This article is written by Vipasha Verma, from the National Law University, Odisha. This is an exhaustive article dealing with the unequal effects of the pandemic on society.
The COVID-19 pandemic has lashed India severely and the middle class isn’t the only target. There are millions in India impoverished and are overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of the ensuing suffering. The privileged Indian has been comfortable for too long with some of the deep inequalities in the planet. But with the pandemic, these fractures can lessen the survival probabilities and fragile livelihoods of the poor.
For the most vulnerable in the Indian social hierarchy, the current crisis has exposed certain fault lines and shown how it needs higher investment in the public sector and necessarily in public health. Social distancing in a divided society like India is vertical – along caste lines and class. The effect of the virus is more greatly obvious as a threat to the labourers and the miscellaneous workforce like the migrant workers, domestic workers and sanitation workers in urban areas.
While COVID 19 is blind to caste and class, it has certainly exposed the graded nature of our surroundings. In times like these, measures of health, nutrition and income support taken by the Union and state governments are greatly appreciated but we must also critically analyse the way they’ve handled the situation.
Issues unique to India
A thing that we’ve learned from the experiences of other countries such as China and South Korea is that lockdown as the first step in combat is the correct way to begin, that is especially the case when a country is incapable of handling a contagious disease of this scale. We must also realise that a lockdown is not enough and governments must understand the context these solutions originated in before importing them to their own country.
As per the Economic Survey 2018-19, almost 93 percent of the total workforce is in the informal sector with weak and barely-enforced minimum wage or social security measures. This part of the population had to go to work without any safety measures in place, while thousands of high-risk people from foreign countries were coming back. The lockdown had left them without jobs as the disease spread even more wildly. A Bengaluru garment shops response to this was to shut down all creche facilities as many women workers need a creche for them to continue to work, therefore rendering them with no other option than to leave the workforce. If paid leave was a security net that had been provided to these women, they wouldn’t have to leave.
Consider the specific case of domestic workers: Although there is uncertainty about the number of domestic workers in India, the most conservative government estimate is of more than 10 million and different sources in the media peg it to be around 90 million. Female domestic workers usually migrate from India’s least-developed regions, such as Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam.
To fully understand the vulnerability of this subset of the population, the following data is necessary. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, cases of violence on domestic workers have been on the rise year after year. There are only two laws in India that consider domestic help as workers — the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008, which is a social welfare scheme, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 which is aimed at protecting working women in general.
After the imposition of the lockdown, many domestic workers were kicked out and were left with no money or assistance. Paid leave was a phrase not even uttered in most homes. The glaring irony of the situation was that people who had once come to find jobs in the cities that provided them opportunities had to leave them so as to not die of starvation. This data has forced us to realise the glaring blame of this calamity: the government and the rich/middle class.
After two days of the lockdown had passed, the government had announced a relief package in two forms: cash transfers or direct benefit transfer (DBT) and food assistance. DBTs are sent to the banks of beneficiaries and the public distribution system rations were raised by five kilograms for wheat and rice per person per month for three months.
However, people have been excluded more from the PDS after the introduction of the Aadhar card. This package relies on the assumption that most poor have access to bank accounts. Yes, there has been a steady increase in the number of people who have bank accounts, from 53% in 2014 to 80% in 2017, the World Bank also reported that 48% of these people have made no transaction in these accounts in the past year.
Along with several flaws of the relief package announced by the Finance Ministry, the most worrying aspect of it is that migrant labourers (domestic workers among them) do not fit into these measures. These workers have temporarily migrated to their hometowns and do not have access to the PDS at their homes. The more accessible step would have been to make sure that rations were distributed at doorsteps and canteens were reopened to provide cooked meals to the people.
Economists have been responding to these government measures and also providing suggestions to the government at this time. The real question is: where are the employers of these workers? The destitute are the ones facing multiple threats at once: death due to the disease, starvation, and no medical accessibility. How has the employer force abandoned their staff so easily, so much so that they had to march to their hometowns and leave everything?
Could the answer lie in the composition of the middle class or rather middle classes? The upper castes are over-represented in the middle classes, according to a two-year-long survey conducted by Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS), Hindu high castes (HHCs), who are around 22 percent of the total population, hold 41 percent of the total wealth in the country, followed by Other Backward Classes (OBCs) which hold 31 percent of the wealth and are 36 percent of the total population. Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) are substantially underrepresented in the middle-class population. Interaction amongst social groups is overtaken by social division along caste lines, and this allows HHCs to overlook the needs of the lower castes.
As Tripti Lahiri’s Maid In India highlights, there was a 120 percent rise in domestic workers in India from 7.4 lakh in 1991 to 16.2 lakh in 2001 when liberalisation had completed a decade. Dalits and Adivasis were the most vulnerable of the whole population as they came from historically marginalised groups. In 2017, domestic workers at a posh housing complex in Mumbai went on strike to protest the residents’ attempts to standardise below-average payment. Workers demands were accepted after some time, but a few months later, all of the protesting women were sacked. This is not an isolated event being quoted here, but a testament to the role that the middle class plays in a crisis.
What if the middle class universally decided to give paid leave to its domestic workers and the labour employed in their shops and businesses? What if it offered the most basic help in terms of food, shelter, and money? What is public health ensured for people as a guarantee? What if domestic help unions were able to bargain for paid leaves? Thousands of workers would not be living on the edge of survival and deaths of many such people could have been avoided.
This has been given a lot of thought but never brought into practice. Struggles over the years have won us a lot of rights, some of them being the Right to Work and to Food, but even these are far from over. This disaster might not move the privileged to give them what’s rightfully theirs, but it may provide an incentive to the government to enact more safety nets. There is a direct threat to these people who do not have the option of working from home, do not have access to a good healthcare system or even have enough nutritious food to build up their immunity. Let’s not imagine going back to the old social order when all this is over.
Easier said than done
The plan of action seems easy on paper but the reality is that India has been in turmoil over the last months with its massive unorganised labour force of about 30 million migrant workers unable to reach home or stay where they are. The government implemented the lockdown without giving sufficient time on 24th March and had overlooked the issue of mass displacement of the migrant workforce, which moves around hundred of miles across India for a better life and opportunities.
This force is the backbone of the smooth functioning of India’s key sectors such as agriculture, and construction. They are also prevalent in other vocations such as painting, housekeeping, security, transportation and cooking. Factually, the unorganised workforce is involved in about 124 vocations and this is a whopping 93 percent of the employed in India. Therefore, in hindsight, for a workforce that has kept India ticking, the returns for them have been abhorrent. Though laws exist, the ground reality is that the families working in the informal sector have virtually no protection and get by through goodwill of employers or rely on survival skills. It’s not that their vulnerability has not been written about or publicised but governments have rarely taken a transformative step for reform.
During the lockdown, the migrants have pushed around with no shelter and necessities. Shelters created by the government and NGOs have come to their rescue. Despite this, around 6 lakh will be on the streets, walking hundreds of kilometres to reach home.
In contrast, the government’s efforts in organising aircraft for special lifting of a few hundred nationals stuck in countries like China, Italy, and Iran is questionable. Certainly, it is a kind gesture, however, why can’t the government similarly organise basic bus services for the transportation of migrant workers back to their homes?
Apart from economic inequality, friction between religious communities has come to the fore and disturbed the Covid-19 narrative, which points their fingers at the minority Muslim community for the disease spread. In New Delhi’s Nizamuddin Tablighi Jamaat Conference from March 13-15, a section of infected participants from abroad travelled across the country after the conference which caused a spike in positive corona cases a week later. A few hundred emerged pan India linked to this conference.
This jump gave enough basis for some groups to convert it into a communally-laced narrative. A section of the media and people weaponised the news to attack the Jamaat and blame the Muslim community for the increase in corona positive cases, overlooking the fact that rise was also attributed to non-Tablighi sources as well. Secular groups countered the narrative by pointing out that the Jamaat held the conference at a time when India had not imposed any lockdown and therefore, could not be blamed for not following any protocol. However, factions from the opposite end continued to wage war and spread their skewed version on social media.
The government has done little to douse the communal fire. Contrarily, the health ministry directly blamed the Jamaat meet for the spike in cases. Even though the police clarified that it had given permission to the Jamaat for holding the event, this does not seem to have caught on.
The direct result is that the situation has worsened for a country already reeling with a rise of communal tensions between sections of religious factions. Reports of creation of separate Covid-19 wards for the Muslim community patients, Muslim vegetable vendors being prevented from entering Hindu dominated areas, and attacks on health workers by Muslim residents have come in.
The lockdown is, therefore, at best, a mix of good and bad, and at worst, an impulsive decision that failed to account for a large section of vulnerable Indians. This has begged the question that whether the nationwide lockdown was required and if it was, was it needed to be done with more preparation. To make matters worse, a virus that does not see caste, religion, gender, is being used as a bigger monster with the potential to destroy an already fraught social cooperation when that is what is needed the most.
Experts of public health have been divided over whether this lockdown was absolutely the only option and implementable. It should have been anticipated that a nationwide lockdown would be possible for the rich and middle class with income stability, homes large enough to follow social distancing, health insurances, and a water supply. However, the justification for an option that disproportionately affects the ones who lack all of the above?
When the lockdown was ordered, did the government forget about the millions who work in the informal sector? Destitute people who have no work at home, who are circular migrants. These people are estimated to be around 100 million. These include the casual daily wage workers, self-employed such as rag pickers, rickshaw pullers, and street vendors.
Many among these earn enough to suffice food for themselves and their family marginally. Was the government expecting these people to starve voluntarily and abandon their children without food to prevent the spread of the disease? The situation is even more fearful for senior citizens and the disabled. The government also seems to forget about the thousands of men, women and children in cities whose only home is the pavement or the dirt patches under bridges.
We are urged by recorded phone messages to wash our hands regularly. However, we forget that millions live in slums without a proper water supply and they buy a pot of water which costs a fifth of their day’s earnings. This does not allow them to have the luxury of regular cleanliness. Similarly, advisory of ‘social distancing’ has been meted out. It’s a wonder how it will be feasible for families who crowd into narrow single rooms in slums and working-class tenements, the overcrowded unsanitary shelters where the homeless live without any other option, poor in beggars’ homes, prisoners in overcrowded jails.
Further, it’s necessary to consider the capacity of the health system. India’s investment in public health is one of the lowest in the world, and cities mostly lack any kind of primary public health services. According to Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, around two million people are served by one district hospital and may have to serve 20,000 patients, without proper resources such as beds, ventilators, and personnel. The rich and the middle class have given up on public health entirely, which has left the poor with subpar services.
The irony is that the disease has been brought in by people who can afford plane tickets who can access private health services, but leaving the poor with a virus that has devastated them and left them with no path to recovery. A stimulus package under ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ has been introduced by the central government which includes 5 kg grain a month for the next three months under PDS; 500 rupees per month for the next three months for women holding Jan Dhan Yojana accounts; three months’ pension in advance to nearly 3-crore widows, senior citizens, and differently-abled; and ₹2,000 more for MGNREGA workers. If you and I were told that we have to survive on just two days’ salary and 5 kg grain a month, with no health insurance, how would the future look?
Privileged groups in the society have started practising greater social distance between themselves and others around them. Existing hierarchical power structures in society is what was simply required to be widened, ones that are mostly based on caste and class. In most Indian homes, domestic workers are rarely allowed to sit on the household furniture or eat with the same utensils used by the members of the household.
Indian elites adopted measures of banning entry of part-time domestic workers into their residential complexes even before the lockdown. Employers’ long term legal obligations for their workers virtually does not exist since a majority of workers are in the unorganised informal sector and often on a temporary basis. Due to this crisis, many of the informal workers lost their jobs.
Hierarchical systems such as caste and class are based on the exploitation of marginalised groups in the Indian society. The caste system’s one fundamental aspect is untouchability. Cast and class hierarchies have always had a significant overlap in contemporary India, the lockdown has by default followed these divisions in Indian society. Therefore, vertical social distancing has become easier in such times of the pandemic.
However, horizontal social distancing – where people within the same caste or class distance from each other – will prove to be a difficult task for marginalised groups in the society. Even if there isn’t a crisis situation, the people in the lowest section of the society have little access to basic necessities and are at a higher risk of contracting diseases, often dwelling in overcrowded slums in Urban India or segregated by caste in the rural parts. Social distancing, thus becomes a luxury for millions of poor rather than just a civic duty.
Migrant workers face more difficulty as they live in congested slums which have no access to clean drinking water or toilets. They rely on daily wages. The sudden lockdown announcement in a massive country such as India, with a notice of only four hours, along with public transport suspension, stranded thousands of migrants in cities with such basic means of survival. Many began walking long distances to home.
The first week of lockdown saw 17 migrant workers and their relatives die trying to return home. With the borders sealed, reports of police brutality have come in where these people are beaten up by police deployed to secure the borders. On the contrary, legal action against thousands who took part in a procession on March 22 in cities like Ahmedabad, Gujarat, as well as Mumbai and Indore, was not taken. They showed support for the government after the one-day curfew, but flocked to streets hours before it was over. Neither has there been official condemnation of the chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. He took part in a pre-dawn religious ceremony in Ayodhya for the shifting of the statue of Lord Rama into the half-constructed new temple building.
Inequalities laid bare
The nationwide lockdown has served many purposes, but the biggest has been laying open the gaping inequalities for the world to see. According to data from the census of 2011-12, an estimated 21.9% Indians live below the poverty line. That’s a total of 29 Crore people. Recent analysis has suggested that the number could be slightly higher.
The swift decision taken by the government to enable a lockdown was appreciated. However, better implementation with a functional financial and social welfare plan should have been chalked out to deal with the coronavirus threat weeks before the sudden lockdown, instead of scrambling for it afterwards. The effectiveness of the welfare package of 1700 billion rupees is yet to be seen.
Strategies being used by the government show that it’s putting most of the responsibility on its citizens rather than itself. Little was done in the months leading up to the lockdown for expanding the health infrastructure for efficient testing and treatment. Planning models for food and income; stability for the poor; transportation of the migrants to their homes; special protection for the aged, the children, and the disabled, especially children without care.
Households in the informal market, both rural and urban, must be provided with the equivalent of 25 days’ minimum wages a month until the lockdown continues and further for two months. Doubling of pensions must be done and cash should be home delivered. Free water tankers must be provided in slum shanties throughout the working days. Doubling of PDS rations, including protein-rich pulses, must be done, and distributed at doorsteps. For the homeless, and single migrants, cooked food must be supplied to all who seek it, and deliver packed food to the aged and the disabled in their homes using the services of community youth volunteers.
For the safety of jails, under trial prisoners, except those charged with the gravest crimes, must be released. Similarly, those convicted for petty crimes must be released too. People staying in beggars’ shelters, rescue centres for women, and detentions should be set free.
3 percent of India’s GDP must be committed to public spending on health care, with a focus on free and universal primary and secondary health care. However, for immediate need, the government should follow examples of Spain and New Zealand and nationalise private healthcare. The ordinance must be passed stating that no patient be turned away or charged in private hospitals for diagnosis or treatment of symptoms.
One part of India has the luxury of income stability and nutritional security, insurances, and sufficient housing area. Others survive on edge every day with unprotected and uncertain work, subpar housing without clean water and sanitation, and no assured public health care. Can we resolve to correct this in post-COVID India? Can we at least now make the country more kind, just and equal?
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