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Inadequate social security post-second wave; livelihood risk, poverty aggravate: Study

By Shalaka Chauhan, Adrian D’Cruz*

With the Covid-19 crisis, the urban informal workers, largely invisibilized by modern urban development, were visible at least on mainstream news, and social media. Those heart wrenching images and news, and the subsequent mobilisation of civil society organisations, campaigns and government officials scrambling to fill gaps in safety nets for workers led to the mainstreaming of the informal workers’ social protection discourse.
“The visceral images of informal sector workers trudging hundreds of kilometres in the heat during the first lockdown in 2020 inadvertently acted as a workers' rights march,” says Meena Menon of the Working People’s Charter. This year, State governments were expected to be prepared to support the returning migrants, most of which are informal sector workers.
In April 2021, as localised lockdowns were implemented and the Covid situation worsened dramatically, these same urban informal workers, struggling to cope with the new wave were subjected to more lost livelihoods and despair. In this context, unlike last year, it was expected that all the States with their learnings from past failures, and fresh experience of dealing with migrant informal workers would react in a quicker, more dynamic and robust fashion to guarantee a basic social protection floor.
Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS) and Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action's (YUVA's) joint study Seeking Justice for Informal Workers During the Covid-19 Second Wave assessed social protection to the informal sector through orders and announcements of the Union government and 10 State governments (Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh) from 1st April to 10th June 2021. The report findings underline the gaps in social protection and the way forward.
When the country was reeling from the devastating impacts of the second wave of Covid, major lockdowns followed a public health crisis. From the beginning of April (end of March in States like Maharashtra), lockdowns lasted in their most extreme forms till mid June. During this time, through the announcements of relief measures, the economic, social and health needs of the 4 largest groups of urban informal sector workers (i.e. construction workers, domestic workers, street vendors and waste pickers) were addressed but unevenly so.
Only 3 orders were passed by the Union Government of India, specifically in favour of all these groups during the second wave. 2 out of the 3 orders were related to the continuous provision of dry rations to all PDS cardholders. Only one circular ordered the registration of domestic workers in the country as a directive to States. In the same period (from 1 April to 10 June) the 10 States which have been examined in this report due to them hosting a majority of migrant workers in the country, released a total of 33 orders specific to the 4 worker groups.
Seven orders were related to provisions of rations and cooked meals to vulnerable groups, 5 orders calling for registration drives for workers, 9 out of 10 States ordered cash transfers for some of the worker groups, 1 ordered the widening and continuation of a financial loan scheme, 6 States released orders declaring some of the groups as essential workers and 1 order setup a grievance redressal mechanism for workers to be assisted. Although most States ordered financial assistance to Covid orphans, only 3 states ordered the inclusion of these most vulnerable worker groups in their vaccination priority lists.

Social protection

Of the 10 States, only 5 States provided cash transfers to construction workers between INR 1,000–INR 5,000 for registered construction workers. Registration with Building and Other Construction Workers welfare boards is vital to access social protection, but only 3 out of the 10 States (Assam, Gujarat and Odisha) ordered new registration drives for construction workers during the second wave. Construction activities were allowed through official government circulars in Gujarat, Delhi and Maharashtra.
Among the 10 States, only the Maharashtra government ordered direct cash transfer of INR 1,500 to registered domestic workers. Although there are more than 4 lakh domestic workers in Maharashtra, the relief was only due to be provided to little over 1 lakh of them. Although there was no announcement categorising domestic workers as essential service providers, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) allowed domestic workers to work and travel during the lockdown and only one State (Madhya Pradesh) prioritised domestic workers for vaccination. The central government meanwhile has released an order to conduct an All-India Survey on Domestic Workers, poised to be published by November 2021, according to the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
Only 4 States (Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh) announced cash transfer schemes for street vendors. These were meant only for registered street vendors, or those who were beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Street Vendor’s AtmaNirbhar Nidhi (PM SVANidhi) credit scheme announced in 2020. An ongoing scheme for vendors, Jagan Thodu of the Andhra Pradesh government, promising INR 10,000 interest free loans to vendors, was renewed during the second wave via a government circular.
Only the Gujarat and Assam governments released circulars allowing street vendors to operate freely without police harassment. The Assam government announced the setup of compulsory sanitisation points in all its local and weekly markets. Only 2 States (Odisha and Chhattisgarh) mentioned street vendors in their priority lists to receive vaccination.
It is a matter of grave concern that neither the central nor the selected 10 State governments provided any relief to the considerable waste picker community. Only one circular passed by the central government, which launched a registration drive under NFSA, mentions waste pickers. No other policy, State or government order considered waste pickers.
However, positive and progressive measures that form the stepping stones towards universal social protection for informal workers were also seen during the pandemic. Relief measures were highly varied across States, with some recognising different groups by livelihood, some through marginalisation of identity and some through a combination.
It was found that some States announced meaningful relief measures for distinct groups like beedi workers, rickshaw pullers, auto drivers, tea garden workers, sex workers, dock workers, amongst many others. Maharashtra announced cash transfer to auto drivers and free distribution of food to migrant workers.
Assam released numerous orders in favor sex workers, tea garden workers, rikshaw pullers, auto drivers and gig workers. Delhi had also announced social protection measures in terms of cash transfers and food facility for migrant workers, auto drivers and gig workers.
For the current stage, a safety net is significant to combat the livelihood risks by safeguarding the food security
Circulars/orders for marginalised identities like the homeless, transgender communities, women, children, tribal groups and people with disabilities from States were also released by some States. It was found that most State governments aimed to safeguard children who have been orphaned by Covid-19. Education fees assistance and monthly allowances have been uniformly announced across most States for Covid orphans.
Groups like persons with disabilities, tribal groups, and the homeless have been afforded vaccination priority by States like Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Assam and Chhattisgarh also provided transgender persons a priority status in vaccination while the Centre announced INR 1,500 cash transfer to registered transgender persons.

Overall impressions

The findings highlight that during the second wave, a larger number of State governments provided relief to more types of informal workers. Recognition of varied worker groups has seemingly improved as compared to the first lockdown. Subhadra Pandey of SEWA pointed out the collective and coordinated effort made by Delhi and central government.
“Free dry rations and cooked rations expanded by Delhi were supplemented by Jan Dhan payments provided by the centre. Street vendors were provided for by the centre along with the vaccinations and ICDS provisions. Monitoring systems were constantly maintained by the State government to oversee relief efforts of both levels of government. This is a very good example of how two governments can work together in times of crisis,” says Pandey, who works directly with thousands of construction and domestic workers in Delhi through SEWA.
However, we cannot deny the fact that the social protection coverage is inadequate in dealing with the aggravating livelihood risks and poverty in India. There is a severe lacuna in ensuring relief and social protection for the most vulnerable among these workers. Therefore, for the current stage, a safety net is significant to combat the livelihood risks by safeguarding the food security, livelihood protection, and health and safety.
“The nature of informality in urban spaces is very varied. Many of these workers fit into multiple identities. Self-employed people also might double as domestic workers, as disguised workers, changing through multiple worker identities within the span of one day even,” says Bharti Birla of the International Labour Organisation. She recognised the good work done by States to announce measures based on the vulnerability of professions but still re-examines the context of informality in urban spaces.
It is more prudent to look at informal workers through the one sector they are associated with or should they be understood as ever moving parts of a highly varied and complex web. “114 million directly lost their livelihoods during the first and second lockdown according to a study done by ILO. The interventions by States to assist these workers often involved sector based schemes, which have complex eligibility criterias varying from State to State,” Birla points out.
In this scenario one really has to reconsider the strategy used to facilitate the formalisation of workers. Is it right to keep continuing the ad-hoc nature of such announcements which may exclude many groups through technicalities or should there be another more all-encompassing approach?

Way forward

The report details a few general measures that should be undertaken, not only in the event of another pandemic-like situation, but as a national strategy to tackle economic vulnerability or the entire informal sector workforce.
  • Food security can be improved by expediting the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC), establishing more worker canteens and community kitchens, help desks at local levels and the universalisation of the mid-day meal scheme.
  • A national database of workers is to be drafted under the Ministry of Labour and Employment to begin formalisation. Pre-existing worker welfare boards must be strengthened before making new provisions and departments to tackle this issue. It also should be a norm for all States to immediately issue guidelines and orders in favour of vulnerable informal sector workforce as soon as there is a crisis.
  • The inclusion of urban informal workforce in health schemes such as AB-PMJAY, RSBY and others must be given an impetus by registration drives, through worker welfare boards and inclusion of NGOs in project planning. 
  • Basic primary healthcare treatment costs and generic drugs should be universally covered in times of crisis as out of pocket expenditure is the sole reason why many families slip back under the poverty line. 
  • More immediately, door to door vaccination campaigns should be undertaken at the slum/basti level for informal workers so that they can rejuvenate their livelihoods without the fear of hospitalisation to a large extent.
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*Shalaka Chauhan is a social designer by practice and currently works with YUVA where she focuses on participatory city planning, and housing and labour rights. Adrian D’Cruz is a researcher and social sector practitioner with IGSSS, working on issues such as informality within labour and sustainable urban development practices.

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