Lockdown further impoverishes those who were living on the edges of existence even during normal times, finds a new report
A recent survey that was conducted through telephonic interviews among 1,405 respondents across the states of Delhi-NCR, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Rajasthan and Jharkhand reveals the precarious conditions of workers nearly 45 days after the announcement of COVID-19 lockdown.
Hunger and food insecurity
Among other things, the survey, which was done by Centre for Equity Studies along with Delhi Research Group and Karwan-e-Mohabbat between May 25th and June 10th, 2020, has found that almost one-fifth i.e. 20.5 percent (288 out of 1,405) of respondents in the sample frequently went out of food for 4-7 days during the lockdown period, whereas roughly one-tenth i.e. 10.7 percent (150 out of 1,405) of respondents were out of food for more than 7 days, thus, facing extreme hunger situation. Please refer to table-1.
Table 1: Incidence of hunger during the lockdown
Source: Labouring Lives: Hunger Precarity and Despair amid Lockdown, please click here to access
A little less than one-third i.e. 29.9 percent (420 out of 1,405) of respondents occasionally went out of food. In short, they had no food intermittently for 1-2 days. However, about 38.9 percent (547 out of 1,405) of respondents never went completely out of food during the lockdown period.
The fact is that the ones who never were out of food reduced their intake of food and were often having one meal in a day. Almost one-fifth i.e. 21.8 percent (119 out of 547) of such respondents were skipping meals, while 49.5 percent (nearly 271 out of 547) of them were simply consuming less within the day. At least 28 out of 547 respondents (i.e. 5.1 percent) reported that parents were skipping meals in order to provide food for their children.
The so-called 'forward-caste' Hindus were relatively better off in comparison to respondents from OBC (Other Backward Classes) /SC (Scheduled Castes) /ST (Scheduled Tribes) or Muslim backgrounds since a relatively lower proportion of the former community’s respondents faced extreme hunger spanning 7 days or above, finds the report. The proportion of so-called 'forward-caste' Hindus also suffered less in terms of going frequently hungry spanning 4-7 days. Please consult chart-1.
Hunger situation was worse among the inter-state and intra-state migrants vis-à-vis non-migrants. There was little or no rural-urban difference on hunger during the lockdown period. A similar pattern was noticed about job losses. It implies that those returning back homes/ native places were likely to face similar situations in terms of hunger and starvation that existed in cities/ urban areas.
Supported by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, the report says that the degree of distress in terms of food insecurity and hunger became worse as compared to the initial days of the lockdown.
It may be noted that the 1,405 respondents in the purposively selected sample for the survey were the ones the state relief teams of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat campaign of Aman Biradari Trust got in touch with during the course of the relief exercise in the first month since the beginning of the lockdown.
Social support and social security
The report entitled Labouring Lives: Hunger, Precarity and Despair amid Lockdown says that although cooked food was distributed in many cities, availing them became problematic for the poor and the working classes (including the informal workers and the migrant labourers) due to long queues, crowds, and unnecessary harassment by the police and the administration. While the rich and middle classes stockpiled more than adequate quantities of food, the poor and working classes faced abject hunger even as foodgrains were rotting in FCI (Food Corporation of India) godowns.
In order to quell hunger, the respondents (i.e. poor workers) relied on cooked food distributed by the non-government organisation (NGOs), government initiatives and religious and community organisations. Most of the time respondents assumed that food supplies were being sourced from government, although they were actually being distributed by NGOs. Therefore, the proportion of food supplies made by the government could be even lower, according to the report.
Most respondents i.e. 46 percent (646 out of 1,405) of the total got food support from one source only, while 26.3 percent (369 out of 1,405) of them got support from two sources.
The survey shows that food support by the government did not perform well in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Assam and Haryana. Had NGOs and religious organisations not stepped in for food relief, life during lockdown would have been far more difficult for a large number of workers and the poor. Based on qualitative interviews, the report finds that Muslims faced harassment and threat from the police when they tried to access food and other such relief services. Rohingya refugees (some of them were respondents in the survey) who had moved out of their camps had not received help from any source but those who lived in various camps across Delhi and Haryana had received help from NGOs.
Although the Disaster Management Act 2005 was used to disproportionately punish people who broke the curfew rules or did not follow safe physical distancing norms, the provisions of the legislation that required the government to put in place a rescue, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction mitigation plan to reduce the risk, impact or effects of a disaster, were conveniently neglected, mentions the report.
Those who borrowed money during the lockdown, mostly depended on friends and relatives (39.9 percent), followed by money lenders (7.1 percent), local shops (6.3 percent), contractor/ employer (2.1 percent), and landlords (0.6 percent).
The survey shows that 78.8 percent (1,107) of respondents had bank accounts, 87.3 percent (1,226) had Aadhaar card/number, 31.2 percent (438) had ration card, 11.9 percent (167) had MGNREGA card and only 7.3 percent (103) had labour card. Most respondents who had bank accounts did not have access to it at their place of work but had access in their native location. Most of the bank account holders had dormant accounts. A low proportion of construction workers possessing labour card indicates the failure of the Building and Other Constructions Workers Act, 1996, states the report.
Lack of portability of ration cards enhanced the hardships for stranded migrants. Many respondents who had their names in the ration cards, could not avail food support since they were not presently staying in the place of domicile. Almost all respondents in the sample (1,405 respondents) had no access to social security, which indicates that institutional support for workers did not exist not just during the time of a pandemic but even during normal circumstances.
Job losses and unemployment
The survey establishes that job losses were all-encompassing, irrespective of social identity and location. It finds that around 92.4 percent (1,294 out of 1,401) of respondents were not able to find work during the lockdown, 5 percent (70 out of 1,401) of respondents were able to find work at lower pay and only 2.6 percent (37 out of 1,401) of respondents found work at regular pay.
Job losses were prevalent in both rural and urban areas. Although migrants returned to their villages/ native places with the hope that they would find limited employment opportunities to sustain themselves during the lockdown period, the truth is that without adequate State support, it would be extremely difficult for the poor and the working classes to survive during the lockdown, irrespective of the location, mentions the report.
On March 29th, 2020, government directives were issued for all employers/ contractors that no worker be dismissed from their employment, but that failed miserably. There has been widespread unemployment since the announcement of the lockdown. Nearly 90 percent of those working under a contractor were not getting paid at all during the lockdown period, finds the survey. For those not working under a contractor, the figure went up to 94 percent.
Semi-urban areas provided better employment opportunities because of the availability of both agricultural and non-agricultural work, although at lower wages as compared to the pre-lockdown rates.
Inter-state migrants were worse off vis-à-vis intra-state migrants who seemed 10 percent less likely to face job losses (albeit with lower pay) after the implementation of the lockdown.
The report finds that the perception of uncertainty about the future of work was the highest among women and inter-state migrants, and the certainty of job loss was the highest among Muslim workers. The uncertainties surrounding work led to mental stress among the workers. Discrimination against Muslims workers in the context of Tablighi Jamaat issue also arose during the interviews. A large chunk of Muslim workers were sure about job losses in the post-lockdown period as a result of discrimination. Uncertainties about the future of job was lower among regular, salaried workers.
Nearly 43 percent of respondents were uncertain about their job prospects post-lockdown. Almost 10 percent of the respondents were in fact sure that they would not get their old job back. The uncertainly about jobs in the future was greater among women, OBCs, and inter-state migrants.
As compared to OBC /SC /ST and Muslims, a higher proportion of the so-called 'forward-caste' Hindus (and mostly the men within this group) were sure about getting back their work after the lockdown.
The uncertainty about going back to the old job was the highest in urban areas. The certainty of getting back the same job was the highest in the semi-urban areas. However, contrary to everyone's intuitive thinking, the surety of losing work was the highest in rural areas. Hence, immediate attention of the government is required to the countryside as it would be burdened with a load of migrants who are returning back, states the report.
What is to be done?
In order to combat hunger and ensure livelihood security, the report entitled Labouring Lives: Hunger, Precarity and Despair amid Lockdown has asked its readers to go through the recommendations that were proposed by Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, Prof. Jayati Ghosh and Harsh Mander in their jointly written article entitled A plan to revive a broken economy, which was published in The Hindu dated May 14th, 2020. Among other things, that article suggested the government to universalise and expand the public distribution system (PDS), and make cash transfers equivalent to the statutory minimum wages of roughly Rs. 7,000/- per month to every Indian household for a period of three months. The authors also recommended the government to revamp the MGNREGA in order to accommodate the migrant workers who trudged back to their villages during the lockdown.
Labouring Lives: Hunger Precarity and Despair amid Lockdown, A Report by Centre for Equity Studies in collaboration with Delhi Research Group and Karwan-e-Mohabbat, Supported by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, released in June 2020, please click here to access
Labouring Lives: Hunger, Precarity And Despair Amid Lockdown --Karwan-e-Mohabbat, 19 June, 2020, please click here to access the Youtube video
Job loss certainty highest among villagers & Muslims -Pheroze L Vincent, The Telegraph, 22 June, 2020, please click here to access
Communities remain hungry amid lockdown, migrant workers worst hit: Study -Ritwika Mitra, The New Indian Express, 20 June, 2020, please click here to access
A plan to revive a broken economy -Harsh Mander, Jayati Ghosh and Prabhat Patnaik, The Hindu, 14 May, 2020, please click here to access
Covid-19 crisis calls for universal delivery of food and cash transfers by the state -Jayati Ghosh, Prabhat Patnaik and Harsh Mander, The Indian Express, 27 April, 2020, please click here to access
Image Courtesy: Labouring Lives: Hunger Precarity and Despair amid Lockdown