Need to build inclusive cities in the post-pandemic world

It’s time that public policy focuses on a radical re-envisioning of urban spaces and on improving social inclusion of migrants in urban settings.
Migrants on their way home during the countrywide lockdown (Image: Stranded Workers Action Network) Migrants on their way home during the countrywide lockdown (Image: Stranded Workers Action Network)

When migrants headed home after Covid-19 lockdown 1.0, Sarojini was suddenly caught off-guard. She decided against moving, after an initial urge to leave for her village in Samastipur, Bihar. Her two sons stay with her at Delhi, doing daily wage labour work, while she works as a domestic help. After eating frugally for the first few days, and unable to access dry rations provided by the state, they came across cooked meals at a feeding centre, but the queue was endless. She came across a gurudwara that was offering cooked meals to the migrant workers stranded in the area.

By the time the government clamped the second round of lockdown, she had completely run out of money for rent, food, essentials and even transportation cost to return home. She left for her village by foot, after battling to survive for three weeks after losing employment. She was yet to get the Rs. 1000 cash transfer to stranded migrants that Bihar government provided. The family would now use its 3 acre farmland to take a loan from the local mahajan, to finance the farm inputs for the coming kharif crop.

The plight of millions of stranded migrant workers like Sarojini, their desperation, the immense hardship they had to endure in the absence of critical public services has been summed up by many researchers who documented the situation. These point to how the urban policy processes were yet to recognise migrants as a legitimate part of the citizenry.  

Between hunger and a pandemic

The Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a group of researchers working on the implementation of the rural job scheme, tracked migrant workers stranded across the country during lockdown 1.0 and made some recommendations that hinged on immediate relief measures. The report titled ‘21 days and counting: Covid-19 lockdown, migrant workers, and the inadequacy of welfare measures in India’ was based on survey of 11,159 migrant workers stranded in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh (1,618). The lockdown-hit migrant workers belonged to Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The findings of the study are startling as close to 96 percent of the respondents did not receive any dry rations, while 70 percent lacked knowledge of or access to the cooked meals distributed by local authorities. They were not receiving rations as they were not registered in the databases for migrant workers in the states where they worked. The study also indicated that the percentage of people having less than 1 day of rations has steadily increased from 36 percent at the end of the second week of lockdown to about 50 percent at the end of the third week of lockdown. “With neither food nor cash, migrant workers have been pushed to the brink of starvation, alarming levels of vulnerability and extreme indignity,” the SWAN report says. It recommends universalising ration delivery, cash provision of Rs. 7,000 per stranded worker, and more feeding centres so that all the stranded workers can be served.

The second report by SWAN ‘32 days and counting: Covid-19 lockdown, migrant workers, and the inadequacy of welfare measures in India’ in addition to measures to ensure food security, makes a case for providing wage compensation and other social security nets.

The report recommends the need to provide home delivery of ration, double ration under public distribution system for 3 months by using the stocks from the Food Corporation of India godowns, universalise food security, continue feeding centres till food distress lingers and provide cash relief to workers.

It also highlights the need to supply clean drinking water and free water tanks in all colonies (notified and non-notified) which do not have piped water supply, to allow people to regularly wash hands.

Alarming levels of vulnerability of construction workers

A report 'Voices of the invisible citizens' by Jan Sahas Foundation, an NGO highlights how Covid-19 took a toll on construction workers. The first phase - lockdown 1.0 had precipitated a crisis as millions of migrants got stranded and unemployment reached all-time high levels. A rapid assessment survey on the upshot of the 21-day nationwide Covid-19 lockdown on construction workers highlights their vulnerability in the wake of the humanitarian and public health crisis.

The share of the construction sector is over 9 percent in India’s GDP and it employs 55 million daily-wage workers. With work and transport services getting suspended, migrants were left with no option but to trudge the highway winding towards their villages. The report by Jan Sahas is based on telephonic interviews with 3,196 migrant construction workers mostly male and from Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi-NCR region. “The decision of these workers to walk from their place of labour back to their homes, despite the possibility of violence, thirst and hunger, pose before the Indian public a huge moral question. In combatting the Covid-19 epidemic, are we going to let migrant workers still stuck in cities, in transit and back in their homes face extreme hunger, thirst and poverty?,” says Asif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas.

The interviews done during March 27 to 29, 2020 documents that 55 percent of the workers earned between Rs. 200 to 400 per day to support an average family size of four persons. 42 percent of the workers mentioned that they had no ration left even for the day, let alone for the duration of the lockdown.

The report also notes that the general practise of considering the male member of the family as the sole and default breadwinner renders female labourers belonging to the household invisible. Women labourers lose assistance they are entitled to, due to gender bias in counting.

Millions of migrants rushed to return to their villages amid the lockdown (Image: Pixabay/balouriarajesh. Pixabay licence)

Frontline workers need to be engaged to identify and provide emergency support to pregnant women. With women migrant labourers also being put into relief camps at destinations, menstrual hygiene products should be included as an essential good to be provided to them, the report points.

Further, the study indicates that just about 30 percent labourers actually possess MGNREGA job cards and feel that the system was ridden with corruption, delays in payment release and low wages.

The need for income assistance

The report points to the structural flaws in the beneficiary identification systems that hamper the reach of the subsidy and relief to migrant workers. 62 percent of the interviewees did not know the emergency welfare measures and 37 percent of them did not know how to access the schemes. 33 percent of the respondents were stuck in destination cities at the point of interview due to the lockdown with little or no access to food, water and money. A staggering 94 percent of the workers do not have the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) identity card, and cannot avail any of the benefits that the state has declared from its Rs. 32,000 crore BOCW fund.

The sudden visibility of migrants

A study ‘Borders of an epidemic: Covid-19 and migrant workers’ by the Calcutta Research Group looked at how caste, race, gender, and other fault lines operate in governmental strategies to cope with the virus epidemic. Among other things, the report shows how fear, anxiety, and insecurity, indeed every aspect of human life, mark the issue of return of the migrants to their villages and towns. It also shows how the return of thousands of workers to their places of origin amidst conditions of hunger and despair made them visible. Their visibility due to reverse migration and ‘social distancing’ during the lockdown has raised questions to which policies built around a single-minded focus on lock down have no answer.

A large number of the 120 to 140 million migrants who walked back or got stranded in camps are faced with the risk of falling deeper into poverty during the Covid-19 crisis, as per the International Labour Organization.

It’s time that public policy focuses on a radical re-envisioning of urban spaces and on improving the social inclusion of migrants in urban settings. Lack of access to social rights and dignity are a few frontiers that cities need to brave.

Migrant’s claim to urban spaces

The report by Jan Sahas calls for immediate utilisation of the PM CARES fund for income assistance to labourers taking into account the real loss in wages and the stipulated monthly minimum wages, for at least the next 3-6 months to prevent indebtedness or debt bondages and consequent bonded/forced labour. “Under both MNREGA as well as BOCW laws, there are provisions that allow for the state to pay for unemployment allowance. There is a need to increase allocations from the centre for the states to activate these respective provisions in the law, and announce these measures including detailed provisions of payment transfers from centre to state to ensure that there is no delay in payments,” the report says.

A report ‘Unlocking the urban: Reimagining migrant lives in cities post-Covid-19’ by the Aajeevika Bureau suggests that immediate measures to integrate migrant workers into public provisioning and formal employment systems can prove effective. It calls for - identification and enumeration of migrant hotspots for public provisioning; universalisation of public distribution system; adequate and safe shelter facilities; access to urban healthcare systems; gender specific measures and legal liabilities on employers and landlords for the provision of basic facilities.

The findings of a study ‘Migration and Reverse Migration in the Age of COVID-19’ by Ajay Dandekar and Rahul Ghai in the Economic and Political Weekly indicates the “need for a complete transformation of economic and admini­strative processes, practices and policies to enable the rural to face up to the issues that the coronavirus-induced reverse migration has thrown up. We need a charter of the rights of the working population across the board that ensures the right to livelihood, food, security and above all dignity of labour. Such a charter should become the guiding principle in the post-coronavirus phase of India’s polity and economy. A failure to consider the above will result in a calamity.”

All these reports point to the need to immediately upgrade the social security mechanism, provide food and adequate wage compensation, so the actual benefits reach the disadvantaged. 

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