A Swiggy rider. A white-collar executive at a multinational company (MNC). A migrant worker.
They reside on different sides of the social spectrum. Different experiences and socio-cultural realities shape their thoughts. But they had something in common over the past year: they viewed the world through the prism of the pandemic, like everybody else on this planet did.
The context of Covid-19 was a constant for them. But what about their learnings? As India observes the first anniversary of the imposition of an unprecedented lockdown, here’s what they said:
Of confidence, self-discovery
Deepa Singh, 30, a resident of the southern fringes of Kolkata, remembers the Prime Minister’s appeal to the nation to observe a ‘Janata Curfew’ on March 22. A new recruit at Swiggy, she was en route to complete her deliveries when people were banging utensils and blowing conch shells. Then came the lockdown on March 25.
Barely three weeks into the job, Singh was gripped by uncertainties, yet again.
During the initial days of the curbs, there was confusion over a host of factors: if riders will need official documents certifying that they are allowed to operate, and if they will get delivery orders at all with several eateries shutting down and people sitting at home trying to minimise contact with the outside world.
But Singh fought on.
“I already had my own scooty. I got a message with a link saying Swiggy was looking for delivery partners and that one could work as per his/her convenience. So I decided to give it a try. I didn’t know then that this job would be our only saving grace during the pandemic,” she says over phone.
Singh had been planning to do something on her own to augment her family’s income. It was on March 3 that she enrolled as a delivery partner after a failed business attempt at selling nighties and lingerie.
Singh remembers she too was initially apprehensive about venturing out. But, she says, her company assured her that all preventive measures will be taken for her safety; she was given a mask, sanitiser and gloves, and was briefed about how a contact-less delivery would be. She reported to work by 8am, and tried
clocking in at least 15-20 deliveries per day. Deliveries dropped initially, but then picked up slowly, she says.
With her husband’s income and Singh’s new job, life was stabilising. Then came another blow. Like hundreds and thousands across the globe, her husband too lost his job because of the pandemic. That left Singh as the only person with income in the family of three members. The couple has an eight-year-old daughter.
The small, aspirational family was in deep waters. The couple had EMI to pay for their little apartment and submit school fees of their daughter.
“We were used to living on the salary of my husband…there is a big difference in that (her husband’s salary) and what I make as a delivery partner. After a few months, my husband too became a delivery partner. We managed to restart my daughter’s online classes. I never imagined that delivering people their food would satisfy my own hunger too,” Singh says.
She has become an inspiration in her locality. Taking a cue from her, six other women have enrolled as delivery partners. At times, Singh meets them for a cup of tea before heading back to her home at Mollargate.
In January, her husband got another job. But Singh says she will continue to with her job.
“The pandemic has taught me to stand on my own feet. I was born and raised in Kolkata, but I wouldn’t have known its nooks and corners like how I do now. This job has made me an expert on Kolkata’s roads. When strangers ask me for directions, they think I know it all. That makes me proud,” she signs off.
Of adjustments and grit
Bharat Kumar (name changed)*, a 38-year-old IT professional in Bengaluru, has a high-pressure job. An engineer, he is in a senior position and leads a team of 35. Ever since the pandemic gripped in India — and work from home (WFH) became the order of the day — Kumar finds himself glued to his workstation at home or in his bedroom with his laptop, as the line between professional and personal lives often get blurred.
While working from home has its comforts, it has also come at a psychological cost — of increased stress and pressure — for many. Also, days often become longer in order to ensure remote working doesn’t affect performance and output, Kumar says.
Kumar’s office gave him a Rs 22,000 reimbursement for setting up a ‘home office’, and made sure he has uninterrupted high-speed WiFi connectivity and an ergonomic chair, just like the one in his office. Facilities were never a problem for Kumar during the pandemic. But smooth communication and work-life balance are.
“I have learned to be more empathetic (in managing a team), but at the same time I have to make sure that whatever has been promised to clients can be delivered. All this while not letting my colleagues take me for granted,” he says.
More than his time in office, what he misses are his journeys to and from home. “…it (45 minutes, to be precise) was my dedicated time to think, and it created this notion of checking in and out of work. But with WFH, that boundary has got diminished as there is no start and end time. So I have to be very conscious about a time frame. My days get fragmented; it’s not like I’m doing more work, but it just feels like the day is stretched,” he says.
With the pandemic fatigue setting in, big companies, which have thousands of employees spread across various states, are contemplating getting back to office gradually.
“We are currently conducting surveys to gauge whether people want to get back to work. However, whenever we do that, as a company policy, we will still be working with only 50% of the strength. The sense we are getting is that people want to get back to office. However, the pandemic is far from over,” Kumar says, lending credence to the argument that Covid-19 will permanently change workplaces.
The one lesson he has learnt in the past year, Kumar says, is that everything is possible when there is a purpose. “People would have laughed at the concept of work from home, and it would never be approved. But here we are, making products and even delivering them on schedule. The grit of getting things done what I experienced first-hand.”
*He spoke on condition of anonymity
Life goes on
Yogesh Sahani, a 20-year-old resident of Uttar Pradesh, was eager to get back to work. He was in Bengaluru when the pandemic hit. And like thousands of others, he gathered whatever he had in order to pay for his train ticket back home in May. At that time, only special trains ferrying migrant workers were operating. Everything was shut due to the lockdown.
Sahani was among that faceless crowd, jostling to get a berth with no job in an alien city. He was just another of the thousands whose plight made national headlines.
While leaving the city, little did he know he would be desperate to return — and would in fact come back — within six months. The return, he says, was driven by the same factor that brought him to this tech hub for the first time: hunger.
“I tried to work in our fields for six months along with my brothers, but that wasn’t enough…There were 23 of us who had come to Bengaluru for work, but now only 4 of us have returned…there aren’t enough jobs. I have taken up work as a painter now. The company has given us a room temporarily so I’m trying to manage,” he says.
Sahani, who dropped out in Class 6, is holed up in his makeshift room at a construction site in Peenya in North Bengaluru. With a daily wage of Rs 600, he says he is happy.
Sahani says a small piece of land and uncertainty over the crop meant that he was only an added liability to his family, justifying his decision to return.
So what did he learn from his journey from Bengaluru to Siddharthnagar and back? “I am grateful that I still have a job…For us, life goes on.”