Withering Thankfulness and Generosity to the Informal Workforce of India

Simi Mehta, Balwant Mehta and Arjun Kumar

If the sight and plight of the parent walking with his ten-month old infant on his shoulders for over 100 kilometers does not shake you from the comfort of your lockdown, one can doubt the iota of humanity left in you. If the predicament of tens of thousands of migrant workers- now jobless, shelterless, hungry, thirsty, helpless and yearning to return to their villages amid the rapidly proliferating coronavirus disease (COVID-19) does not receive your empathy, your opportunism is well-established.

Seemingly the authorities’ conscience has not been stirred up as there are instances of ever-growing police brutality against innocent citizens. Sadly, this is happening in the land of Mahatma Gandhi, who gave his talisman: Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her].The last time that Prime Minister (PM) Modi invoked his conscience along with Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman was on November 4, 2019, while announcing India’s refusal to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

While announcing the Delhi lockdown (March 23, 2020)- a day before the PM’s announcement of the nationwide lockdown (March 24, 2020), the Chief Minister highlighted that, “if anyone goes out on the streets, an explanation would be sought from them and their reason would be trusted. No violence would be meted upon them. But for those who would be ascertained to be roaming out of their homes for no reason, strict action would be taken against them”.Any such assurances could not be heard from the PM.

Interestingly, the sudden concern that arose in the heart of the PM to safeguard the citizens from COVID-19through a lockdown seems to have developed only after around 50 days of the first case reported in the country (January 30, 2020). Everything seemed to be business-as-usual during this intervening period: the steadfast ‘collector’ arrogance of the bureaucracy to dismiss the initial COVID-19 cases as one-offs. Sadly, the swiftness exhibited in tweeting/wishing speedy recovery for PM of United Kingdom from the disease has not yet been demonstrated for Indians.It was only after India had reported 194 cases, that on March 19, 2020, did our PM address the nation and spoke of COVID-19 as a challenge.

Each passing hour or even less, all smart phone users receive relentless information, photographs and videos about the challenges of the poor and the viciousness of those ‘supposed’ to protect the people. Amid the prevailing threat and agony of COVID-19, the afflictions of the voiceless poor are being compounded, where some are being brutally beaten up, some are being tortured with sit-ups, and others are being punished by other novel ideas of violence. Those spiritually-starved souls enjoying such scenes of thrashing, caning and police cruelty are oblivious to the fact that the coronavirus does not discriminate like they do, on the basis of caste, creed, religion, place of birth, etc.

Heart breaking photos and videos of migrants- both women and men, infant, children, young and old desperate for money, food, water and transportation are surfacing. For instance, we have witnessed distressing video of a young boy inconsolable asking for food and wish to return to his village; police humiliation meted out to a group of men with their heavy bags tied on their back and made to hop and crawl, and in another instance another group of men were forced to roll on the roads; helpless family without money and enough food deciding to walk 400 km from Delhi to Badaun (in Uttar Pradesh); unabashed corporal punishment on the streets, and several others. If these instances continue unabated, then even if COVID-19 does not kill them, the sheer insensitivity and barbarism of the authorities definitely will.

If the authorities have become thankless to the extent to forget the contribution of the informal workers towards the growth of the Indian economy, here are some insights: India’s labour market is dominated by informal employment with 90%total workers involved in informal work for their livelihood. In number, the informal workers stand at 42.4 crores out of total 47.1 crores workers in 2017-18,and contributed almost 50% to the national income as per a Confederation of Indian Industries’ report. The level of urbanisation has increased from 27.8 % in 2001 to 32 per cent in 2011, which must have gone up to over 35% by 2020.

The rise in urbanisation is a consequence of demographic explosion and poverty induced rural-urban migration. As per the estimates of the Economic Survey 2017, the magnitude of inter-state migration in India was 90 lakhs annually between 2011 to 2016, while total number of internal migration was about 13.9 core. If this trend continues, the total migrants would be around 21.1 crore by 2020. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the two biggest source state closely followed by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal. On the other hand, the main destinations states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

Most migrants had migrated for livelihood were involved in low paying informal work in urban destinations in sectors such as construction, hotel, textile, manufacturing, transportation, services, domestic work etc. Lacking any social or income security, they are not only despised by their employers but also by the political class, as they hardly translate into votes. With their livelihood in a lurch because of the lockdown and future uncertainties, no wonder they are forced to tread the long road to their home towns and villages on foot.

At this moment of crisis coupled with their enforced alienation from the cities, they might not even know if they are also carriers of the coronavirus. It can only be hoped that amid the glimpse of thousands walking alone or with families, children or lining up at shelters and bus stations, with no practical scope for social distancing, there is no body in the crowd who is infected. If it is otherwise, the time that India would become the new epicentre of the outbreak, is not far- thanks to our inept health systems and infrastructure.

The Union Government program- Deen Dayal Upadhyay National Urban Livelihood Mission (DDU-NULM), which could come to the rescue of these informal and migrant workers in the pandemic crisis suffers from several inherent challenges. For instance, the government has been mulling over the idea for the past year and a half to outsource the upkeep of Mission to funds from the CSRs and philanthropic institutions. This implicit failure of the government that led to the generation of such an idea is further amplified by hiring big private consultants as project monitoring units, having ‘corporate style target achievement attitude’.

Logging on to the website of Ministry of Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), Government of India at http://www.moud.in/ would reveal their enormous extent of blatant display of data concealing and tampering. Further, the inconsiderate approach of the authorities during times of economic slowdown when the migrant workers are the hardest hit, is imminent from the least increase in the budget allocation of DDU-NULM vis-à-vis the flagship schemes[1] of MoHUA. It was INR 750 crore (in 2019-20) and raised by only 6% to INR 795 crore in 2020-21. The deep-seated contentions in NULM does not stop here. Several private players and NGOs have been roped in to carry out different implementation functions for which they have tendered huge sums of money. The irony is that these agencies are bearing the brunt of graft and corruption in the bureaucratic system leading to deferred payments for months and years even after fulfilling their work assignments punctually. The complacency in the approach of the various projects sanctioned under DDU-NULM has remained without any independent third-party monitoring and evaluation.

For the governments who did their best to arrange special flights to and from across the world to bring back the well-off citizens to India, it is unfortunate that they have turned a blind eye to the migrant workers.This only represents the deep-rooted systemic contempt and neglect for the vulnerable and poor.

Though a delayed announcement, there is no denying that the national lockdown is the need of the hour. However, citing sanity and rationality behind the decision should have been accompanied with a well-crafted draft strategy for each and every section of this diverse country. Unfortunately, as time unfolded, there was no such strategy. However, while ordering everyone to stay at home during the lockdown period, the homeless and those would be rendered homeless by the shutting down of their sources of employment, seemed to have been forgotten.

As the country is bracing for an economic bloodbath with loss of millions of jobs and scramble for food and water for survival and the impending scorching summer,these migrant workers and citymakers would be the hardest hit once the infection starts to spread among them. The poverty and sufferings of all those dependent upon them will increase, the home isolation would be difficult to attain as they live in small houses with several family members, this will add to the burden of the already inept public health systems and ultimately impact the private and the public sector who rely on their services for their profits.

Some of the immediate and urgent steps for containing the spread of coronavirus any further saving the lives of the informal workers are:

  1. Work with various state governments to arrange state-wise and district-wise special sanitized trains and buses to send the workers to their respective homes. These means of transport must be equipped with non-perishable food items and water for the passengers.
  2. A pre-boarding health check-up must be done and those having any COVID-19 symptoms must be prohibited from travelling and referred to nearest government hospital.
  3. If the transport cannot be organized, decent accommodation with food, water and sanitation must be arranged. The hotels, guest houses, stadiums, etc. must be made available. Presently nobody’s using them anyways!
  4. Devise and implement an immediate monetary compensation plan through cash and direct incentives for the circular and seasonal migrant workers who have lost their jobs. This must be met on an urgent basis by at least tripling the budgetary allocation of DDU-NULM and immediate transfers.
  5. Expand the DDU-NULM component of Shelter of Urban Homeless (SUH) to meet the decent space and shelter requirements along with catering to the shelter needs of women, children, elderly, persons with disabilities;community kitchens; medical help; in-kind assistance through public distribution systems, water, toilets, etc. This must be developed keeping in mind that service level benchmarking standards to combat pandemics like COVID-19. This is not a daunting task and only requires passion and keennessofthe authorities, andthe vacant and unutilized properties can be harnessed for the purpose. Similar recommendation put forth by a 2020 study by IMPRI and Action Aid on the working and living conditions of the informal workers in Delhi and Ranchi and was implemented by the Government of Delhi.
  • In light of the worsening situation due to COVID-19, information and communication technology (ICT) and research and data analytics must be harnessed toand made to work in tandem with that of the government on a war footing to ensure comprehensive efforts being undertaken to test, trace, treat and combat the pandemic reaches all sections of the society, including the vulnerable and poor migrant workers. This approach will go a long way in ushering in B.R. Ambedkar’s egalitarian ethos in the country- upon which Constitution of India rests.

To conclude, as the predictability of life is increasingly being compromised, the virtuous unity of a decisive leadership, mass cooperation and mutual trust will win the fight against coronavirus and flatten the curve in India. It is high time for the educated Indians, those at the helm of the government, the private sector and the civil society organizations to stir up their sensitivity, generosity and gratefulness and arrange for a safe transit and compulsory 14-day quarantine of the migrant labourers to their respective homes. Testing times as that posed by COVID-19, which is also brewing with it a humanitarian crisis, will either solidify the trust of the people for the government or establish the narrative that the latter exists- not for them, but just to use them.

[1]Smart Cities Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Swachh Bharat Mission Urban, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana Housing for All by 2020, Metro, etc.

Read at: The Pioneer | Column analysis | Desperation and deprivation | Simi Mehta, Balwant Mehta and Arjun Kumar | March 31, 2020

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Read at: Counterview.net | Hurried lockdown ‘suggests’ exclusionary, adhoc approach towards CityMakers | Simi Mehta, Balwant Mehta and Arjun Kumar | April 10, 2020

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