News | Labour / Unions - Economic / Social Policy - South Asia - Corona Crisis “They have forgotten us”

The COVID-19 pandemic worsens the situation for India’s poor

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[Translate to en:] Wanderarbeiter*innen warten in Neu-Delhi auf Busse
Migrant workers are waiting for buses in New Delhi. The buses have been arranged by the government to transport the workers to their hometowns after they have lost their jobs due to the measures taken against the spread of the coronavirus (March 23, 2020). picture alliance / AP Photo

The new coronavirus is spreading in India. At the end of March, the government imposed an extensive stay-at-home order and asked the country’s approximately 1.3 billion people to practice social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus. However, the effects on India’s poor population are devastating.

Muriel Weinmann is a staff member of the South Asia Office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in New Delhi

“For two days in a row we received nothing to eat at our construction site”, Raju complains. “We were starving.” The young man grabs his bundle containing his few belongings and runs off. He wants to go home, to his home town, 200 kilometres south-east of New Delhi. As long as there is no more work in the Indian capital, there’s no need for him to stay, says Raju, whose fate the ARD had reported, among others.

The images that went around the world at the end of March were terrifying. After the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared an initial three-week stay-at-home order for the whole country in response to the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers made desperate attempts to return to their villages from the overcrowded metropolitan areas, though the buses and trains had largely been suspended. Bus stations were packed with crowds of people. Many tried their luck on foot, forming kilometre-long processions along the arterial roads. Authorities and security forces seemed surprised and overwhelmed.

The government has taken strict measures to stop the spread of the disease. Rightly so, many experts believe, since an uncontrollable spread of the virus would pose a great danger for the approximately 1.3 billion people living in the country. The public health system is already in a catastrophic state, and the majority of the population cannot afford private clinics. The firm-handed strategy has so far proved successful. According to official reports, as of the beginning of April only a few thousand Indians were infected with SARS-CoV-19. However, one can only speculate about the number of unreported cases.

India’s middle class has come to terms with the so-called lockdown nationwide and the “social distancing” proclaimed by the Premier. There is still an adequate supply of basic foodstuffs in the cities, and food shops and pharmacies are still open. Delivery services bring vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and even pizza to the doorstep.

There is, however, a downside. “The stay-at-home order is aimed at the poor in this country,” believes civil rights activist Harsh Mander. Small shops and businesses have to close. Construction sites are at a standstill.  Informal workplaces like eateries and tailoring units have closed. Farmers fear that they will be unable to harvest or sell their crops. Within just a few days, millions of people have lost their livelihood, says Mander, whose organization “Centre for Equity Studies” has been working with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung for years.

According to estimates, more than 90 percent of all workers in India are employed in informal sectors. Every day they are dependent on finding work to keep themselves and their families afloat. More than 120 million of these people are migrant workers.

Poor economic conditions and the lack of opportunities for earning a living working in agriculture have caused many of these people to leave their villages and migrate to India’s big cities in search of better conditions. But due to the nationwide lockdown, they are once again being left with nothing.

Lokesh, a trade unionist from the organization “Centre for Education and Communication” (CEC) has first-hand experience of much of the misery during this crisis. Lokesh and CEC are cooperation partners of the RLS and have been working alongside other civil-society institutions to organize soup kitchens for migrant workers since the outbreak of the crisis. “Currently many places in India are at risk of famine.”

In the meantime, the government has responded. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has promised an aid package of the equivalent of 22 billion euros for the poorest sectors of the population. “We don’t want anyone to remain hungry or without money,” a politician from the Hindu-nationalist National People’s Party BJP said while presenting the programme.

The programme helps people in two ways. Firstly, through the distribution of cooked food and groceries for free. According to government information, India has sufficient reserves to feed the population for more than a year in an emergency situation like this. The public distribution system that has been in place for decades is being used for this purpose. On the other hand, money will be transferred directly into the accounts of those affected.

The trade unionist Lokesh, however, is critical of the programme, saying that the funds are insufficient on the one hand and that there are problems with implementation on the other hand. Many migrant workers have neither the necessary documents nor a bank account to take advantage of the government’s aid programmes, she says: “Without even more comprehensive aid, many people will be excluded from the government’s financial support,” Lokesh fears. In addition, many migrants are not yet aware that the aid programme exists. “The migrant workers are not a homogenous group, and there are few connections between them.” Trade unions and civil-society-organizations are working to close these gaps in knowledge and organize the people affected.

At the same time, fears are growing that the return of migrant workers to their villages could facilitate the unhindered spread of the virus, especially in the poverty-stricken rural regions of India. The former chief minister of the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, recently spoke out in favour of encouraging migrant workers to stay in the cities by providing a comprehensive food supply, thus protecting their families and village communities from the virus. However, observers believe that most of those affected have long since lost confidence in the state.

The question of whether the restrictive measures against the virus could lead to a humanitarian crisis in India is therefore becoming more urgent. Prime Minister Modi defended his government’s actions in a speech a few days ago. At the same time, he asked his fellow countrymen for forgiveness. Addressing the poorer sections of the population, he said: “I understand your anger, but there is no other way to wage war against the coronavirus [...] It is a fight to the death, and we must win it.”

Migrant worker Pramod Sahu expresses understanding for the measures, but also asks: “Why couldn’t the government just give us advance warning? We could have bought more food and made plans for how to get through this,” Certainly, the stay-at-home order has saved lives, Sahu adds. “But they’ve forgotten about us.” 

[Translated by Hunter Bolin and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.]