Reopening economy means little for a cobbler
Before Covid-19, Yusuf used to earn on average Tk2,000-3,000 weekly
It was unlike any other day in front of the capital's shopping destination Bashundhara City shopping mall. It was a Tuesday afternoon when all the markets of that area were closed due to their weekly holiday.
That is why I was hoping to catch a cobbler near the Farmgate area. Instead, I saw a middle-aged man just in front of the shopping complex sitting with a grim face, having no work at hand.
I quickly realised judging his mood from a distance was a mistake as he answered me with a big smile when I asked, "Mama, ektu kotha koiben naki?" (Can I talk to you for a minute?)
"Kon apa, ki koiben!" (Yes, tell me what you want to ask.)
"How many shoes have you mended today?"
"Today, I suppose 12-15. I have been sitting here for like six hours now. But there are not many customers today."
But the condition was not exceptionally bad that day. Rather, it has been like this for over three months now, even after reopening the economy.
So, this is Yusuf Ali, who has been living in Dhaka for over 15 years and has settled in this location as a cobbler for five years now.
"Before, my struggle was to escape the eyes of the police. I was always in fear of being ousted from the footpath. But now, even police do not drive us away because very few people come here."
Before the Covid-19 situation, Yusuf used to earn on average Tk2,000-3,000 weekly. But now returning home with Tk500 at the end of the day is considered a good day.
According to the Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2016-17 of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, out of a total of 60.83 million employed labourers in the country, 85.1 percent (51.7 million) work in the informal sector.
According to Yusuf, offices have started their operations, but people are still afraid of the virus. The income of a cobbler depends on the number of people coming out of their homes. As a result, they are starving most of the days as people prefer not to commute to public places.
Another statistic of Bangladesh Economic Association (BEA) said nearly 36 million people lost their jobs during the first 66 days of the countrywide shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although the government took multiple initiatives, including direct cash support, those did not seem to really have much effect on their drowning condition.
"I have suffered immensely during the lockdown apajan. There was no work at all. Even when I tried sitting somewhere, the police used to chase us away. I have a four-member family to feed. What could I do? My wife used to work at houses as a domestic worker, but she also got fired as the buildings prohibited her from letting in," Yusuf said.
Just then, a customer came in, pushing his feet on Yusuf's counter for shoe polishing. His eyes were glazing in happiness of getting another customer after two hours.
After the customer left, he turned towards me and said, "Nowadays, customers also do not want to pay much for just a shoe. But sometimes, a few generous people pay a little extra, feeling pity for our condition."
During the shutdown, a huge number of people left the capital, but Yusuf did not have that choice. Since the age of 17, Dhaka is all he has known. He made his life here, living in a small home in Mohammadpur with his mother, wife, and a daughter.
"My father had a small land in the village but that has been grabbed by the relatives of the local chairman. We have nowhere to go. Dhaka is my home now."
How did he survive then? I was instantly curious to know.
In his reply, Yusuf said with a smile, "Surviving is always hard for us apa. We managed to survive with my wife's savings. I took some loan and thankfully our landlord is a kind person who did not throw us out like many others."
But I could not understand his smile. When I asked about it, he replied, "I am an optimistic person apa. At the end of the day, the faces of my family members, especially that of my daughter, make me immensely content. They give me the strength to fight."
"Before all of these, I used to take something home for my daughter every other day – a candy, a ribbon, or a toy. But now I cannot afford it anymore. It gives me a great deal of pain," he added while his face was growing pale.
People say laughter is contagious. So is sadness, I guess.
On account of the sun setting down, I closed my notebook, leaving with a hope that Yusuf gets to bring gifts for his daughter very soon.
And may he stay this positive and happy amidst all the outcries and hardships during this dire situation.