“It is the debt which kills the person”: Mobile livelihoods and long-lockdowns in Delhi

Published 11 March 2021 / By Bhawani Buswala

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This post is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum and appears on the PEAK Urban Blog.


Engaging with and examining the experience at the margins is essential to understanding the pandemic's differentiated impacts. Squatter settlements are a critical socio-spatial formation in cities where the virus and the state's response engender intricate challenges.

The case of Sohanlal, an e-rickshaw driver in Delhi, exemplifies how mobilities and labour relations are interlinked. It shows the complexities of how the pandemic has impacted "mobile livelihoods" in the city. The transport infrastructure and the labour that form and maintain it are critical for the functioning of the metropolis. Informal settlements in Delhi are vital in providing transport workers in the city. Many residents of Sohanlal's settlement are e-rickshaw drivers. Sohanlal, like his many co-residents, invested their limited means and modest aspirations in the informal transport sector. They are socially, spatially, and economically embedded in the city's diverse and interconnected mobilities.

How the pandemic impacts these embedded lives is where we learn the long-durational material and symbolic effects of coronavirus.

"If only coronavirus had started two months later," Sohanlal noted in a conversation in early October. "I paid all my kishts [instalments] on time. Only two kishts were left to be paid, and I could not do it." The lockdown in the city disrupted his demand, but till that point, timely payment of the monthly instalments of the loan for his e-rickshaw. For him, the impact of the virus was primarily experienced through his e-rickshaw.

In early 2019, Sohanlal bought an e-rickshaw through a private finance company in the city. The cost of an e-rickshaw can exceed 100,000 INR (£1000).

"I had some money to make the initial payment, and the rest I got from the company." 90000 INR was the amount financed by the company. "So, I had to pay a 7500 INR (£80) monthly instalment for 15 months."

"Work harder," he committed himself. His mandate for the immediate months became to pay the instalment on time each month. "I wanted to make my e-rickshaw loan-free," he would emphasize.

The initial announcement of the national lockdown in the country led to a massive movement of people from big cities to their home districts in different parts of India. The squatter settlements in Delhi saw a treacherous exodus of migrant residents back to their home states. In Sohanlal's payment, half of the people left for their homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. However, Sohanlal and his wife Kajal decided to stay in the city. "We could not have left our e-rickshaw here and gone. And neither could we have taken it with us to our village," Sohanlal explained as he noted the dilemma that the security of the e-rickshaw posed. The e-rickshaw was their treasure, but its safekeeping also became an encumbrance restricting their ability to return to their place near Lucknow.

Sohanlal resolved the issue by saying: "If we have to die, it does not matter if we die in our village or we die here in the city."

He stopped taking his e-rickshaw out for work entirely. Inside the settlement, the e-rickshaw posed another challenge: parking. In the times before the pandemic, he would drive the e-rickshaw during the day, and then during the night, he would park it in a garage for overnight battery charging. Another resident of the settlement runs this charging garage.

The daily rate for the garage is 50 INR (£0.50). However, due to the lockdown, Sohanlal could not afford this daily charge. Therefore, he had to store his e-rickshaw at an unsafe open site near his shanty. He locked his rickshaw there with additional chains. Also, fearing theft, he disconnected and removed the battery from the e-rickshaw and stored it safely inside his shanty.

After unlocking the city, when he finally felt confident to resume working and decided to take his e-rickshaw out again, he was dealt a significant blow: the battery was damaged beyond recovery.

The loss of the battery of his e-rickshaw shattered Sohanlal's remaining hope. To buy a new battery would cost another 30,000 INR (£300), and he did not have any source for such funds ("From where I will get this kind of money"). Therefore, the e-rickshaw remained parked near his shanty, and the dead battery remained stored in his shanty.

Sohanlal used to work as a waste picker in the city. For him, the dream of an e-rickshaw was an aspiration of some material improvement and dignity. Sohanlal has returned to where he had started: recovering recyclables from the city's waste. But he now also has additional debts from the loan that are slowly increasing.

In informal settlements, I often hear people explaining untimely deaths by saying, "It is the debt which kills the person." The financialization of poverty has shown us how debt and death conjugate.

The transport sector workers in the city were severely affected by the lockdown. In May, the Delhi government announced a 5000 INR (£50) one-time financial assistance to each e-rickshaw driver in the city. I inquired if he had applied for the assistance. "I do not have the documents," Sohanlal replied. The critical documentary obstacle which Sohanlal reported was his lack of a Permanent Driving Licence. He started driving the e-rickshaw on a Learner's Licence. He is an expert and safe driver but lacks a formal licence. To my inquiry about his issue of not applying for a permanent licence after the learner's license, he replied with a hint of anger, "There are so many fees and people whom I need to pay for these things. Should I run my home or pay all these fees?" For Sohanlal, he needed to pay his monthly loan instalments on time. Conversations with him suggested that he had planned to apply for a permanent licence after paying off the loans for his e-rickshaw.

For Sohanlal, the economic mobility he had hoped for and briefly experienced through his e-rickshaw got entangled in a different lockdown. The city started to unlock. But, his e-rickshaw was chained up, the battery was dead, and the debt was becoming heavy—a lockdown whose temporality and scope went beyond the formal state-ordained national lockdowns.

A long lockdown.

Bhawani Buswala is a Post-Doctoral Researcher on the PEAK Urban Programme. His project is Experiencing the State: Informality, Social Inequality, and Spatial Relations in urban India.