Most of the country's 450-million-strong workforce in the informal economy have no means of reaching home and staying indoors for the 21 days of shutdown.
MUMBAI — Tara Panthi earns a living cooking for other people. Now she faces the very real possibility of a food shortage in her own home in a working class settlement in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
"On the one hand there is this disease to worry about, on the other hand, about eating and rations. We are stuck,” she told TRT World.
Panthi, 35, is a worker in the informal economy, like much of India, and though she has some rations thanks to help from a local non-profit, the uncertainty of living on a day-to-day basis is terrifying.
On Tuesday Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day-long lockdown in the country starting on Wednesday, as a measure to limit the spread of Covid-19; India has more than 600 recorded cases and 13 deaths so far.
The hardest hit by the lockdown are the poor; daily wagers, construction workers, street vendors and the homeless. Estimates claim that India has about 450 million or roughly 90 percent of its workforce in the unorganised economy. India also has a large floating population of migrant workers who have moved from villages to cities and across states for work, estimated to be about 120 million.
The news of a lockdown has thrown their lives into disarray, as industrial units and businesses, restaurants and other public places deemed non-essential have shut. This has meant that many millions are staring at the very real prospect of hunger, cramped living, inadequate sanitation and indefinite uncertainty.
“Work has been stopped for so many days, I have earned nothing this month,” said Bharat Pathak, a headloader who works in Pune and earns about Rs 7,000 ($93) a month.
Migrant labourers from West Bengal stuck in Vishwas Nagar, Ghazipur, Manesar, Greater Noida and other areas have run out of food and are afraid to step out from fear of police. Here they appeal for help to get back home. Helpline numbers have not worked they said. @THNewDelhi pic.twitter.com/GNSv7Dj9a9— Sidharth Ravi (@SidRavii) March 26, 2020
Before the train services were halted, Pathak, 35, thought of returning to his hometown in Uttar Pradesh, more than 1,000 kilometres away, but decided against it when he saw the rush of people thronging the trains. “That was also a concern. What if we fell sick because we travelled?” he asked. Additionally, his wife’s treatment for an ulcer has been put on hold as hospitals remain busy.
The suspension of local commuting services has also hit people. Private security guards for instance, face the possibility of being stranded at their workplaces for several days to come. Some housing societies have been providing food for such staff, but those outside commercial establishments are struggling. One security guard in Mumbai who requested anonymity said he had only eaten a handful of snacks all day. “It’s not always easy or possible to go home, and finding food is difficult,” he said. Buses have been restricted to those who comprise essential services such as civic and hospital employees.
Although the lockdown will affect everyone, it has already disproportionately hit the lives of the poor. Scenes of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes across state borders have starkly emphasised the implications of a country in shutdown.
Kajodi is over 90. Her village is in Sawai Madhopur, 400 kms from Delhi. The family is travelling a few metres ahead of her. pic.twitter.com/XJhOib5iLE— Salik Ahmad (@inker_salik) March 26, 2020
“People have been stranded, many don’t have ration cards or Aadhar cards, and without access to the Public Distribution System (PDS) people will die of hunger not the virus,” said Chandan Kumar, coordinator of Working People’s Charter, a collective of more than 100 organisations. “Twenty-one days of this will mean unprecedented chaos. You can tell people to stay at home, but not everyone has a home. What about the migrant workers who are a kind of stateless people? The government has not thought this through.”
Kumar’s collective, as well as other activists and experts, has been urging the government to consider a range of welfare measures including cash transfers, increasing ration allocations through the PDS, ensuring sanitation facilities and meals, and guaranteeing a minimum wage in these uncertain times
“....we must also realise that most people in our country cannot afford to stay away from work and do not have the luxury of living conditions which allow “social distancing,” said a letter from the Right to Food Campaign to the government. “It is the livelihoods of these people that would be further affected as more and more work from home and/or reduce their economic activity.”
A week ago the Prime Minister announced setting up a taskforce to come up with economic measures. On Thursday the finance minister announced a Rs 1,70,000 crore relief package for the poor and daily wagers.
Some state governments have announced measures to mitigate the impact on the poor and daily wagers, including Delhi, UP and Punjab. These have included announcements for relief packages, payment of wages, and food provisions.
“Even state governments that have announced enhanced PDS measures have said they will do so for those with ration cards, but they need to do it for whoever needs it,” said Dipa Sinha, a professor and member of the Right to Food campaign. She also pointed out that the lockdown meant penal measures were also being enforced, with footage of police beating up people on the streets, emerging on social media. “There is a general vigilantism, and repression,” she said. “This is affecting the poor the most.”
In the meantime, nonprofits and civil society groups have stepped in to help those most in need by collecting funds and supplying food kits, cooked meals or other essentials such as soaps and sanitisers. “We are taking it one day at a time. Managing the safety of our teams and other logistics has been tough,” said Doel Jaikishen, communications manager at YUVA, an organisation helping with relief efforts in Mumbai. “The public distribution system has been unable to meet the sudden increase in need. We are constantly in touch with the state government.”