Indian workers in the informal and service sectors are facing devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Harsh lockdown measures have removed access to transportation, employment, and assistance for many, leaving approximately 400 million people in danger of extreme poverty.
According to statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and a 2017 government survey, internal migrants make up approximately 10% of India’s economic output and compose about 20% of the Indian workforce. Many have left impoverished villages for the city, where they are faced with harsh working conditions and small paychecks. With the virus making employment opportunities and resources increasingly scarce, many Indians have found themselves trapped in a negative cycle of poverty.
“I’m used to working 12 hours a day, but now I have nothing to do but sit here, stare at this screen, and worry,” one man told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. Pramod Sahu was a 36-year-old textile worker in Surat, a city in the western state of Gujurat, but has been laid off because of COVID-19. He and eight other men have been sharing a small room. “We’re trying to make one person’s food feed four, but right now I feel we will soon die of hunger.”
With migrant workers unable to send back wages to their families, citizens who live outside the city are in a similarly precarious position, according to labor researcher Nivedita Jayaram. “Just like in the cities, all work has stopped and people already can’t afford to buy groceries,” Jayaram said. “So there is a high risk of rural impoverishment increasing without these remittances.”
The lockdown has also emphasized the inherent tension between India’s social classes. Police have clashed with migrants attempting to return home from Mumbai and Surat, and there have been reports of police brutality against marginalized Indian Muslims. One individual was beaten to death by police in West Bengal after breaking lockdown measures to buy milk. India’s finance minister has reassured the nation that the government “doesn’t want anyone to go hungry.” However, stimulus efforts and relief packages are typically being offered through pre-existing programs which migrant workers don’t qualify for.
“We should be setting up community kitchens and converting schools into welfare centers, but sadly our policymakers seem to be watching out more for the middle and upper classes,” says economist Reetika Khera. Migrant laborers are a political “blindspot,” and the government is unprepared to help. “They [policymakers] clearly didn’t anticipate any of this, and now everything feels like an afterthought.”
If any part of the economic pyramid needs significant attention during the pandemic, it’s the bottom. Overpopulated living conditions create a prime environment for the disease to spread, especially with an overworked population who do not have their basic needs met. It is not the people at the top of the social pyramid who are most at risk, and it should not be this difficult to have some compassion for one’s fellow countrymen, especially when that lack of compassion puts everyone in danger. Keeping a country safe in a pandemic is its government’s job. Why are we paying people in authority to make serious problems worse?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi can ask for forgiveness for his harsh measures all he likes. Until those measures start paying off for the vulnerable people under his aegis, that forgiveness will not, cannot, be given to him.
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