The second wave of Covid-19 in India has thrown up alarming statistics over the past week, with over 1.45 lakh new infections and 794 deaths reported on Saturday alone. While states like Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat have been recording high infection numbers for a few weeks, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh reported their biggest single-day jumps in cases on Sunday. In many places, hospitals have run out of beds and states have run out of vaccines.
But the biggest fear for a vast section of India’s population is not the virus at all. For working-class Indians, particularly daily-wage earners, informal workers and the urban poor, the scariest part of this second wave is the possibility of another lockdown.
Among them is Nawaj Sharif, 19, from West Bengal’s Malda town, who used to work as a tailor in the textile hub of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu. When the Union government announced a sudden lockdown in March last year, Sharif was among lakhs of migrant workers forced to leave cities and return to their villages.
“When it became clear that our bosses would not pay us, we hired a private bus and came back to Bengal,” he said. The journey took him three days and Rs 10,000, wiping out his savings. Now, with cases rising again, he is wary of travelling away from his village and getting stuck in another lockdown. “After what we faced, better to earn less and be at home,” he said.
Workers like Sharif have reason to be wary. Despite last year’s humanitarian crisis, cities like Mumbai and Delhi, which are currently witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases, have not started drawing up contingency plans to avert a food crisis among migrant workers, conversations with officials showed.
“The lockdown has not started yet, so what preparations should we do?” said Manish Valnju, the assistant commissioner of suburban Mumbai’s L ward. “We will do it as and when the state government makes announcements.”
As the second wave spreads, several states have imposed curfews and lockdowns at the district level. Maharashtra imposed a weekend lockdown and is contemplating extending it to two weeks.
However, Jamila Begum, an activist from the non-profit Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, said the police had already imposed an unofficial lockdown in Mumbai’s sprawling Shivaji Nagar slum where she lives.
“Last week when the [Maharashtra] chief minister announced restrictions up till April 30, he said grocery and food shops will be allowed, rickshaws will be allowed,” said Jamila Begum. “But here the police has been beating rickshaw drivers and small sabzi walas and forcing them to stay at home.”
To serve the basic food needs of slum residents, vegetable vendors have taken to covertly selling their stock, at the risk of police crackdown. “How will the poor survive if they once again can’t run their small businesses or buy food properly?” Jamila Begum said. “The restrictions have started but the government has not made any announcements about ration distribution or providing cooked food or money to the poor.”
A humanitarian crisis
Last year’s sudden, blanket, nationwide lockdown was brutal on working-class Indians, particularly migrants like Sharif. Lakhs of people found themselves without income and food. As public transport was suspended, hundreds of thousands of such workers took arduous journeys back home on foot, or squeezed themselves with others in trucks, tempos and buses. Nearly 1,000 lockdown deaths were documented by researchers.
Economists and social activists called on the government last year to take radical measures to prevent hunger. Some of the immediate measures suggested were doubling food rations, giving away excess food stocks and setting up community kitchens for the urban poor. Some of these measures were implemented by the governments.
But experts also asked for long-term, systemic changes like expanding the coverage of the public distribution system by giving ration cards to those who did not own one and creating an infrastructure of support that migrant workers can access during such crises.
A year later, no such infrastructure has been put in place.
Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur has been under a lockdown since April 9 and it will continue for ten days. Last year, the state government arranged for food and shelter for workers during the lockdown. But this year, no such announcements have been made, said activists. Neither had the government approached civil society members to aid them in food distribution.
“There is no helpline number, it is a minimum thing to expect, no ready meals or extra ration distribution measures that the government has announced,” said Sangeeta Sahu, Right to Food activist in Raipur.
Sahu said it was expected of the government to disburse cash assistance as a wage compensation to workers. “We are expecting that some amount of compensation should be given because these ten days will be crucial for groceries and they will be in a difficult period,” she said.
Scroll.in contacted Raipur’s district collector and municipal commissioner to ask them about preparations made for workers and all those left out of the safety net of the public distribution system, but they did not respond to calls or text messages.
In metropolitan cities that are seeing a surge in Covid-19 cases, officials told Scroll.in that there were currently no preparations in place to provide any social security to the poor in case a statewide lockdown is announced. Significantly, many officials dismissed the need for pre-planning welfare measures like rations, cooked food or shelter for vulnerable populations.
Vinayak Vispute, the assistant commissioner of Mumbai’s H-West civic ward where several small slum clusters are located, claimed that social welfare arrangements would be made a “top priority” as and when state authorities give instructions about a lockdown. “But if essential services are allowed during a lockdown, then there will be nothing to worry about, right?” said Vispute.
In Nagpur, Praful Gudadhe, a municipal corporator, emphasised the need for an urgent lockdown in the city to bring down Covid-19 infections. But when asked if the city authorities had started arranging for any basic provisions for the needy, he said, “We are not at that stage yet. Right now having a lockdown is more important, and if it is announced, we will take full responsibility of people,” said Gudadhe. “Last year also people had been given food with the help of NGOs, so no one will go hungry.”
Officials in Delhi, where several curbs have been imposed, insisted that there was no need to prepare as the capital was not planning to impose a lockdown. “There is no problem as such,” said an official who did not wish to be identified. “It is not a situation like last year where we have to distribute food, arrange for buses and trains for migrant workers.”
To migrant and informal workers in the city, nothing could be further from the truth. Technically, “essential services” were allowed during last year’s national lockdown too, but millions from the working class and urban poor were still left stranded without jobs, income or savings to access food or pay rent.
Growing signs of distress
Last year in May, the Centre had announced that it would provide five kilograms of foodgrains to each migrant worker every month, even to those who did not have ration cards or were not enrolled in the Public Distribution System. But on the ground, as Scroll.in found, large numbers of migrant workers were not actually given any rations.
The Centre had also announced cash assistance of Rs 500 per month for April and May to women with Jan Dhan accounts. But this benefit did not have reach all low-income households. Strikingly, in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, only 23% of 14,000 households surveyed had a bank account in the name of the female family member, according to Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action, a nonprofit, that conducted the survey last year.
The limited reach and effectiveness of such schemes to provide a cushion for the most vulnerable makes surviving another lockdown out of question.
“As of now, we are definitely not prepared for another lockdown in terms of social security for the working classes, even if the lockdown may not be as draconian as last year,” said Arun Kumar, the chief executive officer of Apnalaya, a Mumbai-based non-profit organisation working with the urban poor.
Jamila Begum, the activist from the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan in Mumbai, had spent six months last year providing food rations and cooked meals to slum residents in her area. Now, since the start of April, she has been besieged with phone calls from worried residents who want to leave the city because of an intense fear of another lockdown.
“Many of these people have actually just returned to the city in the past two months, because there was no work in their villages,” said Jamila Begum. “If this continues, it will be very difficult for social workers like us, because people don’t trust the government anymore and they expect us to solve everything.”
Signs of distress among migrant workers were visible in the capital too. Some night shelters in the city have seen an increase in their intake by five to seven per cent over the past week, said Santosh Kumar, executive director of Safe Approach, a non-profit that manages 44 night shelters in the city. Each shelter has a community kitchen that prepares two meals and has the capacity to accommodate 50 people.
But Kumar said that the government had not yet approached him to prepare for the possibility of accommodating more workers who may leave the city. “It does not matter whether or not they contact us but we have to be prepared for the situation,” said Kumar, adding that the shelters had an excess number of mattresses from arrangements made last year. “We just hope the situation does not worsen.”
Role of civil society
Civil society organisations across the country have been echoing these very concerns in recent weeks.
During last year’s disastrous lockdown, central and state governments had relied heavily on NGOs and citizen volunteers to take on the task of providing food, shelter and other social welfare to the poor. This time, organisations want state and central governments to be better prepared as they contemplate lockdowns, but have been largely disappointed so far.
“The most essential thing is ensuring that the Public Distribution System is well stocked and that provision of rations is delinked to ration cards,” said Roshni Nuggehalli, the executive director of Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action or YUVA, one of the 39 civil society organisations that wrote a letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on April 6, urging him to avoid a hasty or complete lockdown and offering suggestions to avoid another humanitarian crisis.
Civil society groups have been demanding the universalisation of the Public Distribution System for years, so that the poor do not need to depend on identity documents and ration cards in order to get food grains. The looming uncertainty at present brings back questions that activists raised last year.
“Every single time we wait to go into a crisis mode,” said Anjali Bharadwaj of the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan. Bharadwaj had suggested giving workers Covid cards for them to keep availing rations and other facilities.
“As long as the Disaster Management Act is in place, there will be uncertainty in employment,” she said. “So the government needs to give ration and cash to workers in the unorganised sector.”
While the central government has made no move towards implementing this, it had launched the One Nation One Ration Card scheme after last year’s lockdown to allow migrant populations to utilise their ration cards anywhere in the country by linking it to their Aadhaar numbers.
“But this transportability of ration cards is yet to be properly implemented on the ground,” said Arun Kumar, the chief executive officer of Apnalaya. Instead of working to bring more people into the food security net, the Niti Aayog recently proposed heavily reducing PDS coverage in both urban and rural areas in order to help the government save Rs 47,229 crore on subsidies annually.
To include those without ration cards into the PDS system, the Delhi government introduced an e-coupon scheme for migrant workers and the urban poor to avail rations through their Aadhaar card without any cost. This scheme benefited 69.6 lakh people but was stopped after a few months.
Officials in the Delhi government said there was no need to start the scheme again in the absence of a full lockdown in the city. However, several reports have noted migrant workers heading to bus terminals to leave the city after curbs and night curfew was put in place over the past week. Reminded of the crisis last year, these workers said they were leaving to avoid running out of their savings.
Another critical measure the government ought to take, according to Nuggehalli, is arranging for substantial direct cash transfers to vulnerable populations. “The Rs 500 that some people got for a few months last year was meaningless,” she said. “Relief measures also need to be decentralised, and we should not shut down anganwadis and other local services that help vulnerable people.”