Among informal sector workers, Dalits and Adivasis affected worst due to lockdown [Interview]

Chennaiah Poguri leading a protest

The 21 days countrywide lockdown India has implemented to curb spread of deadly Coronavirus is a heavy blow to the nation’s informal sector. The lockdown, experts suggest, has extended vulnerability because the informal sector employs more than 90% of India’s total workforce, with more than one-third of India’s workers comprising of the sector and contributing half of the GDP in Asia’s third-largest economy. It has been predicted that the COVID-19 outbreak could impact India’s overall economic growth up to 0.9% (close to 1%) through trade, hotels and transport channels between 2019-20 and 2020-21.’s Musheera Ashraf interviewed Chennaiah Poguri Garu, the national coordinator for Informal Sector Workers Union associated with NAPM (National Alliance of People’s Movement), to discuss the situation of workers and their fate in the face of the pandemic. Poguri Garu is also an honorary president of National Centre for Labour, an apex body of unorganised workers in India.

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What major challenges have emerged for the informal sector workers during the COVID Pandemic?

For the day to day wage earners, the wages are already very meagre. The major challenge for them now is hunger. Restrictions are necessary but before the restrictions, the state should have made some arrangements for these workers. They can’t even go out because of the fear of police. Another challenge for them is that they have been travelling miles on foot to reach their native places because there are no public services or arrangements for them, their poor health adding up to their vulnerability.

How bad it would affect unorganised workers especially from minorities and marginalised communities?

The lowest income groups including Adivasis and Dalits are the worst affected. If something happens to them, we don’t have relief facilities for them. The government takes the least interest in minorities and marginalised. They also won’t take care if they get affected because government have been already trying to isolate them through legal systems for years. Prima facie, no proper plans have been prepared for them which reflects the political will of the government.

India has already moved from stage 2 to stage 3 of the pandemic. Is social distancing possible for daily wage workers?

Social distancing is impossible for them as they live in houses confined to a few feet. These workers are most vulnerable to this crisis because they even don’t have proper resources for knowledge and research. For the government, people are not the primary concern but publicity is. Ideally, the welfare should start bottom to top but the government thinks from the top-level up to the upper-middle class. Topmost people are the only priority. Unorganised worker’s vulnerability increases in either way.

As per the National Health Survey, India’s health infrastructure is ill equipped to handle a bigger crisis and informal sector labourers are the most exposed to bad hygiene and malnutrition, making them vulnerable to the virus. What is being done to create awareness and reduce the panic among them?

If the informal sector workers get affected it will be a disaster but even if they are not affected, they are under a similar crisis. They are facing the bigger crisis in fact as they don’t have access to food. The government has created a greater panic by not attending to the basic needs of the daily wage workers which is increasing due to the third-degree treatment by the police. The Andhra government has announced to provide 5kg of rice and some amount of money but that is promised for a week from when the lockdown was announced. The kind of assumption made by the government that people would have already stored food for a week itself is inhuman and worrisome for this class.

The migrant workers who have migrated in search of work are travelling back on foot to their native place. This puts them in greater risk to get exposed to the virus, what steps can be taken to provide them security?

The situation of the migrant workers is terrible. They have been walking from Karnataka to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and some from Hyderabad to Vishakhapatnam which probably will take 3-4 days. They can’t stay back in the city because they won’t survive without work and they are not even allowed to go out in search of food as they will be beaten up by the police.

The state should shelter them wherever they are and they should not be forced to leave. Providing basic food and temporary shelter with proper care should be the priority. They have to be treated as humans rather than people from different states. These workers are not allowed to go for work because of the pandemic so they should be given 50% of the minimum wage.

Chenniah Poguri in a public meeting

Most of the daily wage workers hardly earn anything to save making the majority of the poor population in India. Can the pandemic outbreak lead to an increase in the level of poverty in India?

Poverty has been increasing ever since demonetisation. Poor has become poorer already. There was no employment for 6 months because of the lack of cash initially. There are 124 types of unorganised workers including rickshaw pullers, carpenters and so on, who contribute to 93% of the workforce of the country. Government has not come out with a single proper policy in these times and despite a lockdown there is no long term plan for this community about what should be done and what will happen after April 14. This section of society is most vulnerable and forced to die. They should at least be provided with the grains so that they can cook food.

Government has advised the private sector to ensure that salaries to their employees are paid during these times, but the fate of unorganized labourers is still undecided. Can any modification in welfare schemes for the informal sector be productive in these times?

The state is responsible for the employment of the informal sector but people looking after resources must be given an upper hand. For example, as per the Forests right act those who are living in the forest should own the forest resources and the government should have least interference. If the laws are implemented rightfully even adversities like Corona will not be able to affect people as they will be self-sufficient and well secured with value-based food and income. In MNREGA, as per the law if the government is not able to provide employment then they should be given 50% of the minimum wage. For the construction workers also, the money of welfare board should be paid to be them. The fund which is for such sectors should be made available to them now. The farmworkers should be allowed to go for work with proper precautions, otherwise, there will be shortage of food.

RBI Governor says “India is relatively insulated from the global value chain and to that extent impact on India will be less”. Are the informal sector workers capable of helping the country’s economy to stay afloat in this situation?

The global market chain has never helped informal sector workers in urban areas to get benefits. The ones in power have only used their labor to expropriate the resources. India is the biggest market but our government is equally responsible for pushing our informal sector including our agriculture workers to urban cities where they are insecure. If there would have been no corporate interference, then the informal sector would have done wonders even in this situation. The government should have acted in the earlier stage to combat Corona as well as to control the situation of working class.

Why is the sector which employs almost 93 per cent of the workforce reflecting out to be the most neglected one?  

This sector has always faced negligence. Special economic zones have been created for MNC’s, not Indians. Privatisation is done for personal benefits and not human welfare. Sadly, the governments have always given least attention to them.

 What do you think the central government should do, that would bring immediate relief to unorganised sector workers?

The central government doesn’t seem to have a will to do anything for this section. The government has not lent any support yet. People are under panic and the government has no resources extension to the labor class. If the required actions are not taken, then people will answer back in their own way at the right time. The chauvinistic and conservative government will have to see the response of the people later.