March 25th 2020. Like broken records, all television channels and radio broadcasts are announcing the same thing: India is under lockdown. All work and education has to be conducted from home; no more public transport is available; restaurants are closed. No one can leave the house. Well, that’s good news! -I thought. I can stay locked up inside my room revising for my IGCSE finals. Although that did not happen, did it? I ended up spending hours on end looking at my phone when I was not doing anything else that was absolutely necessary. I got bored. I wasn’t allowed to see my friends, or go shopping, nor swim at the pool despite the 40℃ heat. But here I am. I survived.
Being a witness to the start of the start of India’s Covid-19 lockdown, I have seen how detrimental it has been for the economy, especially to daily wage workers. India has a population of nearly 1.4 billion people, and being cozied-up in my Chanakyapuri1 apartment, I could not help but realize that the horrendous occurrences I saw were only a fraction of the entire catastrophe.
In India, as of November 28th 2020, there have been over 9 million confirmed SARS-CoV-2 cases which has led to around 140,000 recorded deaths, making Bharat2 the second nation with most cases in the world. Having about 90% of the Indian workforce in the informal sector the ILO3 states that around 400 million workers in India will fall or fall deeper into poverty due to this pandemic. One has to keep in mind that daily wage earners are employed on a day-to-day basis with oral contracts, giving them no social or labour protection. Most of them, such as construction labourers, will live directly on their work site, their meager revenue allowing them to buy their only meal of the day. That is why, when the March 25th 2020 lockdown was enforced and everything closed, they were left without work, shelter and food.
With no income and in search of bare necessities, most migrant daily wage workers chose to leave the cities and go back to their hometowns. As public transportation -their only means of travel- was shut down during the lockdown, many of them, with no options left, made the hard decision to walk home. For some that would mean a couple hundred kilometers. In Delhi, this resulted in thousands of workers walking the highways. People clustered together, increasing the risks of spreading Covid-19. As of May19th 2020, it was recorded that hundreds of migrant workers had died in an attempt to get home.
Regarding countryside labourers, it is estimated that 112 million landless agricultural workers are vulnerable to the lockdown. They will not even benefit from the PM-Kisan scheme as it only reaches the families of agricultural land owners and of the self-employed. Also, at the start of the lockdown, it was not sowing nor harvesting season, which reduced their work opportunities and subsequently their income.
Women are especially vulnerable during the lockdown, since they are overrepresented in the most unprotected parts of the informal economy such as domestic work and domestic or global supply chains labour. Mothers, and therefore children are put at risk. Over the long run, this could lead to an increase of inequality due to the worker groups being affected disproportionately.
People’s mental health was also affected. It has even occured that some have committed suicide because they were not able to financially support their family anymore. A migrant worker in Gujarat took his own life on May sixth, hanging himself from a tree. He had called friends and coworkers, telling them how frustrated and desperate he was over the fact that he had no more job and wished to go home, but was not able to. Also, some days prior to that, a family of three threatened to commit suicide because they had no more food, and no more medicine for their sick child.
Even though everything seems to be so bad, both the government and private firms reached out to help. The Uttar Pradesh authority said that they would give 1000 rupees to each daily wage worker per month. Zomato, a food delivery service, has a non-for-profit organization called ‘Feeding India’. The NGO collected about 40 million rupees to help daily wager families. They distribute food relief packages containing enough to feed a family of 5 for a week. Also, Netflix donated 75 million rupees to the Producers Guild of India Relief Fund which helps the daily wagers in the creative film community such as spot boys, and hair and makeup artists.
Nonetheless, a survey conducted by Stranded Workers Action Network, showed that 96% of daily wage workers out of a sample of 11000, said that they did not receive the food rations promised by the government. Consequently, one can see that even with help from institutions, there is not enough to reach everyone, and surely not for long periods of time.
So. Am I a real survivor of this pandemic? Simple answer. No.
Are you one? Maybe. But hopefully before you start complaining about your own situation, you will think twice and remember the daily wagers of India.
– Annika Walter
1 Diplomatic residential enclave of New Delhi
2 Alternative name for India
3International Labour Organization
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Dagmar Walter, director of the ILO Decent Work Team for and South Asia and Indian office.
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India Decent Work Country Programme. ser. 2018-2022, International Labour Organization, 2018, pp. 19–19, India Decent Work Country Programme.
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