Anshula Mehta and Ritika Gupta

Findings of a telephonic-survey conducted by interviewing 3,121 citymakers’ households across 50 plus cities of the country from May 7 to May 17, 2020 were shared by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. Results of the survey were discussed at an International Webinar on May 27, 2020 conducted by IMPRI in association with College of Design, Construction and Planning, University of Florida, USA. Over 1500 people including research scholars from reputed institutions participated in the Web Policy Talk event from across India and USA, UK, China, Germany, Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia, Mexico, Canada, Bangladesh and other countries.

The study reported that eight out of ten casual daily wage labourers and six out of ten salaried workers were unemployed or lost their jobs during due to closure of business/construction activities. The study reported that six out of ten respondents were unaware that congestion was a major constraint in ensuring social distancing and hygiene and safety practices could prevent the transmission of virus.

More than 50% of the respondents were worried about losing work and were anxious and apprehensive about how they would feed their families. The study revealed that six out of ten respondents demanded free ration after the lockdown ends; while eight out ten respondents suggested that they would resume work after the lockdown ends. Most respondents stated that the coverage of different government schemes was far from being universal and that lack of awareness and eligibility were two major impediments.

The study suggested key policy takeaways and stressed on the need for collecting and analyzing local periodic data for pandemic preparedness and response. A new urban agenda focusing on dynamic urban planning processes and empowering the city governments along with urban job assurance programme is a need of the hour as a longer-term policy option to address the looming economic crisis.

Speaking on the occasion, Prof Wendy Olsen (University of Manchester, UK) articulated that extremely localised solutions are needed for catering to the needs of the CityMakers who comprise over 140 million workers. According to her, the need for free ration, advance wages and assured food supply for each were essential to alleviate the sufferings of the people. Insisting on “a true political will”, she stressed on health insurance, basic amenities and coordination between local governments, adding, urban local bodies should be strengthened with requisite funds and local capacity.

Sandeep Chachra (Executive Director, ActionAid India) expressed that while providing immediate solutions the long outstanding call of informal workers, decent wages and workers’ rights should not be diluted, especially because these rights were gained following years of labour struggles. He asserted, labour laws cannot go to abeyance, neither should one undermine social security and protection.

Prof Ruth Steiner (University of Florida, USA) noted, “A large section of Indian population is usually ignored from the policy challenges when a nation is shutdown. How do we take note of the way they meet their basic amenities? We need to understand the importance of public transport to access goods and services and draw lessons for the future”. 

Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI, said, “Government programmes like the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) are being harnessed to provide intermittent relief to the poor. However, per person allocation of monetary support is very low, and for schemes like ‘Thalinomics’ (for ensuring a balanced diet) to succeed, assured assistance of around Rs 2,000 per month per person is needed. Essentially, assistance of a $ a day and an android phone for using AarogyaSetu app to the all the poor citizens should be ensured to fight this pandemic with nutrition, well-being and technology. It is expected from the government to act as the guardian and ensure that welfare schemes become accessible for all.”

Dr Balwant Singh Mehta, Research Director, IMPRI and Dr Simi Mehta, CEO & Editorial Director, IMPRI, the study coordinators, stated, “The study findings show that urban informal workers were mainly engaged in low paid casual daily wage work and self-employment activities such as street vendors, and only a few were involved in salaried jobs. Therefore, the lockdown has had a huge impact on their livelihood as six out of ten workers have lost their livelihood.”

However, they noted, “The most interesting part is- over three-fourths of them reported that they will resume the work once the lockdown is lifted. They argued that in case of any such adversities in future, adequate measures need to be kept handy.” They emphatically argued that “Relief measures must be provided on a war footing keeping in minds the prevailing realities and understanding how stressful the situation becomes for all, especially the lives and livelihood of the CityMakers.”

Assistant coordinators and senior researchers Anshula Mehta and Ritika Gupta (IMPRI) remarked that the study reflects “unprecedented sufferings, anxieties and perceptions of the CityMakers during COVID-19 and lockdown in a candid manner. They revealed ground-level stories and realities often not captured in any other survey. The study presents ample scope for taking corrective measures through evidence-based governance in both short and the long term.”

Other major participants in the webinar included well-known scholars like Prof Chris Silver (Chair for the Webinar) and Dr Abhinav Alakshendra, University of Florida, USA, and Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhay, Senior Fellow, IMPRI and Associate Professor, Viswa Bharati University, Shanti Niketan.

YouTube Video of International Webinar- IMPRI CIDP UF Web Policy Talk Life in the Era of COVID 19 Impact Lockdown CityMakers:

National Webinar

A follow up National Level Webinar was also organized on May 30, 2020, where reputed researchers and relevant stakeholders from across the country participated and contributed to the deliberations. The event was chaired by Dr M Ramachandran, former Secretary, MoUD, GoI, who highlighted the importance of slums and informal settlements, which have been ignored during the pandemic, because schemes like AMRUT, Smart Cities Mission and Swachh Bharat Mission, Ayushman Bharat and PM Awas Yojana have not been translated into practice. Announcement of affordable rental housing is a welcome move, and it is needed that we move towards decentralization policy, which enables the ward and neighborhood area sabhas to become strong. This will be the true 21st century Swaraj.

Renowned scholar Prof. Govind Kelkar highlighted the issues of gender justice during lockdown, increased incidences of domestic abuse and unpaid care work and importance of clean cooking fuel. She added that this period many workers had literally become beggars for food in the cities and the complete spectrum of dignity of humankind seems to be compromised.

Mr Sameer Unhale, Commissioner of Ulhasnagar in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region recounted his experiences during the last two months and stressed on the need to focus on real issues of critical care (ventilators) and critical care, improving recovery rate and two avoid sensational news to avoid public reactions. He exhorted the public and community support to work in tandem with the administration during such crises.

Dr Manorama Bakshi, Senior Adviser Tata Trusts, called for the need of increased digital access, and expressed concerns on how the government schools and their children could be impacted with increased dropout rates because of the absence of remedial classes.

Dr Indu Prakash Singh, renowned social activist highlighted that CityMakers have been ‘ditched’ during the lockdown by the country’s system despite 70 years of its existence. He exemplified the sound initiatives taken by the Delhi government in doing much for alleviating the sufferings of the citymakers.

Prof. Utpal De of North Eastern Hill University mentioned the demand and supply constraints and market inefficiencies especially in backward and hilly regions owing to the transport and infrastructure impediments created by lockdown.

Prof. I.C. Awasthi Secretary of Indian Society for Labour Economics (ISLE) and Indian Association of Social Science Institutions (IASSI) concluded the event by distributing the certificates to student researchers, and thanked the reputed academic partner and local field volunteers without whose support the study could not have been possible.