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Thinking about COVID-19 Relief and Recovery in India

By Ruchika Lall (WP5 researcher, IIHS) with inputs from Anand Lakhan, Abdul Shakeel, and Issac Arul Selva (Housing Rights Activists, India).


Over the last few months, the COVID-19 Pandemic has made visible and amplified several inequalities globally, across lines of gender, race, caste, religion. In India as well, the pandemic has exposed inherent inequalities and cracks in urban systems and how those who are left outside of these, are coping with the current challenges largely by themselves. In many ways, the invisibility of people in structural responses and planning processes is not new. For many, risks are experienced on an everyday basis – through the threat of eviction and the absence of social security, where issues of health, income and food security are managed by people themselves on a daily basis, –– amplified, through intersectional inequalities that manifest differentially. What may be different during the pandemic, is the simultaneity of the shock and stresses, as well as the extended uncertainty at the scale of a national disaster.

In the month of March 2020, the Union Government of India enforced the Disaster Management Act of 2005 nationally, in response to the increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases across Indian cities. While this is not the first global public health crisis, there has been an absence of contextual policy responses at the national level, that recognize local challenges and capacities of the vast majority to adopt the WHO guidelines universally – through preparedness, relief and recovery. A centralized response to the challenge of the pandemic saw the country under lockdown, with restrictions on interstate mobility, with hardly any intimation for people to plan before. Now, almost 5 months since the first order of lockdown, and over two months of phased and state-wise unlocking and unplanned re-locking across urban centers, uncertainties with rising case numbers and of intimation of further lockdown continue. The implications of the COVID-19 response measures for the vast majority continues to expand the public health crisis, into a humanitarian one – the toll of which is yet to be adequately measured.

In the initial weeks of lockdown, in the absence of daily wages and urban social protection, urban migrants across the country took to walking along exorbitant journeys to villages at great personal risk, a migration wave that has been compared to the exodus of partition during Indian independence. For many, there was also no ‘village’ of sorts to return to – as generational migration has established the city as the home, even while urban systems may not. Additional to loss of income, various other related distresses include childcare, immunization, maternal health care, health risks faced by waste workers, as well as technological inequalities affecting access to education.

Relief infrastructure for food and shelter has been set up in cities across the country, by highly challenged finance and delivery mechanisms at the state level. Cracks in the public distribution system through portability and availability of identity documents meant several poor working citizens fell through the implementation channels. Recognizing the enormity of relief required, and the visibility of state gaps - citizen groups have been mobilizing across cities at varying scales to address basic relief needs. This has included efforts across individuals and networks through - volunteers in the city, community kitchens, activist networks, federations of residents of informal settlements and unions of domestic workers. In an uncertainty of outreach, in the last few months, the state has relied on these channels for relief – for last mile connectivity and identifying people in need.

Housing rights activists Anand Lakhan, Abdul Shakeel and Issac Arul Selva share their experience on the situation in the cities of Indore, Bhopal, Jabalpur, Delhi and Bangalore and identify multifold challenges across issues of life, livelihood and displacement. In addition to waves of migration that has been documented by national and global media from the cities to villages, and the challenges of managing rent in the absence of income, forced evictions of informal settlements continue in various cities, in violation of international human rights law. This is in spite of stay at home orders at the national level, as well as global guidelines against evictions during the pandemic. In addition to these, issues threatening right to life and dignity range across availability of ration in the absence of livelihood, to managing issues of health during the pandemic – sanitation and isolation facilities in informal settlements, waste management and care for sanitation workers. The loss of livelihood has been across sectors, and informal work has been deeply hit, with several people reporting non-payment of wages during the lockdown, loss of jobs, as well as a stigma against informal workers- in-spite COVID being a disease that has travelled from the affluent.

Issues of livelihood continue due to various reasons – disruption of work during lockdown, uncertainty of work in times of social distancing post unlocking measures. Street vendors face different experiences across cities and locations, according to local body responses, as well as people’s perceptions of informal work, while drivers of informal transport modes such as auto rikshaws and taxis consider starting street vending.

Generational crafts and informal work such as shoe-repair, henna, seasonal making of idols also find it hard to resume work as the city unlocks. The loss of work also includes gig employees informally employed in ‘formal’ enterprises. Domestic workers, in particular women, share experiences of non-payment of wages, difficulty in returning to work – due to stigma and restrictions imposed by employers. While some believe this may change with time, and it may be possible to return to work, others are looking to alternate modes of livelihood.

While the economic package announced at the center mentions the informal sector and migrants, through schemes such as portability of identity documents for ration, free grain supply, credit facility for street vending, rental housing complexes –a close reading of these reveals that these may fall short – in terms of delays in implementation, lack of data and recognition of those who are unidentified, and the risk of pushing vulnerable households into debt.

In this context, urban activists are thinking of ways to engage with these questions of livelihood, along questions of relief and recovery. In Delhi groups of women in riot affected areas have been manufacturing PPE for small scale service enterprises. Others in Indore are considering ways to share technologies for soap manufacturing, and in Bangalore, considering models of self-help groups to connect people to financial cooperatives. As donation relief pulls back, it is also essential to strategise across scales of immediate needs of relief and sustainable livelihoods – in a manner that connects to questions of systemic change and urban social protection. While this year has been described by many for a potential of change, a reflection of who gets to shape this change is essential - it will take a lot of work and negotiation, and the inclusion of people’s voices and rights in the process of recovery.


Pictured: Typical urban livelihoods in India, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic Images by IIHS Media Lab


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