Balu Jadhav usually journeys through 60 villages 300 days a year, selling toys and artificial jewelry in India’s “jatras,” or rural village fairs.
So if Jadhav travels less than 1,000 miles a year, that’s a sign of distress.
“In the past two years, I covered only 150 miles,” he said.
His two-decade-long routine was broken in March 2020 when far-right Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to curb a pandemic caused by COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. The lockdown was extended to 67 days, causing 121 million people to lose their jobs within the first month. Yet, with this lockdown, India couldn’t contain the coronavirus. Meanwhile, because case numbers ebbed and flowed for two years, district administrators banned fairs.
With a history of over 150 years, these fairs remain an important source of income for marginalized people. In Jadhav’s home state of Maharashtra, located on India’s Arabian Sea coast, almost every village hosts an annual fair for a couple of days. Jatras are held in reverence of local deities. Rural vendors sell a variety of items, including toys, posters of regional deities, local books, footwear, artificial jewelry, balloons and household items. “A fair is like a festival and a holiday season for rural people,” said Gangabai, Jadhav’s wife. “Everyone prepares good food, dresses up and relatives from different villages attend the fair.”
With no option for selling goods, the Jadhavs were forced to work in 10 other occupations. They labored as farmworkers and masons, and in factories, but nothing helped them earn enough to survive. “There was no regular work because COVID devastated the rural economy,” she said.
The 2022 World Inequality Report states India is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Oxfam’s Inequality Kills report mentions, “The wealth of the 10 richest men has doubled, while the incomes of 99 percent of humanity are worse off, because of COVID-19.” Further, it found that a new billionaire was created every 26 hours since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, millions like Jadhav could barely find 26 hours of work per month during the peak of the pandemic.
After two years, local administrators in the village of Jambhali in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district were permitted to arrange a fair that would be held January 1-2. Unfortunately, while the Jadhavs assumed it would help them sail, it was far from reality.
With rising coronavirus cases in January, reporting as high as 347,254 cases one day, several COVID restrictions were implemented again.
“We earned about 3,000 rupees ($40) from every fair before the pandemic. Now we are finding it difficult even to recover the transportation cost,” Balu Jadhav said. “Ever since COVID, people have stopped spending money because of dwindling wages.”
Hundreds of vendors in the Kolhapur district protested several times outside the local administrator’s office, demanding revocation of the ban on fairs. “Despite writing hundreds of letters, nothing concretized,” Jadhav said.
Anusuya Chavan, who lives in the same village as the Jadhav family, is in her mid-40s and sells toys. “This occupation forced us to never send the children to school, and with COVID, there’s no possibility that four of my children will ever see the school.” Her children, all below 18, are busy looking for work. “Earlier, we took loans to support our business, but now we are forced to take loans for eating food twice a day. It’s that bad.” Chavan has 13 members in her joint family and is in $670 debt. Her husband, Yuvraj, 50, has spent four decades traveling to sell at fairs. “My entire life has gone sleeping on roads,” he said. “But with lockdowns and curfews, we don’t even have roads on which to sleep.”
Vendors rely on informal loans to buy items to sell and pay them off immediately after fairs. “The moneylenders send their goons for collection, and we always pay on time,” Yuvraj said. However, with no sales, several vendors have been caught in debts of at least $3,350 each. High interest-rate fees have caused those debts to amass.
Meanwhile, fear, anger and frustration pile up, with another generation missing out on obtaining an education. That leaves Jadhav to vent.
“Even our children will have to live the same cursed life now.”
Sanket Jain is an independent journalist based in the Kolhapur district of the western Indian state of Maharashtra. He was a 2019 People’s Archive of Rural India fellow, for which he documented vanishing art forms in the Indian countryside. He has written for Baffler, Progressive Magazine, Counterpunch, Byline Times, The National, Popula, Media Co-op, Indian Express and several other publications.