The Precarity Needs To Be Addressed With Utmost Priority

The much hullaballoo created by the government of providing relief to the people also is a myth. Most of the workers received no cash, transport, food or shelter assistance from any source during the lockdown.

The Precarity needs to be addressed with utmost priority

  Picture Courtesy: The Indian Express

The Covid pandemic has been a disaster to the people especially to the marginalized sections in the society. The informal sector workers were the hardest hit. The pandemic and the lockdown have exposed the hollowness of the system and has substantiated that there are no green shoots of sustainability. The initial data released immediately after the lockdown by the CMIE (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy) suggested massive loss of employment. The unemployment rate had almost reached 28 per cent. Similarly the lockdown and the immediate movement of the workers back to their place of origin(reverse migration) brought in the worst apathetic character and face of the ‘Indian State’. The workers commented; “We will live on salt but will not return back to the cities.” The willingness to work fell from 72 per cent to almost 38 per cent as pointed out by the CMIE.

The government kept on saying that it is managing the pandemic in one of the best forms in the world. Slowly and slowly with the rise in cases and India coming to number one position in daily reported cases of Covid since August 1 has further exposed the mismanagement by the government. Meanwhile the precarity in the system in sustaining the present path of development has been thoroughly exposed by a recent survey done. Though there have been many surveys and assessments, this one done with a large database of 11,537, through primary data collection is one of the best empirical studies done in the recent past. This study which was done during the pandemic period exhibits the stark reality which many had pointed out right at the inception. The survey was conducted by a team of Action Aid India. The study was done mostly on informal sector workers who were interviewed during the reverse migration process.

Livelihoods and wages loss: More than 78 per cent of the workers lost their livelihood and there was a major reduction in the intensity of work. Before the lockdown a vast majority of the workers worked above 40 hours a week and a third of them worked over 50 hours. After the lockdown over 66 per cent workers reported zero hours a week. Over 48 per cent did not receive wages after the lockdown and 17 per cent received partial wages.

Social stratifications: Nearly 63 per cent of informal workers migrated for employment. The social composition of the workers shows that 15 per cent of them belong to Scheduled Tribes and 39 per cent are Scheduled Castes, which is higher than their proportion in their composition of the country’s population. The labour market is reinforcing employment of marginalized communities in low wage low productivity sectors and constraining the prospects of marginalized communities for upward mobility.

Housing remains a distant dream: Only 13 per cent of the workers had a rent agreement and merely eight per cent have a patta to their name. A majority of the migrant workers live in rented housing-55 per cent, while 9 per cent were given housing by their employer and another eight per cent lived in some form of community housing. Most of the migrant workers lived with six to 10 people and shared one toilet and one room. Nearly 60 per cent of the workers had to vacate their housing because of loss of livelihood and their inability to pay rent. This exhibits the reality in our cities and how unsustainable the city development process is. The demand for rental public housing and labour hostels is one of the foremost one to ensure that the migrant workers are able to retain their habitat.

Little savings and high debts: Nearly 55 per cent of the workers already had outstanding debts before the lockdown that further increased during the lockdown. Out of them, 83 per cent lost their livelihoods after the lockdown adding to the precarity of the situation. Around 60 per cent of the workers borrowed money again to meet living costs and expenses for family emergencies and health care during lockdown. Thus the noose of a debt trap gets further tightened. Nearly 95 per cent of the workers had little or no savings to survive.

Lack of assistance: The much hullaballoo created by the government of providing relief to the people also is a myth. Most of the workers received no cash, transport, food or shelter assistance from any source during the lockdown. Nearly 79 per cent received no cash assistance, 44 per cent received no food assistance and 85 per cent did not receive any shelter assistance. More than 55 per cent of the migrant workers reported that they were stranded for over a month, 70 per cent of the migrants did not receive any transport assistance.

Even the assistance which was a mere, was provided mainly by non governmental agencies. The State was missing in this entire period of crisis. It is not a big surprise that the central government in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court stated that of all the assistance in the country, Kerala state alone comprised 65 per cent. This shows utter lackadaisical attitude of the central and other state governments. As far as assistance in cooked and dry food is concerned 44 per cent of the workers did not get any assistance. To the remaining who got some assistance the share of the government is just 30 per cent; and 70 per cent of the assistance was provided either by NGOs, trade unions, self help groups etc.

Similarly providing shelter during the lockdown was hardly seen. 85 per cent of the workers did not get any assistance for shelter. The government provided shelter to only 5 per cent, trade unions-3.5 per cent, NGOs- 5 per cent, SHG’s -3.5 per cent and employers- 5 per cent. This clearly shows the role of the government, which in fact was to completely shed from its responsibility.

Likewise for cash assistance; 78 per cent of the workers did not get any help. Only 10.8 per cent got help from the government, trade unions -3.2 per cent, NGOs-4.5 per cent, SHGs-4.56 per cent.

In terms of transport for migrant workers who were going back to their homes, more than 73 per cent did not get any help. The government provided relief only to 10 per cent and the remaining by trade unions, NGO’s and SHG’s.

The entitlements also did not reach out to all the workers, neither the migrant nor the non-migrant workers. 52 per cent of the workers received rations under the PDS. 60 per cent of non-migrant workers were able to access rations under PDS as compared to only 44 per cent of migrant workers. People with AAY(antodaya ann yojana) cards- nearly 60 per cent were able to access rations; but only 44 per cent of migrant workers with AAY cards had access to ration. For the ICDS only 24 per cent were able to access the benefits.

This in all explains the sorry state of affairs during the lockdown in the country. All these entitlements were supposed to reach out to every worker; however the data reveals that more than 70 per cent have been left out.

No legislation for informal workers: It is also a reality that more than 90 per cent informal workers do not have a written employment contract and hence do not come under the ambit of any legislation. This lack of legal recognition deprives millions of workers of any entitlements and rights.

Low access to healthcare: only 28 per cent of the workers were able to access public healthcare during the lockdown. Nearly 44 per cent of the people who migrate for work have said that they do not want to come back to their destination places of work and would stay behind in their native places.

This interesting study and a report has pointed out at the grave injustices being experienced by the people and especially the migrant workers during the pandemic and the lockdown. This report has also reinforced the larger engagement of the people vis-a-vis the State; the one which is trying to further shed its responsibility in the interest of the corporate and crony capitalists. The changes brought in labour laws, abject drive for privatization of resources and the amendments being brought in the EIA will further accentuate this divide of inequity amongst the people. The whole issue of decent work in a city instead of just “ease of doing business” must be brought to the fore. The working people shall have to engage in a far greater role to ensure that “decent and dignified work cities” call is re-imagined to sustain their livelihood and the cities per se.

Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla and Advisor to Samruddha Bharat Foundation.