Informal Sector Workers In A Policy Blind Spot

Informal Sector Workers In A Policy Blind Spot

Monika Devi is waiting it out. Her Self Help Group— Balaji SHG— had just set up a food cart with the help of a couple of NGOs (CFAR & Oxfam India) around 15 April; the women were all geared to dish out thaalis in Delhi’s Okhla phase-2 when the weekend lockdown was announced in Delhi and then a day later a week-long curfew. At the time of writing this, it had been extended for another week. The food cart didn’t take off.   

The eldest of her three children was supposed to give his board exams this month but that too has been postponed. Her husband Hari Mandal, a driver for hire, is once again without work.

She is waiting it out to take a call if she should return to Katihar in Bihar or stay put.

She isn’t alone. About 450 million informal sector migrant workers and their families are on tenterhooks. Uncertainty looms large with the announcement of sporadic lockdowns, curfews and containment zones. Many have returned. In her neighbourhood, workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and some from Nepal— have either returned or are holding on to the last Rs 2000 for tickets to leave as soon as possible!

Monika and Hari were just about getting back on track financially. He had lost his job in the two months of the lockdown last year; after the lockdown was lifted he was never able to return to his pre-COVID earnings. His monthly earnings went down from Rs 10,000-12,000 to Rs 7000-Rs 8000. Now that has stopped too.

A recent study by ICRIER and the Inferential Survey Statistics and Research Foundation (ISSRF), showed a contraction of 7.7 per cent in the income of migrant workers relative to the pre-lockdown level. Economists say that another lockdown or even the fear of one can upset the momentum of this recovery. The study warned “that if the migrants decide to return to their native place, their household income could drop by more than 80 per cent, much like what happened after the first lockdown.”

Like Monika, Kamlesh and Jaya along with the SHGs were scheduled to set up the food cart. While Jaya in Delhi’s Anand Parbat is the sole breadwinner who lost her job twice — first as a house nurse and later as a domestic worker — in the past one year, the factory that Kamlesh worked in Okhla shut down after the lockdown last year leaving her and many like her jobless. The food cart provided a glimmer of hope, until the second wave of the coronavirus snowballed out of control. The only bright side in all of this is that no one in these families have contracted COVID-19, yet.

Economist Pronab Sen in a recent interview said that, “All projections that we had of our economy going back are dead.” Starting April, it was expected that India’s economy will register a fast economic rebound and make up for losses incurred in 2020. But the unabated surge in COVID cases all across the country, presents a scenario where India may not even be able to make up for the economic (GDP) contraction it suffered in the last financial year (2020-21).

The key takeaways from Sen’s interview was that due to the ‘fear factor on disease progression’ and with the ‘Damocles’ sword of lockdown’ hanging over our heads — 1) everything about policy action is uncertain; 2) unlike last year, this year agriculture will likely take a hit. The supply chains will be disrupted and the rural demand through haats that propped the economy last year will not be there; 3) investments, especially for those trying to pick the pieces from last year, will be badly hit; and 4) though the peak for the second wave is expected to be in mid-May, the first quarter is going to be affected.

In a nutshell, the poor are going to become poorer for the second year running.

What Needs To Be Done

There is an urgent need to expand and extend the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY). But this isn’t enough. The poor and the informal sector workers have been through the wringer last year bearing the brunt of severe economic distress and this year thrown into a health crisis of epic proportions losing their lives and livelihoods and facing food insecurity.

The government announced the revival of the scheme of 5 kgs of free grain for the National Food Security Act (NFSA) cardholders for the month of May and June. The Act, however, only covers 67% of the population (75% rural & 50% urban). The Steering Committee of the Right to Food Campaign has put forth a demand for universalisation of ration distribution. They have written to the government asking for an extension of the PMGKY for at least 6 months and include additional 5 kgs of food grain, 1.5 kg of pulses and 800 gm of cooking oil.

In addition, there is a need to enhance and ensure the uninterrupted disbursal of social security schemes such as widow pension, disability pension and old age pensions. The importance of these schemes is evident from the fact that Jaya was able to tide over last year due to the widow pension and the PMGKY scheme. It is another matter that there was a gap of couple of months in receiving the Rs 2500, and hence the need to strengthen the scheme.

There is a need to increase the MGNREGA allocations. “This time rural economy will be hit. NREGA has to be stepped up not just for rural residents but for all the migrant workers returning to their states. It has to be substantially more than what it was last year,” said Sen. Oxfam India’s Pravas Ranjan Mishra says that the MGNREGA allocation should increase from Rs 73000 Crore to Rs 150,000 Crore. The Steering Committee of the Right to Food Campaign has demanded to extend this to 200 days.

Apart from the slew of relief packages that the government needs to announce as soon as possible to calm frayed nerves, vaccination is the key in allaying the fear factor. But can it? India needs around 10 million vaccine doses daily, but it is producing less than half. In the 94 days since the vaccination drive began, India fully vaccinated only 17.4 million people, with nearly 100 million Indians receiving at least one dose. India is administering around 3 million doses on average per day. If it is to meet its initial target of 300 million people by August, it would need to administer an average of 4.7 million vaccines a day. This remains an open question.

Amidst vaccination centres running low on stocks, centre backing out on its ‘free vaccine for all’ promise, the ‘system’ lacking empathy and refusing to acknowledge the problem, a billionaire twiddling his thumb over vaccine prices, and the raging debate at the WTO on the waiver of intellectual property protections on COVID-19 products during the pandemic, it seems that lives of millions will continue to hang in balance.

This International Labour Day our elected leaders will not just need to buckle up to allay the ‘fear factor’, they will also have to take care of its informal sector workers, the backbone of the economy — the likes of Monika, Kamlesh, Hari and Jaya — who at the moment find themselves in a policy blind spot.

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