“Anyone who can repair an iPhone?” This is one of the many questions that popped up on my neighbourhood WhatsApp group.

“Yay,” proclaims another. “The Hyatt is delivering.” She’s talking of a plush hotel next to our locality in Delhi.

People share lockdown service provider details. There are plenty, it seems. Meanwhile, outside this group, a couple of other events have taken place. A daily wage earner in Gurugram sold his cell phone for Rs 2,500 and bought groceries for his family, which includes four children. He also bought a table fan to beat the intensifying summer heat. Then, he went off quietly and hung himself.

Elsewhere, a Delhi pizza delivery boy was found to be Covid-19 positive and 72 families were put into home quarantine.

Who are these headline-makers? People who’ve been making lives easier for the middle class at great personal cost. The poor and people of modest means continue risking their and their families’ lives, to feed themselves by servicing those who have the means to pay. There’s an academic term that describes this: desperate resilience. Perhaps, it mirrors the nature of Indian cities today – iniquitous, insular and exploitative.

There’s a perverse silver lining, though. Several middle-class people have been shocked by images of hungry, brutalised migrant workers, walking back to their villages. As these stories were reported, the financial fragility of the workers who imbue urban India with life became apparent. People swarm to cities in hope of that cliché: a better future. Is this the better future we’ve given to about 139 million Indians? Evidently, yes.

“I feel terrible,” an acquaintance messaged me. “We never thought of these people till now.” Perhaps, after their trial by fire, “these people” will be noticed and included in ways they should have been long ago.

India’s shadow citizens – domestic workers, waste pickers, labourers, construction workers, dhobis and many more – need to be dignified with life-affirming potions. The relief they are getting right now should be the first step, but not the only one. There’s no magic in this, just a dose of political and public will.

Measures to take

First, develop urban food security. Expanding the ration network so everyone can afford food is an obvious step to take. The nationally-portable One Nation, One Ration Card scheme should be accelerated. Many poor don’t have ration cards yet, so an inclusive food ecosystem is needed. For now, with little cash flow, doling out rations is the best option till the monsoon ends.

Food vendors are bottom-of-pyramid food entrepreneurs, who feed large numbers at low costs and create jobs for themselves. They need better on-ground recognition, help with improved hygiene and in-situ work permits.

Second, provide health security. Migrants live in small, rented rooms with almost no social security or medical facilities. Urban health infrastructure – private or state-owned – has to be made more accountable to the needs of those who cannot pay, even if the facility hasn’t been built on subsidised land. Allocating hospital beds isn’t enough. Dignified treatment is essential too. Covid-19 has made it clear that while it’s fine to run profitable ventures, it is inadmissible to run a facility without larger responsibility.

Kesra and Takur Das, migrant workers who returned home to Madhya Pradesh from New Delhi. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Many illnesses are debilitating but don’t require hospitalisation. When a worker packing jeans in a factory slips and fractures an ankle, what does the state provide her with? The poor require inexpensive or free diagnostics, surgeries and medicines locally. States with weaker health infrastructure must unhesitatingly legislate around this.

Third, enable people to claim benefits. Instead of relying on documentation, which many are unable to produce, the government must allow for self-registration at the ward level, to be verified later. Make it portable. Many urban poor can’t claim cash benefits because they don’t have bank accounts. Often, the most unsurmountable barrier between them and a bank account is an acceptable address. States have to find solutions for the little knots that strangle.

Fourth, provide shelter. Under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs’ flagship housing project, an additional type of low-cost cluster dwelling must be rapidly developed, from scratch or via upgradation. The ministry should also develop mobile housing and formulate temporary standards, so workers on say, construction sites, experience real shelter. Why should anyone have to live under a pathetic plastic-sheet tent or cardboard carton shacks? The ministry will also be faced with a more daunting task – ensuring masterplans allocate space for a range of shelters, where most development takes place.

Checking our privilege

Our marginalised citizens deserve more – their inclusion won’t be complete if the middle classes don’t embrace them. The middle classes and the elite need to realise they can’t control every space in their vicinity and must share the city’s commons and resources. Municipalities are responsible for maintaining parks, but they should also have the right to convert some into spaces for public use, beyond residents’ wishes.

Often, shop owners meet municipal commissioners and ask that street vendors be removed. The reason? They’ve taken up space and there’s nowhere to walk. In such cases, the state must push back.

When the migrants return to the cities that left them out in the cold, they deserve a warm welcome back to their second home. When domestic workers return to save us from the workload, we should rejig our relationship in tangible ways to help them access social security, savings and time off. Perhaps we will have to pay for this. And we should.

The government of India has set up a department to care for overseas and Non Resident Indians – people who live far away. Let’s set up a department for Forgotten Resident Indians. It should be tasked with ensuring that Indian workers are taken care of during hard times, by building resilience in good times. This is the least we can do, not just as a moral commitment to fellow Indians, but also to ensure our urbanisation is sustainable and not built on mindless exploitation. If we try, we’ve got a healing recipe from the pandemic and the body blow of the world’s largest lockdown.

Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and founder of the NGO Chintan.