If Kiran Chavan is home for more than a week, it is a sign of trouble. This time, he was home for two years.
Chavan, 22, spends more than 300 days a year at jatras, or village fairs, where he sells costume jewellery and children’s toys. These fairs provide an income for millions of everyday landless people in India, who are predominantly from the marginalised castes that have been exploited for centuries.
Chavan’s annual fair routine of nine years was disrupted when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown on 24 March 2020 to curb the spread of Covid-19, giving people just four hours’ notice. Later, it was extended to 67 days. As a result, 121 million Indians lost their jobs within a month and several district administrators stopped village fairs from being held.
This forced Chavan, a resident of Turchi village in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, to work as an agricultural labourer. However, farming work didn’t come often because of untimely rain. Then came the July 2021 floods and, combined with multiple Covid lockdowns, an agrarian disaster was at hand. “I got work for two days a week earning a mere Rs200 for 10 hours of work. How can you survive on it?” he asks about the R40 a day he was paid.
“If you are born in this caste, you spend your entire life away from home because you don’t have a home,” he says of the caste divide that runs deep in Indian society. Chavan belongs to the Gopal caste, which is listed as a nomadic tribe. His community is known for producing trapeze artists who perform stunts on ropes that are about 9m long and strung between two poles. The rope is about 3m off the ground and the performers hold a heavy stick for balance.
This livelihood still exists today and trapeze artists travel thousands of kilometres from their villages to perform in towns and cities, although the number of performers has dwindled. “In the hope of a better life, I never practised this skill and started travelling with my parents to sell things in the village fairs from the age of 10.”
Everyone in his extended family of 10 is in the same line of business and dependent on village fairs. After a two-year hiatus, the local civic body of Jambhali village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district got permission to organise a fair on 1 and 2 January. But Chavan’s sigh of relief didn’t last long.
India registered more than 800 000 Covid cases between 7 and 11 January, with the positivity rate soaring to 25.65% for capital city New Delhi and a national average of 10.64% on 11 January. Several state governments began announcing restrictions such as a nightly curfew and strict curbs on public gatherings, including fairs. “Yet again, the village fairs won’t be allowed for several months now,” says Chavan.
A cultural legacy
Starting in January, villages across Maharashtra organise their annual village fair that runs for two to three days in honour of the local deity or dargah (shrine or tomb) of the pir (spiritual guide). For the village fair, people buy new clothes, prepare mutton from goat’s meat and invite friends and relatives. Several marriages are also fixed during this time.
“It’s a festival of rural people,” says farmer Narayan Gaikwad, 74. Competitions such as open-air clay wrestling, cart racing with bullocks and horse racing are held in several villages. Theatre and folk song performances from renowned rural artists run late into the evening and early morning.
Sellers traverse hundreds of kilometres to sell toys, jewellery, handbags, posters of deities, cosmetics, food, footwear, books, balloons, apparel and household items, while games like giant wheels, jumping castles, merry-go-rounds and paddle boats are installed on an open field in the village.
Gaikwad, who has spent his entire life in Jambhali, says his village fair “has a history of over 150 years, and it wasn’t cancelled even in the 1972-1973 drought”. That drought was one of the most devastating of the previous century, affecting more than 20 million people – 57% of rural Maharashtra.
A few days before Modi announced the lockdown, Chavan took out a loan of Rs250 000 (about R52 500) from five moneylenders to buy goods for the fair. “Had the government informed beforehand about the lockdown, I wouldn’t have spent so much,” he says. Now, Chavan has to face the moneylenders’ debt collectors repeatedly. “How will I repay if there’s no fair?”
Shahnaz Nadaf, 54, a resident of Maharashtra’s Kabnur village, faces a similar situation. “This was the first fair I attended after two years, but I’ve never seen such an unexciting response from the people in the past three decades,” she says. “People are fearful of buying new things because the government can declare a lockdown any time.” This uncertainty has decimated rural livelihoods, forcing people to take out informal loans.
Indebted and overwhelmed
The same story is playing out across rural India. It prompted seller Deepak Mane, 50, to form a union. “In Kolhapur district alone, we unionised over 750 sellers, and 90% of them are indebted,” he says.
“In the past two years, I’ve now lost count of the letters we wrote to local administrators, district collector, chief minister and even the central government appealing to restart the fairs.” After several protests, he says that a few officials suggested selling toys and jewellery in the vegetable markets. “Who will buy toys or jewellery in a vegetable market?”
Mane, who took a loan of Rs30 000 from a co-operative in 2020, says his repayment amount doubled because of fees for lateness and interest rates. “We don’t even have a place to stay. How will we keep so much stock safely? Moreover, several sellers had to discard their stock because of rodent attacks.”
“I have never seen such a crisis,” says Nadaf, who has been travelling to fairs since the age of 21. She is tired of changing her occupation, having worked as an agricultural labourer and a maid, and done odd jobs in local factories – none of which paid well. “The government doesn’t even know we exist,” she says angrily.
Before lockdown, Nadaf travelled to more than 50 fairs a year, covering thousands of kilometres and earning Rs3 000 at each fair. “The government can freely host election rallies gathering tens of thousands of people, arrange pilgrimage, but they remember Covid restrictions only when it comes to poor people,” she says fiercely. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party permitted the religious Kumbh Mela, the largest Hindu pilgrimage, in April 2021. Nine million people attended, in violation of Covid protocols. After the Kumbh, the home state Uttarakhand registered a 1 800% increase in Covid cases.
Nadaf worries about affording her diabetes and hypertension medicine, which costs Rs500 a month. And she hasn’t paid the rent on her house for a year. “We pay whatever we have. The landlord is kind enough, but the debt keeps mounting.” She owes Rs350 000 and it will take her roughly 30 000 hours of back-breaking work in the fields over 300 days to clear it. “If there’s another lockdown, we’ll all die.”
Another unschooled generation
Channappa Bahurupi never took his children to the fairs. “I don’t want my children to enter this occupation where you have to sleep and eat on the roadside throughout the year,” he says. “This is a life of curse and misery.”
However, Covid changed everything for the Bahurupi family. He was forced to take his younger daughter to the fairs to help him sell posters. “We couldn’t afford e-learning, and now I am worried about her education,” he says. The Maharashtra government ordered all schools and colleges to close until 15 February, then under mounting pressure told schools to reopen on 24 January. Seventy percent of rural India lacked an internet connection until March 2020, highlighting how structural inequalities snowballed into a crisis for marginalised children, forcing them to abandon their schooling.
Shabana Khan, 35, who has been running jumping castle games for a decade, says her optimism has failed her. She kept her jumping castle for longer than planned and the springs malfunctioned. “Had I sold my trampoline [jumping castle] a year ago, it would have at least fetched me 50% of the price. In the second half of 2021, I sold the trampoline [jumping castle] for scrap, getting only Rs1 800.”
When she heard there was a possibility of the fairs resuming, she bought a new one for Rs30 000. In the meantime, her husband Aslam was forced to sell his two-wheel vehicle to make ends meet and Khan took a loan of Rs200 000 from a women’s self-help group.
With mounting debt, sellers fear their children dropping out of school. Chavan’s two-year-old daughter also accompanied him to the Jambhali fair. “None from my family ever went to school. And with no fairs, we won’t have money to send the next generation to school either,” says his wife Sapna.
“People say that we earn a lot at fairs. Had we been earning so much, why would we sleep on roads?” she asks. Despite the village’s permission, setting up stalls in Jambhali wasn’t easy for the sellers. “Last month, I heard the local police had confiscated items of several sellers in a fair because of Covid restrictions.” Chavan checks his phone constantly for updates. “Every phone call induces fear. What if it’s my turn now?”