Centre for Equity Studies report reveals ‘major caste biases in supporting migrant workers’ during COVID-19 lockdown

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Centre for Equity Studies has released a report on the migrant crisis documenting how India’s most vulnerable class has suffered due to the unplanned national lockdown by the Central government for COVID-19.

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The report titled ‘Labouring Lives: Hunger, Precarity and Despair amid Lockdown’ addressed vital questions of how the country’s labouring class – stranded and jobless – coped with the lockdown living away from their homes. The research has been conducted by Centre for Equity Studies in partnership with the Delhi Research Group and the Karwan-e-Mohabbat campaign with Aman Biradari Trust as the sponsor organization for relief to migrant workers.

With an aim to understand various aspects of the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the lives, livelihoods and food security of the poor, the report is prepared with first-hand data collated through extensive telephonic interviews with 1405 workers settled in both urban and rural India. A group of volunteers, mainly students, participated in data collection for the study between 25th May and 10th June 2020. All those who were contacted have also been reached for food support by Karwan-e-Mohabbat and Aman Biradari Trust.

The report has revealed economic and social boycott of the most vulnerable during the lockdown, stating that “the naked distancing of the state from its responsibilities needed documentation” so that the coming generations “would remember how the state which takes an oath in the name of people abandoned them at a time of crisis.” The respondents covered in the survey come from an economically underprivileged background, with only 5.5% of them earning a monthly amount of Rs. 15000. Hence, a vast support network for relief materials was also established during the research work, extending over Delhi-NCR, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Rajasthan and Jharkhand.

The report has also been supported by the University of York and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung for its detailed analysis on circular migration. One of the major findings in it is that nearly 90% of those working under a contractor were not getting paid, reflecting that the government that could have alternately provided them with limited economic opportunities for the job losses but instead it left them with no support. Among the 90%, interstate migrants who were travelling on foot for a maximum period of the lockdown were worse off in comparison with inter-state migrants, who suffered 10% less due to job loss. Additionally, those not working under contractors, about 94% of the migrant labourers, have been hit by widespread job loss without even minimal payment. Among them, 43% are uncertain about their financial security post-COVID and 10% are sure they would not get their old job back.

A major finding shows that the uncertainty of income opportunities in the future affects women (highest share of working as domestic help) more than men. Other than women, OBCs and interstate migrants are the most vulnerable concerning job prospects. Not surprising was the factual analysis revealing that Muslims have a higher share of workers reporting that they do not expect to get back their work compared to the other social categories. On the other hand, a higher share of Hindu advantaged caste (and mostly the men within this group) were sure about getting back their work after lockdown. This discrepancy of income opportunities pointed out that the BJP government’s directives on March 29 to all employers and contractors that no worker be dismissed from their employment, has failed miserably.

Contrary to popular belief, the study disclosed that the surety of losing work is higher in rural areas, while those working in urban and semi-urban areas believe they would be able to rejoin their old jobs. It further suggested that there is an urgent need for the governments to attend to the job security woes in the rural areas as they are already suffering from agricultural losses and would be additionally pressurized with the load of return-migrants.

A separate section concerning the problem of hunger and starvation deaths among labourers said that only 38.9% had never gone completely out of food during the lockdown. While 29.9% reported they occasionally went out of food (starving intermittently for 1-2 days), 20.5% said they frequently went out of food for 4-7 days during the period of lockdown. 10.7% were recorded to have been going without food for more than 7 days facing an extreme hunger situation. Surprisingly, those who reported never starving during the period are those who have “diminished their intake and were often having one meal in a day.” Casual labourers were worst hit in terms of incidence of hunger.

21.8% labourers said they were skipping meals, while 49.5% were eating less within the day and 5.1% among the parents were skipping meals so they could provide food for their children. Whereas hunger is pervasive among all communities and cuts across caste, the factual findings in this report highlighted that “the workers who belonged to the advantaged caste Hindus have suffered less in terms of going occasionally or frequently hungry compared to others.” In the case of extreme hunger too, “the advantaged caste Hindus are relatively better off than the conditions of OBC/SC/ST or Muslims,” it says.

Further, in the absence of adequate support from the Central and State governments,  the collaborative research also focused on the source of relief providers. Among the study’s respondents, the highest number of support providers were NGOs, at 43.3%. This was followed by 38.7% of government initiatives and 19.2% by religious and community organizations. While 46% of labourers were receiving relief materials from one source only, 26.3% got support from two sources and a substantial section, 24.6% received no support at all. Several workers were also recorded saying that if the NGOs and religious organizations had not stepped in, for a large section of people, life during lockdown would have been far more testing.

The survey has also studied indebtedness among migrant labourers suggesting that 50.7% of migrant labourers hadn’t taken any loans. 40% of them during this time of dire need were supported by friends and relatives (40%). In their respective order, the others who helped them were money lenders, local shops, contractors or employers and landlords.

Concerning the government directives for travel and helplines for migrant labourers that were announced later during Lockdown 3.0, one of the stranded migrant outlined the plight in these words: “Bhagwan bharose chal raha hai kyunki sarkar se koi umeed hai nahi; wo bas ghoshna kar deti hai, maara jaata hai gareeb” (We are left to fend for ourselves because we don’t have any expectations from the government; they just make sudden announcements, it is the poor who pay the price). Other responses revealed similar views and the anger coupled with disappointment with government measures palpable among the most vulnerable sections of India. The study highlighted that by such sudden and unplanned directives once a while,  “government makes fools of the public by its play of words.”

In its conclusion, the report has suggested some critical recommendations to address the dangerous economic collapse looming over the country’s weakest. It stated that “the pandemic has underscored the extreme importance of a public healthcare system, and the folly of privatization of essential services,” recommending that the post-pandemic period “must not again see government abdicating its responsibility” and that “public expenditure on education and health must be substantially stepped up, with a focus on primary and secondary health.” Highlighting “care economy”, the report suggested that the government could provide “immense scope for increasing employment.” While Anganwadi workers who provide essential services to the population, including during this pandemic, are paid a pittance and treated with extreme unfairness, the report said they must be “given regular government employees with proper remuneration and associated benefits.”

The report concludes that “much-unutilized capacity exists in the economy and the shortage is not of real resources; the government needs the political will to get command over them.” It further stated that these steps can “easily come within the total package announced by the Prime Minister, which is presumably to be financed immediately by printing money.”