Malegaon: Mushtaq Shaikh has done something consistently over the past three months that not many in India have been able to: He has been going to work. A worker at a power loom in Malegaon--250 km northeast of Mumbai--Shaikh, 44, is gradually getting back on his feet.

“Our employers looked after us for the first three or four months [of the pandemic],” he told IndiaSpend on a recent September day, standing on the dimly lit, noisy, power loom floor. “The power looms opened up more than three months ago [some units opened in the first week of June and some in the third week of June]. We have been regularly getting work since.”

Malegaon’s 250,000 power looms employ about 150,000 labourers, with each working at three-four power looms, said Ilyas Yusuf, 52, chairperson of the town’s power loom union. “None of them have been laid off,” he said. “We follow the safety protocols of physical distancing. The labourers wash their hands regularly. But the important thing is all of them are back at work.”

Both the informal sector and the salaried class have been severely hit ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24, to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The unemployment rate that stood at 7.6% in mid-March “catapulted” to 23.8% by the end of the month, wrote Mahesh Vyas of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a Mumbai-based independent think-tank. “The unemployment rate in April 2020 turned out to be 23.5%,” he added. “The labour participation rate fell from 41.9% in March 2020 to 35.6% in April 2020.”

Among white-collar workers, 12.2 million were employed during May-August 2020, which is a sharp decline from 18.8 million from the same time a year ago, Vyas said in another study in September. (Read our interviews with Vyas here and here). Malegaon stands as a successful outlier.

Workforce local, and looked after

“I get Rs 400 for working at the power loom for 12 hours,” said Shaikh. “I have two sons. Both of them work at power looms.” When the lockdown happened, three of the family’s earners suddenly had no work. “It was a scary period. We had no clue how we would survive,” he said.

Shaikh said he was grateful that his employers did not abandon him. “They paid us some money and ensured we got food,” he said. “The post-lockdown period was not as bad as we had imagined.” The government, however, should have done more for informal workers, he said.

Imran Ahmed, 34, who has been a power loom worker for five years, recounted a similar experience. “I am grateful to my employer and relatives for looking after us during the lockdown,” he said. To be helpless and at the mercy of others would be humiliating, he said, which is why he was happy that work had restarted. “You want to be able to look after your own family,” he said.

None of the labourers working at power looms in Malegaon are migrant workers, said Yusuf, the union’s chairperson. “This town runs on the back of local labour,” he said. “About one-fourth of the 600,000 residents of the town work at power looms. There is a certain familiarity between the labourers and their employers.”

Because of that familiarity, the workers here did not have to experience the apathy most others faced in different parts of the country. “The workers are locals, so it was also easier to restart power looms,” said Yusuf. “The town produced 2 crore [20 million] metres of cloth on a daily basis before the lockdown. We are back to operating at full capacity.”

The production of masks has kept the looms busy, said Shaikh. “Plus, we have been making bed sheets for hospitals, shrouds for funerals,” he said. “The local demand for garments has kept us afloat so far.”

The town of Malegaon is divided into two halves--one dominated by Hindus, the other by Muslims. Its economy revolves around its power looms, said Yusuf. “The Muslim-dominated side of the town has most of the power looms, which is where the labourers live,” he said. “The Hindu-dominated side is slightly more affluent. It has all the garment shops. Both are financially dependent on each other. The functioning of the power looms is essential for the survival of the town.”

Fighting misinformation, allaying communal fears

The relative stability in Malegaon, though, has been hard earned. When municipal corporation officials conducted door-to-door check-ups during the initial phase of the pandemic, Muslim residents thought the government was trying to get their details for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)--the two controversial bills introduced by the central government that sparked protests across the country, which critics have termed discriminatory against Indian Muslims. The town had seen intense protests, and residents had vowed to not show any documents at the time.

So the corporation’s survey met with non-cooperation. “Residents were scared,” said Nitin Kapadnis, deputy commissioner of the corporation. “But we had to continue with our work. We had to win people’s trust.”

Ever since the riots of 2001, the town has been communally sensitive. The already uphill task became even more difficult towards the end of March when authorities in Delhi found a congregation of 2,000 people in the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat in the Nizamuddin area, which turned out to be a COVID-19 hotspot. The event triggered a campaign seeking to vilify Muslims for the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Malegaon became rife with rumours and communally sensitive content on social media, said Dattatray Kathepuri, public relations officer, Malegaon Municipal Corporation. “We distributed over 50,000 pamphlets, sent out over 100,000 messages daily to the people of Malegaon,” he said. “We used social media to negate the rumours and hate messages on social media.”

Besides, another rumour had spread in Malegaon about a hospital, said Kathepuri. “The rumour was that patients are being killed off by an injection in that hospital. Nobody was willing to get admitted there.”

Therefore, the turnaround had to happen quickly, for Malegaon--with a density of 19,000 people per sq km--had become a hotspot of the novel coronavirus in April, with a doubling rate of two days, said Kapadnis.

To counter the misinformation, the municipal corporation teamed up with local religious leaders. “At least thrice a day, loudspeakers on top of mosques would carry an awareness message around coronavirus,” said Kapadnis.

The distribution of pamphlets, and local religious leaders’ intervention, helped calm down people’s nerves, said Yusuf. “I was constantly in touch with the labourers and their families,” he said. “As the awareness increased, they warmed up to officials conducting door-to-door surveys. The more educated people [from among the Muslims] also joined in to create awareness in the community.”

Until then, however, the team of officials, private practitioners and ASHA workers (accredited social health activists) conducting door-to-door surveys to track potential cases faced the ire of a hostile citizenry, recounted ASHA worker Ratna Mhasde. “People abused us, some of them said we should be infected with coronavirus,” she said. “Some of our people were even assaulted while they were at work. Such was the panic and rumour mongering.”

Paid Rs 2,000 a month, Mhasde said ASHA workers were terrified of contracting the virus as well as of how residents of Malegaon would treat them. “We had to ask questions regarding their travel history and health issues. People would find those questions intrusive,” she said, “Upon being asked his name, one resident said ‘Narendra Modi’. But we had to persevere.”

Not all hunky-dory

The perseverance has paid off, Kapadnis said. “The doubling rate of two days reached 110 days by the end of May,” he said. “The cases have been rising everywhere. But our current doubling rate of 60 as of mid-September is still manageable.”

By September 15, the total number of COVID-19 patients in Malegaon was just over 3,200 and the number of deaths stood at 118, according to the data in official records shown to us by the deputy commissioner.

But locals believe the actual numbers are higher. Two of the main cemeteries in Malegaon recorded 592 deaths in April 2020 (IndiaSpend checked the registers maintained at the two cemeteries). In April 2019, that number was 197, pointing to a 200% increase this year. In May 2020, the two cemeteries saw 386 deaths, while the number was 252 in May 2019--a 53% rise this year.

Many of these deaths happened because people with existing health conditions did not get timely attention, said Pramod Sawant, a journalist based in Malegaon. “Everything was concentrated on coronavirus,” he said. “But most of them were not tested for coronavirus after they died. So they are recorded as non-COVID deaths. But many of them may well have been infected with COVID-19. We do not know. The situation in April and May was scary. Today, it is much better.”

What next for Malegaon’s power looms?

Though operating regularly for the past two months, Malegaon’s power looms could face trouble if the other textile hubs in India do not open up soon. “We cannot depend on local demand forever,” said Yusuf. “Once we process the cloth here, we export it to Mumbai, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Gujarat and so on. That is a significant chunk of our business. But because most of these places operate on the backs of migrant labour, unlike us, they are struggling right now. The labourers who went back to their villages have not returned yet. So there is no demand.”

The period post November is critical for the power looms of Malegaon, said Yusuf. “That is when you have the festivities and weddings,” he said. “It would be a huge loss for us if things do not get better in other parts of the country. But we are taking it one week at a time. At least the situation right now is somewhat better than what it is in the rest of India.”

(Parth is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

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