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Elite Policy For Poor Lay Exposed By Lockdown

The elite of India, the policymakers, opposition and enforcers alike, have no idea what facilities the have-nots are capable of availing

Coronavirus is a great eye-opener. The lockdown imposed nationwide to check the spread of the virus has exposed how the system is rigidly pro-elite. Not merely in reaching succour to them but also in carefully maintaining an economic system that is based on the exploitation of the non-elite. Coronavirus has aggravated their plight and shown how the system we cherish had actually been built on wringing out the blood and sweat from those at the bottom of the pyramid and how carefully we avoid seeing their tears.

Remember that little girl Jamlo Makdam from Chhattisgarh who was working in chilli fields in Telangana to earn a living for her family? Reportedly, after walking for three days from 15 April, she, along with 11 others who worked with her, died of exhaustion while they were close to their village. While the elite made due sounds of sympathy, two questions did not receive much attention. First, why a 12-year-old girl goes for plucking chilli so far away from home? Second, why did the chilli farmer not make necessary arrangement for helping the migrant workers stay near their workplace during the lockdown? Clearly, these are uncomfortable questions and they do not speak well of the world we live in. In any case, from the royal Rs 1 lakh compensation announced for the girl’s family by her native state Chhattisgarh, one can see the value attached to such lives. We have moved on since then. The chillies she had plucked with her little fingers now spice up our foods. 

Jamlo is not an isolated example of economic exploitation. Just take the case of Yadram or many such casual workers who earn their livelihood by serving the well-heeled households in various housing societies in large cities. Before coronavirus rudely threw them out of their comfort zone, they were earning a decent amount to live in rented accommodation and even sending some money back home. But their daily earnings stopped since they were thrown out of the complexes. Very few of the residents who used to draw on their services cared to pay them the monthly contacted amount for, say, cleaning their cars or ironing their clothes. After a month or so, they had to depend on the two rotis provided by some well-meaning NGOs. The five-day long economic package announced could not touch their lives. They live outside the boundary of the economy we can think of though their services are no less essential.

Take the case of desperate people walking back home, sleeping on railway tracks or huddled inside a truck. Did the elite policymakers and their social media army — critical or supporting — say when lockdown was announced what these hapless millions ought to do? Yes, will say Nirmala Sitharaman. The government announced free ration, cooking gas, some amount in their accounts immediately after the lockdown was enforced. Now the question is how would a migrant working in an urban centre, who is at best there for an uncertain period, access these benefits? Do they have their ration cards or Jan Dhan account in the centre they had been working? Do the elite policymakers know the nature of migrant work? If they did, they would create a different arrangement, a direct one, to send provision to those hapless workers.

There’s an interesting issue that was winked at: that these casual workers too would care for their survival from being inflicted with this deadly virus. They knew well enough that coronavirus would not spare them. More so since they did not live in hygienic conditions, mostly sharing washrooms and kitchens, a breeding ground for the virus as we have seen at Dharavi in Mumbai. Naturally, when panic spread with the lockdown, a situation worsened by opposition’s politics of instigation, these people tried to rush back home. Did the elite think that poor migrants would be oblivious of the threat to their lives from coronavirus?

Given the well-publicised announcement that landlords will have to waive off the house rent of this section of workers for two months, it is reasonable to assume that the elite policy makers are not that thoughtless. In that case, the question arises why they did not announce a policy of extending support to such huge section of people living on the edge. Clearly, they are well aware of the lack of any mechanism to deliver such succour to the migrants. Second, did the policymakers really check how much rent was written off by the landlords providing rented accommodation to such migrants?

It was also said that the employers must pay the money due to such workers even for the period they would not work due to the lockdown. The fact is that few really received the money. Third and no less important is the question whether there was any clear instruction on how such workers could come back to work after surviving the lockdown observing a set of systems and practices. It was left to the RWAs — the very members of society who mostly did not care to even pay their workers for the lockdown period. Did we really expect justified steps from this class of people?

There is a huge workforce that lives outside the organised sector, which would perhaps benefit from the five-day-long announcements by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The domestic helps, cleaners, cab and auto-rickshaw drivers, those working in restaurants and dhabas big and small and the like that renders services with no capital of their own. How much pleased they will be from the announcement that some of them are eligible for a bank loan only an elite can tell. Many in this section of the population cannot write and, therefore, they failed to write applications to narrate their plight to the local authorities and RWAs. The system that had used their blood and sweat never cared to look at their tears nor will it even after the coronavirus pandemic recedes.

Sugato Hazra

By Sugato Hazra

Public policy analyst based in Delhi