The section of the society that is most commonly affected by a catastrophe is the people working in the unorganised sector. Without any legal structure in place to address their issues, it becomes extremely difficult for them to avail any government benefits. What is their condition during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic? Who is taking care of their safety and what is being done to help them survive?
It was only in January 2020 that the Government of India decided to work on creating a centralised record of all those employed in the informal sector and the migrant workers. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the task, which was supposed to take atleast a year to complete, was stalled completely. It was only after the completion of this centralised database that the government would have been able to work on relief measures, economic and financial provisions and sector-specific labour laws for the informal and migrant-labour sector. The onset and spread of the pandemic did not only stall a chance for these workers to finally get help from the government but worsened their survival conditions, being highly vulnerable to being affected by the coronavirus.
The reality of the informally employed
Due to the lockdown, most shops, factories and offices have been shut. Along with this, all modes of privately-owned public transport and unregulated sellers have been banned from functioning. These include rickshaw pullers, drivers of e-rickshaws, buses and autos and, vegetable sellers, among others. Without work, these people have no means of income till the lockdown is lifted. With no income and no long-term relief efforts being undertaken by either the state or the central government, it obviously becomes even moredifficult forthese people to survive the pandemic.
Ravi, a rickshaw puller in South-West Delhi, said that since the government is not allowing them to work, they are unable to earn and without money, they can’t buy food for their family. “It is getting very difficult. Even the owner of our house is threatening to throw us out if we do not pay the rent. Our hands are tied,” he said.While talking to Maya, a house-helper in South Delhi, we got to know that she has not been able to work since the past two months due to the lockdown and like Ravi, she too is facing similar problems in providing sustenance for her family. She said, “We could go back to our village but we have no surety that we will be safe there. Moreover, we do not know if we will be allowed or if the mode of transport will be safe for us and our children.”
Maya went on to tell us that a few policemen come over to their colony ever few days and try to counsel those living on rent to move back to their villages. She explains with a heavy heart that the pandemic has left their future uncertain, unsure of whether they will be able to work again and earn enough to feed their families three meals a day, or will they even be able to survive the pandemic in the first place.
What is being done?
The central and state governments are taking various measures in order to ease the difficulty that the nationwide lockdown is causing to various groups of the population.
The central government, in close coordination with the state governments, introduced the Shramik Special trains for those who are unable to earn and want to return to their hometowns/villages during the lockdown. This decision was taken by the government after nearly 100 migrant workers and informal sector workers died in accidents or starved to death while walking long distances to reach their villages. Nevertheless, the government took action and was able to introduce the special train service. The trains have already transported more than 1 million passengers and are still continuing their journey between states.
The Delhi government is preparing and serving nearly 9 lakh free meals daily to various unauthorised colonies in Delhi NCR. The food is being prepared in all government schools across Delhi and is being distributed either at the school gates or by designated delivery personnel to various colonies. Every day, these delivery personnel make two rounds, one in the afternoon and one late in the evening, to deliver food to the those who are unable to earn during this time. The ones most prominently falling in this category are the informal sector workers. Other state governments, like the Kerala Government, have taken similar initiatives.
Maya expressed her relief and said that it is because of such deliveries that her family is able to survive with a full stomach. However, it has come to the attention of the authorities that in many places, the same food is being cooked and served daily and that the ones responsible for cooking the meals are not adhering to the weekly menu set by the state government. A volunteer working in the Delhi government ‘community kitchens’ told Urban Update that contractors are sometimes trying to save money by cooking with raw items from the day before and cooking the same dishes two-three days in a row. While the Delhi government is trying its best to avoid such a thing from happening by strictly monitoring what is being cooked and served daily to the people, it is clearly not being entirely successful.
In addition to this, the central and Delhi government had also promised that a fixed monthly income would be given to the informal sector workers till the time their jobs are resumed and they start earning again. However, both the governments were unclear on the timeline that will be followed for the distribution of such compensations. Moreover, a report released by the International LabourOrganisation titled ‘COVID-19 and the World of Work (second edition)’ stated that 90 per cent of the Indian workforce or 400 million workers that are employed in the informal sector in India are at an extremely high risk of being pushed deeper into the crisis of poverty due to the lockdown. This is because the lockdown in India is at the high end of the University of Oxford’s Covid-19 Government Response Stringency Index. This means that the lockdown restrictions imposed in India are one of the strictest in the world and may lead to a massive economic fallout, despite any government measures being adopted. The informal sector will be the first and the worst-hit by such a fallout.
While most people in the world are more concerned about being affected by Covid-19, those employed in the informal sector in India have a lot more to worry about – an income, a place to live, food for their family, their safety and their health.