that swelled in a matter of minutes at the registration and the long lines at the distribution centre spoke volumes of the plight of the residents of this government colony.

A teary-eyed Akhtar Ali said, “Please help us so that we can raise our children at least.”

For the people at this government colony in Dubagga, the future is a haze unless the government steps in to better their situation.

— The writer is a social worker by profession and a documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. He has keen interests in issues related to gender, livelihood, sexual rights and reproductive health, and human rights.

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