As soon as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a countrywide lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19, thousands of migrant labourers and daily-wage workers left for their villages as major cities and industrial towns started to shut down. A few hours later, as the three-week lockdown kicked in, authorities stopped all transport services across states, stranding migrant workers.
Many of those who could no longer afford rent and food were forced to retreat along with their families and few belongings. Some were seen carrying children and disabled family members on their shoulders. For most, it was a difficult choice between staying put with the prospect of starvation or facing the daunting walk home for survival. Those with too far to travel remained at closed bus junctions, waiting for services to ferry them home.
With the country’s economy already slowing, the outbreak of Covid-19 has further exposed the pressure India’s informal labour workforce is under. Still recovering from Modi’s harsh fiscal measures, including 2016’s demonetisation, these workers now need to make ends meet while trying to avoid contracting the virus.
India registered its first coronavirus case in January and since then, the number has increased to more than 1 071 with 29 dead at the time of writing. Initially, Modi took a cautiously optimistic approach, only closing down flights and urging citizens to practise social distancing. But as the number of cases began to spike, the government was forced to declare a complete lockdown on 24 March 2020.
While the Modi dispensation issued a directive asking all state authorities to provide adequate support, including food and shelter to unorganised sector workers, particularly stranded migrants, there were various reports of police heavy-handedness against distraught labourers struggling to get home. At least 22 of them reportedly died on their journey, many owing to exhaustion or accidents.
The unprecedented measure evoked criticism against the government for imposing such a stringent lockdown at such short notice, suggesting those in power lack compassion for the needs of the impoverished and marginalised. Leader of the principal opposition Congress Party Rahul Gandhi hit out at Modi for a lack of contingency plans for the migrant exodus, and held the government responsible for the “shameful” condition of casual labourers. Former finance minister Palaniappan Chidambaram termed it “another distressing example of the government’s unpreparedness”.
“I apologise for taking these harsh steps which have caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people,” Modi said in his weekly radio address. “I know some of you would be angry with me also. But these tough measures were needed to win this battle.” His government later announced there were no plans to extend the lockdown.
India’s ‘dispensable’ workforce
According to Government of India figures, there are an estimated 100 million unskilled or semi-skilled migrant workers, which form around a fifth of the country’s workforce. Around 30 million workers migrate constantly for jobs. A lack of work, particularly in the impoverished North Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, forces them to move to major cities where they live in cramped apartments and work long hours at low wages in often unsafe conditions with no social security.
India has the highest proportion of informal-sector workers in South Asia. According to data from the International Labour Organisation, India’s informal sector employs the largest workforce segment, about 90% of total workers. This unregulated sector accounts for more than half of the country’s economic output.
Data from India’s Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation suggests street vendors constitute 11% of urban employment, while home-based workers make up another 18%. In the agricultural sector, which employs an estimated 220 million people, 90% of workers are informally employed and 34% of them are women who do unpaid work on family farms. The women workforce has increased by 25.94 million since the year 2000. Almost 70% of the country’s labour force is concentrated in rural areas.
Despite the staggering scale, informal workers are kept outside the framework of labour and occupational health laws and thus are deprived of their rights. The Indian government’s data also reveals that its social security policy covers only 8% of India’s workforce. Informal workers generally do not have medical or maternity leave, pension, retirement benefits, insurance or compensation in case of occupational injuries or death.
Apart from the lack of employment-related benefits, informal workers are exposed to a wide variety of physical, chemical, biological and radiological hazards. Consequently, this workforce faces a range of health problems, including communicable and non-communicable diseases of various kinds related to the respiratory, digestive, nervous and reproductive systems, as well as auditory, visual and skin-related ailments because of unhygienic and often dangerous working conditions.
India also follows an employment-based plan, unlike many nations that pursue a rights-based approach providing minimum security to everyone in the workforce. Social security is limited to units employing a minimum number of workers. This makes daily-wage and migrant workers highly susceptible to economic shocks and health risks such as the one created by the coronavirus pandemic.
This situation is further aggravated by the fact that India has only one hospital bed per 2 000 people, and that there is only one public-sector doctor for about every 10 000 people. The World Health Organization recommends a ratio of one doctor to every 1 000 people. The quality of healthcare services in rural areas is especially poor. With migrant workers possibly returning infected with the coronavirus, this puts India’s informal workers at greater risk.
Within the informal sector, there are even more marginalised workers, especially those associated with sanitation (safai karamcharis). Their basic functions in rural areas include the removal of animal carcasses, sweeping the village, removing human waste and announcing deaths. In urban areas, they are employed to manually clean out latrines, which is called manual scavenging. They remain alienated and their living conditions are appalling.
Manual scavenging was made illegal by the enforcement of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, but the annual report of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment states that there are 62 904 manual scavengers and their dependents in India. Other independent surveys such as one conducted by Safai Karmachari Andolan, estimate that there are more than a million scavengers in the country. Indian Railways, a state body, is the largest employer of manual scavengers. Facing apathy from society, sanitation workers are at a risk of diseases such as dysentery, malaria, typhoid, skin infections, tuberculosis and exposure to toxic gases in sewers.
Sex workers and bar dancers are another invisible class of informal workers who often work in dire conditions. India also has more than 1.77 million homeless people, who remain at high risk of contracting the coronavirus. Many of them work as rickshaw pullers or daily-wage workers.
A grim assessment
Local organisations working at a grassroots level have said that a longer run-up to the lockdown would have given people in the informal sector time to prepare. Human Rights Watch noted that the lockdown “disproportionately hurt marginalised communities” owing to loss of livelihood, urging the Modi government to protect those at risk, such as sanitation workers, community health staff (ASHA workers), early childhood caregivers (anganwadi workers) and people such as midday meal workers who are often poorly paid public service officials.
“Migrant workers in India always head home when they have no prospect of work. This has been a pattern during any disruption, natural or man-made. In Narendra Modi’s tenure, migrant workers have left their place of work in droves more than once,” writes journalist Anjali Mody. “This time it is not just the loss of work and pay, but also a fear of being sick and dying among strangers, that is driving migrant workers home.”
Making a grim assessment, Alf Gunvald Nilsen, professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria, noted that the migrant working class was vulnerable because their access to social protection and public welfare services is limited. “In a nutshell, what we will see unfold in the time ahead, are the perverse consequences of the world’s largest democracy having consistently failed to extend social rights to its poorest and most vulnerable citizens,” he wrote.
Journalist Vidya Krishnan pointed out that the Indian government left the responsibility for containing the outbreak to citizens instead of instituting a robust official support system to protect the country’s marginalised. In the process, it punished the most vulnerable in society. “Whereas governments in Britain, Spain and Germany have offered stimulus plans of up to 20% of GDP [gross domestic product], India’s amounts to less than 1% of its GDP,” she wrote. “It provides no help for day labourers or other workers in similar unorganised sectors. It contains no measures for migrant workers.”
Rights activist Harsh Mandera echoed this, saying that neither Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman nor Modi acknowledged even a fraction of the potentially catastrophic impact these measures might have on the hundreds of millions of informal workers, farm workers and the destitute. “Modi tersely mentioned the poor and suggested that civil society should mitigate their distress. Sitharaman, at least, dwelt on the poor, but seemed to believe that cobbling together a token set of one-time tiny food and cash infusions into poor households will be enough defence for them from the tsunami that they face,” he wrote.