If we work, we get to eat. That’s our daily life. We buy scrap iron, paying up to Rs 30 a kilo, shape it into pots and pans and sell them at Rs 40 a kilo,” says 25-year-old Shankar Singh, sitting outside his tin shed tenement at Ghatkesar, 20 km east of Hyderabad. Singh’s measly monthly earnings of about Rs 9,000 had started to dwindle ever since he suffered an injury in February, and came to an abrupt end once the lockdown began.
Singh, his wife and four children are among the 4,183 poor Sikhligar families, mostly migrant blacksmiths, scattered across Telangana who make a living out of hammering iron sheets into utensils or, at best, take up rudimentary welding and fabrication jobs.
The Sikhligars trace their ancestry in the Deccan to those who travelled with Sikh Guru Gobind Singh to Nanded in Maharashtra and those who had turned Lohgarh (at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab) into a Sikh armoury. They were in great demand for making spears, swords, shields and arrows.
Now, Sikhligar families barely make ends meet. Being nomadic in nature, they are often found squatting on government or private land on the outskirts of towns and villages. With no identity/ address proofs, they get deprived of food security through the public distribution system.
Extending a helping hand to this vulnerable section is the Telangana Sikh Society (TSS). Since the beginning of the lockdown, the TSS has sent out teams from its network of 45 gurdwaras to 194 places across 33 districts to supply the Sikhligars daily essentials, 10 kilos of rice, five kilos of wheat flour, a litre of edible oil, a kilo each of pulses, sugar, salt and besan, milk, chillies, spices and soaps. Wherever groceries could not be sent, the TSS arranged for a cash grant of Rs 1, 000 to each family. “We have reached every Sikhligar family twice, thanks to our sevadars who travelled from Hyderabad or the gurdwaras in the districts. A third round of seva is on the cards,” says Tejdeep Kaur Menon, TSS president and former DG, Telangana Special Protection Force.
The TSS was founded as a registered society in 2018 and has 346 members. It has spent Rs 65 lakh so far on the rations distributed to the Sikhligars. TSS members have also contributed funds, apart from volunteering to travel. The group is also serving cooked meals to Sikhligar habitations and to migrants gathered at other places within a 125 km radius of Hyderabad.
The TSS has also been supplying medicines to these communities and shifting those in need of emergency care to hospitals and arranging for their treatment through the chief minister’s relief fund and donations from others. While their efforts have drawn appreciation, Ranjit Singh, a TSS volunteer from Telangana’s Luxettipet, sums up the harsh reality: “While the TSS’s assistance to those below the poverty line is welcome, education is the only way to pull future generations out of poverty.”