Coronavirus outbreak has foregrounded India's inequalities; country must re-examine social order when pandemic abates

In transmission, the coronavirus seems to follow principles of equality, but in so doing exposes with absolute clarity the distinctions between privilege and the lack thereof

Aditi Priya and Aarushi Kalra March 31, 2020 15:08:54 IST
Coronavirus outbreak has foregrounded India's inequalities; country must re-examine social order when pandemic abates

In transmission COVID-19 in general seems to follow principles of equality but in doing so exposes the graded nature of society. For in its effect the virus is a greater threat to the marginalised labourers and the precarious workforce like the poor and the migrant workers in cities, the domestic worker in homes, and the sanitation workers of all the urban settlements. In such times, any measures of health, nutrition and income support announced by the Central and state governments are welcome, but the government's handling of the situation must also be critiqued.

One thing that we can learn from the experience of China and South Korea is that lockdown is the right way to begin with, especially when a country’s health services do not have the capacity to manage a complete break out of the disease. However, a lockdown alone is not enough and the governments of developing countries must exercise caution in importing solutions that did not necessarily originate in contexts similar to ours.

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 segment of the population continued to go to work, without any safety net, even as thousands of high risk individuals returned from foreign lands. And the current lockdown has pushed them out of their jobs, completely vulnerable to the disease. In Bengaluru, over the last two weeks, due to the COVID-19 scare, garment factories shut down crèche facilities which forced many women garment workers to either leave their jobs or go on unpaid leave, as crèches are vital for many to remain in the workforce. Had paid leave been the provision at the factory the workers would have not been forced out of jobs.

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.

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In order to grasp how vulnerable this subset of the population is, the following is worth noting. 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 considers 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 lockdown was announced, most domestic workers were thrown out of jobs, and hence were without money or assistance. The question of paid leave did not even arise in the homes of employers. The irony is that they moved to cities in search of jobs but were forced to abandon these same cities and homes, that they built, to avoid starvation. This forces us to identify those who ought to be responsible for this calamity: The government or/and the middle class population of these cities.

Two days after the lockdown, a relief package was announced by the Central government in two forms: Food assistance and cash transfer or direct benefit transfers (DBT). DBTs are directed to the banks of beneficiaries and the PDS entitlement has been increased by five kilograms of wheat or rice per person per month for the three months and additional kilogram of preferred pulse per household per month for three months.

Exclusions from PDS seem to have increased post introduction of Aadhaar in delivery systems. The belief that this package will benefit the poor is largely based on the assumption that they have access to bank accounts. While there has been an increase in the proportion of adults having bank accounts from 53 percent in 2014 to 80 percent in 2017, the World Bank report in 2018 also showed that 48 percent of those with bank accounts made no transaction in the past year.

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Representational Image. PTI

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. Workers who have temporarily migrated for work do not have access to the PDS at their destination. The right step would have been to ensure food safety for all through distributing rations at the doorstep and to reopen canteens to provide subsidised cooked meals.

Economists have been quick in responding to government measures and have been active in providing useful suggestions to Central and state governments. The question is, where are the employers of the workers in the informal sector? The poor are faced with multiple threats- of COVID-19 deaths, hunger deaths, and absence of health systems. How is it that the employers have abandoned their staff so easily, that they had no choice but to march onward to their villages?

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 holds 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. Perhaps social stratification along caste lines impedes interaction across social groups, and the hierarchical nature of this structure obviates the need for HHCs to reach out.

In the decade after liberalisation, there was a nearly 120 percent rise in the number of domestic workers in India from 7.4 lakh in 1991 to 16.2 lakh workers by 2001, as Tripti Lahiri's Maid in India points out. The most vulnerable are those coming from historically marginalised populations like Dalits and Adivasis. 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 example is not an exceptional case to be quoted here, however it is to make the point about the role of the middle class in the crisis that we face.

What if the middle class, as a bloc, gave paid leave to its domestic help (along with respectable pay in the first place) and the workers employed in its homes, shops and enterprises? Or offered minimum help to the migrant workers in the form of food, shelter and money? What if public health systems were guaranteed universally? What if unions of domestic workers could bargain for paid leaves? What if jobs of permanent and perennial nature had not been contractualised?

Thousands of workers would not have been at the brink of starvation today and many deaths would have been avoided

This counterfactual has been imagined multiple times, but never brought to reality. People's struggles have won us various rights, including the Right to Work and to Food, but these are far from complete. While we do not think that this disaster will move the conscience of the privileged to give their workers what is rightfully theirs, we can ask governments to provide safety nets, during this humanitarian crisis. The threat to the lives of those who can not afford to 'work from home', have access to good health systems or have enough nutrition to build up their immunity is very grave.

Along with ensuring that food and assistance is reaching all, it also becomes very important to strengthen the demand for paid leave. Let's not imagine going back to the old social order when all this is over.

Aditi Priya is a Research Associate at LEAD at Krea University; Aarushi Kalra is a graduate student at Brown University. Opinions expressed here are their own. The authors thank Sagarika Indu, Kalaiyarasan Arumugam, and Dr. Jean Dreze for their  feedback.

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