When a close friend having lived in Delhi all his life returned from visiting his son and daughter-in-law in New Zealand, he told me of his amazement at how the couple, both of whom are doctors, interacted with their plumber. In addition to the clear professional respect they showed him, once his job was done, everyone sat at the dining table drinking coffee over relaxed conversation. My friend wondered if they would behave in the same way with a plumber in India.

His anecdote reminded me of Ajay, a plumber in our neighborhood. He was a busy man, difficult to get hold of. He would come on his scooter, carrying a briefcase. He would do his work with quiet efficiency.

Ajay passed away two years ago in his early 40s, succumbing to tuberculosis, leaving behind his wife and nine-year-old daughter. I had once asked Ajay if he had done a formal course to learn the trade. He said that his brother-in law had been his guru. He had come to Delhi with him as a 12 year old and hung around with him – observing, practicing and gradually learning from him.

He was disdainful about formal courses. They give certificates but not the practical experience to actually get things done, he said. People like him know the work, Ajay said, but without certificates do not get jobs. It also occurred to me that his lack of schooling would have made him ineligible for most formal courses even if he had wanted to take one.

Stark disparities

For me, Ajay’s life and death is symbolic of some of the challenges that most migrants to cities in India face: eking out a livelihood on the margins, earning more money than they would have in their native places but forced to live in harsh, often unhealthy, degrading conditions. Most have access to insecure jobs in the informal sector, starting their careers as child labourers, not being accorded the dignity that many other cultures would give to their work.

Most are aware of the the stark disparities that they exist within. Many find themselves weighed by aspirational pulls that are very hard to resist. The vulnerabilities and the precariousness of individual lives increase when viewed through the lenses of gender, caste, age and disability.

A migrant worker and his daughter queue for food in Chennai. Credit: Arun Sankar / AFP

For the vast majority of people in India’s cities, inequality and injustice are so chronic and pervasive that they have become accepted as inevitable realities of life. Some of us choose to ignore the plight of these precarious workers because we feel that we cannot do much to change things individually. Others have no qualms about taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. We all play our part to make the sufferings of the vast majority of India’s workforce invisible.

Accentuating reality

The Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown have suddenly accentuated these harsh realities. The desperate plight of millions of informal sector workers, many of them migrants, is suddenly difficult to ignore. Governments, non-governmental organisations and many individuals have responded by providing some relief. But it is clear that a lot more still needs to be done. The next few months are likely to be very difficult. But when the crisis is eventually behind us, will we just go back to the business as usual?

It is said that 90% of India’s workforce works in the informal sector. Because it is “unorganised”, the workers in this sector are largely left to fend for themselves. Umbrella terms like “informal” and “unorganised” create an amorphous whole that is easy to sweep under the proverbial carpet. There is a dearth of specific Central labour laws to protect interests of these workers, especially so for those living in our cities.

Even when there are policies and schemes to safeguard their interests, the actual allotment of resources is too insignificant to make any impact. India even lacks systems to give clarity on how many workers there actually are in the informal sector or the full diversity of the spectrum of work that gets done by them.

A caring society

During this lockdown, most of the essential workers who are keeping the supply lines open –
at great personal risk – are from the informal sector. Our response in the post-pandemic recovery phase cannot not again be one of apathy. India has tremendous resources, knowledge and information at its disposal. Could we also emerge as a society that cares? A country where the well-being of all its citizens is valued?

This would mean aligning our education, employment, public health systems and social security nets to respond imaginatively and effectively to the harsh realities faced by the vast majority of people in the country.

At a personal level, the least that we can do as individuals is to consciously embrace the dignity of labour. We must break down the hierarchies that we are socialised into and acknowledge the importance of all work – even unpaid work. Hopefully it would make the celebration of a post-pandemic May Day more meaningful.

Pinaki Roy works in the development sector.