COVID-19 outbreak brings attention back to informal sector

Over 90% of the country’s total workforce is in the informal sector

By Swasti Pachauri
Published: Monday 23 March 2020

It was abundantly clear after the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak reached Jabalpur, Lucknow, Bhilwara and a reported case from a slum in Mumbai that Indian public policy needed to include the neglected informal sector workforce: The most important stakeholders for politicians.

People across the world are dealing with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, including several shocks that ravaged economies.

The impact of the epidemic is nuanced and multi-layered.

There is no question that what we are about to see is a hyphenated reality: The one that lies in the co-existence of independence-interdependence of local and global economies and more bluntly, globalisation and de-globalisation.

Global and local supply chain disruptions loom across the world, devastated travel and tourism industries, global aviation bracing for impact, tanking stock markets, cancelled events and postponement of several elections are some of the impacts the world is facing.

The crisis ahead is complex and exposes deep societal punctures as everyone slides into a cocoon of imminent self-isolation.

Several state governments in India announced comprehensive packages, keeping in mind the needs of the poor.

The Delhi government, in addition to a Rs 50 crore package in its 2020-2021 budget, announced free lunch and dinner to the homeless, free ration and double pension.

The state governments of Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, West Bengal, Kerala, Rajasthan, etc, all announced urgent welfare measures, keeping in mind the problems of the urban and rural poor.

The working classes, the urban poor and migrant labourers make the economy tick. They, however, bear the brunt each time an unexpected shock hits them.

These shocks have dire consequences: Economic dislocation, long-term livelihood shocks, occupational and social displacement.

Labourers and migrant workers were seen leaving for their native homes, according to media reports and visuals seen on social media.

They leave for the possibility of finding family support, cheaper food, accommodative social structures and a community sense, compared to a fairly alienated urban eco-system.

The existence of the ‘anonymity of the city’ could not have been more obvious.

The alienated luxuries of exercising work from home or calling in sick are not options for those who struggle for daily wages and live hand-to-mouth.

Over 90 per cent of the country’s total workforce lies in this informal sector, largely excluded from holistic legal and social protection, or poor security benefits.

Social distancing, work from home and hand sanitisation are the most logical elixirs correctly recommended and implemented worldwide.

It is, however, worth understanding why many of our brethren don’t have these luxuries, essential in a lockdown situation.

These are isolated concepts when one sees the problem from the lens of the average construction worker, airport staff and garbage collectors sanitising our lives without protective gear.

It beseeches us as a society to look within and understand why these important stakeholders continue to be the most vulnerable. 

They act as bridges between rural and urban India. They are the most important economic buffers that help the economy sustain and thrive.

We must be considerate to factor in compassion and incorporate concepts of affordability and accessibility to the fore, if policy is to be overhauled.

This is the minimum ‘urban vocabulary’ that takes ages to trickle down to the most important stakeholders: People at the wrath of globalisation and its discontents.

How do family members of a household that does not have access to water constantly wash their hands? How does a family of five living in an urban slum practice physical and social distancing?

It is about time that governments come up with a comprehensive plan to protect working classes and the unorganised sector — not just at the time of an epidemic, but for the long haul.

Prioritising resource allocation is key — which is why governments are now designing packages.

A problem of this magnitude, however, should not be the reason to wake up.

A revamped approach to universal basic income or minimum income guarantee on an emergent basis is perhaps needed.

Such concepts were discussed before the 2019 general elections.

India Inc also needs to step in and prove their societal responsibility and ethical commitments. Anand Mahindra and Reliance Foundation have taken the lead in this regard.

A more serious and empathetic approach to cooperative federalism towards coordinated action between the centre and the states, most importantly, becomes the need of the hour.

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