By Charmi Saujani
The pandemic and lockdown have affected everyone in our country in different ways. The government gave orders to provide relief measures in various possible ways. However, while the government recognised the formal sectors of the economy the urban poor/ working classes were left in a lurch. The informal sector makes up 90% of India’s workforce and more than 40% of the economy which is now pushed into a crisis. With an aim to highlight the government orders aimed specifically at providing relief measures to informal sector workers during the lockdown, Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS) prepared a report which is a combination of primary (Government circulars and affected community testimonies) and secondary data (opinions and experiences of sector experts on the ground).
The report provides a National Level Analysis of the central government orders providing relief to informal sector workers during the COVID -19 lockdown.
Of the 175 national orders only 27 orders were directly related to urban poor and marginal groups, and with regards to informal sector workers only 12 were relevant.
Numerous orders, action plans and circulars issued by governments and departments weren’t always ideal and thus, had flaws -
The circulars were particularly silent on the issue of inclusion. The intersectionality of their labour and marginality has been ignored in the central and most state circulars.
Ad Hoc and unplanned implementation of the lockdown
The lack of focus on Lives & Livelihoods which was crucial as it wasn’t primarily a health crisis considering the economic realities of our country.
A lack of coordination between the government departments led to difficulties in gaining easy access to information for citizens.
The state responses revealed a deep rooted problem of labelling various urban deprived and marginalised sections as one – ‘migrant’, ‘urban poor’ entity.
The report is divided into 5 sections, each with focus on specific informal sector worker groups namely - construction workers, street vendors, waste-pickers, domestic workers and homeless persons.
Construction workers - There are more than 6 crore construction workers in India, out of which only 3.5 crore are registered with different Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) boards across the country. Intra-state migrant workers that constitute up to 50% of the workforce don’t benefit from local services and entitlements, and are further marginalised. Only 10 out of 30 States and UT’s have specifically announced cash transfers for (registered) construction workers to facilitate some liquid cash urgently required for their survival during the lockdown.
Street vendors - According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), there are approximately 10 million street vendors in India, counting their families and dependants, this is a population size of almost 50 million (5 crore) directly reliant on street vending and street hawkers. Only Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh have expressly clarified that there is no restriction on the sale of vegetables and fruits (considered essential items) during the lockdown and that these vendors have the right to practice their livelihood, maintaining social distancing guidelines, without interference from the police. In Karnataka, there was a specific order to waive off loans.
Informal waste pickers - There are around 1.5 million to 4 million waste pickers in India, who deal with 62 million tonnes of waste generated annually. Most waste pickers belong to the social and economic deprived caste and are already on the margins of existence. In our fight the pandemic they are at the frontline of managing our waste and are extremely vulnerable to contracting this virus. In situations where the Municipality and Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) are not supporting them financially, they are not only losing their livelihood but in the absence of any other support, are spiralling into a situation of hunger and deprivation.
Domestic Workers - According to the International Labour Organisation, there are over five crore domestic workers in India and nearly 90% of domestic workers in India are women or children, ranging from ages 12 to 75 and around 25% among them are below the age of 14. This group has no legal and social protection and a large majority of domestic workers remain outside the purview of labour laws even today. Only Meghalaya Government took firm action and announced that employers were refrained from eviction of domestic workers during lockdown and violation will result in penal action.
Homeless - According to the Census 2011, there are 1.77 million homeless people in India. The Supreme Court estimated that 1% of urban India is homeless and requires state support for shelter. Multiple studies confirm a strong caste correlation for homelessness on the streets. Moreover, the homeless remain out of state welfare support and safety nets and more than 78% of the homeless are not receiving any entitlements from the Government. During the lockdown, it seemed that the Centre and States largely turned a blind eye to the homeless whose 82% is a part of the working population. Seven states ensure some form of provision of ration for ‘card holders’ which might benefit the homeless. However, no state has any mention on livelihood restoration for the homeless. On the bright side, there are five states, including Bihar and Delhi, focusing on identifying new shelters for the homeless
The voices from the ground provide practical narratives on the implementation of the relief measures and the gaps therein.
Policy Recommendations for a way forward are provided in this report. In the immediate measures, the first one is the provision of emergency financial relief to the informal sector workers for lost wages & livelihood and ensure free basic services. Developing a National Action Plan for COVID - 19 to avoid any ad-hoc decisions and confusions is crucial. To gradually allow the informal sector workforce to continue their livelihoods in a regulated and controlled manner, the relevant ministries need to draft guidelines in advance and share it with states who may wish to adopt them in their contexts. The Union government should bring out detailed guidelines on inclusion of marginal population groups to promote inclusion. All the orders and continuous information should be recorded in a database as an effort to collate information digitally and disseminate. Lastly, initiating training for informal sector workers suited to post-COVID scenario or even skill up-gradation of workers to newly identified needs and jobs.
Medium term measures include forming cooperatives or similar groups to withstand the crisis better than individual workers, an urban livelihood scheme where workers may be enrolled and given a minimum wage for the work being executed, activating welfare boards and worker centric institutions and increasing shelters and food provisioning centres for the informal sector workers.
Long term measures - The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that there are major discussions required around the National Disaster Management act, its implementation and its intersection with the urban poor and marginal groups so reviewing NDMA and its implementation would be really important. Formalisation and recognition of the informal sector and urban marginal groups can be seen as the major long term goal to avoid the recurrence of what happened to the informal sector workers in this crisis. This is an opportune moment to rethink about inclusiveness, and how to make our cities more resilient and cognisant of all population groups.