A little over a year ago, the world was hit by the coronavirus pandemic. A nationwide lockdown was imposed in India on March 24, 2020. Within weeks, millions of urban poor left the cities to return to their homes, using any available means of transport. Many of them walked hundreds of miles. Many couldn’t survive the journey.

Even today, the first images that India associates with Covid-19 are not ventilators or ICUs, but labourers trudging back to their villages with little or no money, lugging their belongings. It is estimated that in the first wave, almost 10 million people returned to their villages, half a million of them walking or bicycling.

The lockdown resulted in tremendous loss of jobs and incomes. The extent of loss of livelihoods in urban areas was witnessed in the latest round of the Periodic Labour Force Survey wherein the urban unemployment rate for the population above the age of 15 stood at 20.8%. Findings of Pew research show that about 13.2 million people have fallen off the middle class bracket and the number of poor in India has increased by 75 million. Given the rate at which people are migrating to cities, what is in store for the crores of workers without a caring citizenry and systemic welfare support?

For the urban poor, the pandemic has meant further unemployment, food insecurity, indebtedness and marginalisation. With a second wave of Covid-19 coursing through India, and governments announcing more lockdowns, in this essay, we seek to share a glimpse of the life on the margin in Indian cities through a study conducted in Shivaji Nagar, M East ward, of Mumbai.

One of Mumbai’s first resettlement colony

Half of Mumbai lives in slums. The six lakh people of Shivaji Nagar slums share a similar predicament. The ward has been home to migrants from different parts of India, as well as to those resettled from the erstwhile slums situated in the inner recesses of Mumbai. According to the Mumbai Human Development report 2009, the ward has the lowest human development index in the 24 wards of Mumbai. The infant mortality rate is 66 of 1,000 live births, while the national average is 41. Adjacent to Asia’s oldest and the second largest waste dump dating back to 1927 and India’s largest abattoir, Shivaji Nagar was one of the first resettlement colonies of Mumbai, established in 1972. The average age at death here is 39 years.

About 80% of M East ward population lives in slums. The lockdown has visibly shown us how the lack of data on the urban poor may result in disenfranchising them systemically. The government pins the population of Shivaji Nagar at 2.37 lakhs, while civil society organisations in this area know there is undercounting to the tune of about 200,000 people, if not more. Data gaps exist in every sphere of the urban poor. In Shivaji Nagar, it is perhaps a bit more pronounced. Given this context, Apnalaya conducted a study to assess the situation and needs of the Shivaji Nagar community.

A view of Shivaji Nagar. Photo: Apnalaya

Income insufficiency and indebtedness

In our study, we found that the average monthly household income for Shivaji Nagar is Rs 13,555 about Rs 2,570 per person for the whole month. Over 50% of households report having to borrow despite having an income.

The majority borrowed to mitigate emergencies: 70.5% reported borrowing to meet health-related expenses. Expenditure on food grains and education were also reported as major reasons for borrowing. Almost 10% of respondents reported needing to borrow money to buy water, a basic amenity.

Despite 46% of households reporting that they earn, meet their requirements and save, only 27.9% of the population reported having savings. Even of those that have savings, 84.3% use savings for daily expenses, further indicating the challenges with income insufficiency in the community.

Reasons for borrowing by sub-area, Shivaji Nagar

The community members we interviewed, painted a grim picture on the impact of the lockdown on income sufficiency. They shared that meeting expenses during the pandemic was a major worry. Ability to pay rent was the most commonly reported concern, with one respondent saying they could go without food for some time, but could not afford to be thrown out of their homes. Many participants reported being on the brink of starvation during the lockdown. Eighty-one percent people in Shivaji Nagar struggled for food and 70% had to borrow money to buy ration and water.

Dwindling jobs and income

The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown significantly altered the employment landscape. As early as May 2020, an estimated 114 million had lost their jobs. This included 91 million daily wage earners and 17 million salary earners who had been laid off across 271,000 factories and 65-70 million small and micro enterprises had come to a halt.

A livelihood survey by Azim Premji University suggests that at least 20% of those who lost work during the lockdown were still unemployed in December, with urban areas hit worse than rural and women hit harder than men.

During this global health crisis, obliteration of livelihoods was the top most concern for the people in Shivaji Nagar. About 72% people reported unemployment and loss of wages as a key concern, significantly higher than health of family members (51%) or health of self (16%). Inability to pay bills was also a major worry, reported by 49% of respondents. Despite only 6.7% of the respondent reporting job loss due to lockdown, the overall lack of income during this period was very high.

Eighty-seven percent of those who were employed but could not attend work reported no income, while another 12% reported receiving only partial payment. While in absolute terms a greater number of males reported job loss due to the lockdown, the proportion of females reporting job loss for this reason was higher – 14.1% compared to 5.6% of males.

The labour force participation rate for women in Shivaji Nagar is a mere 16.8%. A study done by Apnalaya in 2015 had shown a slightly higher proportion of women in workforce (17.2%). Women’s employment has wide ramifications not just for their own well-being but also for the entire economy, and has been a policy concern as India has had a declining trend in women’s employment (rural and urban) over the last twenty years. Urban employment rates for women in India have always been low and stagnant. This lends credence to the argument that the pandemic and the lockdown have had a disproportionate effect on women.

Food insecurity

Poor nutrition accompanied with food insecurity has been a serious concern in Shivaji Nagar. Today there appears to be a positive shift in food insufficiency and insecurity patterns when compared to the situation in 2015.

Of the study population, 83.5% report eating three or more times in a day. This is significantly different from the situation in 2015 as our study then suggested that 46.5% of families ate only once or twice in a day. The proportion of families reporting eating only once or twice in 2020 has come down to 16.5%. Although a lesser proportion of families’ report food insufficiencies (eating less than thrice a day) in 2020, a greater proportion report food insecurity, 13.5% as compared with 11.2% in 2015.

This suggests that people were more worried about accessing enough food in the year 2020 with majority of the concerns being linked to the pandemic and resulting loss of employment and meagre family income. In this context, it is surprising that the NITI Aayog would propose to lower the food subsidies from 50% to 40% in urban areas, despite the fact that the country has four times of the grains it needs to feed the entire country.

What is interesting to note is that half of the families worried about not having enough food for the family in 2020 also do not have ration cards. Surprisingly, a greater proportion of food insecure families do not have a ration card in 2020 than in 2015. Food insecurity is closely linked with the flawed public distribution system. The PDS has been unable to account for a mobile migrant population. It bases its grain allocation on a 10-year old population estimate and chooses to stay ignorant of the ground realities around actual access to rations with or without a ration card.

Reimagining the way forward

The 12th richest city in the world, with half of its population living in abysmal conditions sans basic amenities, Mumbai needs a new script for inclusive development. So does every town and the city of India.

Covid-19 and the lockdown have only exacerbated the pre-existing inequities and exclusion that have sadly come to define the city today. While most of the urban poor who run our cities live without any social security and safety net, the city by and large stays aloof to their day-to-day struggles.

Urbanity demands that we eradicate the daily drudgery of our fellow citizens. Feeding the hungry is virtuous. This is what the city has done during the lockdown. What we need, however, is to help the poor to a path of recovery, resilience and self-reliance. Do we see them as equal citizens or, do we treat them merely as the “commodity of labour”? How much of the annual budget of our city is targeted at rebuilding the lives of the ravaged workers?

We wait for a substantial policy for the urban poor that ensures greater social security and is not yet another loan instrument.