COVID-19 lockdown: Bengaluru’s informal workers struggle to meet food, rent expenses

Domestic workers who aren't welcome to work anymore, cab drivers and street vendors who can't go out - informal workers in the city are a frustrated lot as they have no work or wages anymore. Many are unable to meet basic expenses for food and rent.

“How would you feel if someone took a picture of your misery? I can’t even refuse the food though, because I am very hungry,” Manjunath, a 38-year old former sugarcane vendor said. Manjunath used to do quite well, earning Rs 700-1000 a day. But he was evicted during a BBMP drive last month, after cholera cases were reported in the city. 

“The same corporator and police officials who made us jobless, now come with mobile cameras, give us some packet of food worth Rs 20 and take pictures. They barely talk to us, or even come close to us. They spend less than five minutes, but the next day their photos come on paper. It’s sad that they first took away our source of livelihood and turned us into beggars,” he said.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown, many daily wagers from distant districts were forced to stay in the city without employment or a livable income. Extension of the lockdown has worsened things for them.

As early as March end, a survey of 83 workers conducted by a collective of workers’ welfare groups, found that about 83% respondents already had to stop work and 56% had no income. The survey results were published in the report ‘Coping with COVID-19 pandemic’.

Majority of survey respondents said they had reduced their food intake, and the rest were preparing to do so. Some respondents were eating just one or two meals a day. Since earlier this month, even Indira Canteens, that catered to nearly 1.7 lakh people everyday, stopped serving free food.

The primary issue is that the state continues to treat people as objects of governmental policy and not subjects who are entitled to participate in decisions about them… Food is also seen as charity and not a right. – ‘COPING WITH COVID-19 PANDEMIC’ Report

Kavita, 31, a domestic help, walks to work braving police checkpoints. Kavitha said that, since the lockdown, police personnel randomly stop wage labour like her in the middle of the road and threaten them with arrest for violating lockdown. “Even when I take interior routes, residents look at me suspiciously, as if I am carrying germs. Nevertheless, I am forced to go to my employers, otherwise I don’t have anything,” she said.

A native of Hassan, Kavita’s situation worsened after her husband Girish, a mason, was asked to stop attending his work site following Janata Curfew.

Four out of five of Kavita’s employers have tentatively terminated her service. Kavitha said that all her former employers have paid her full wages for March, but she can’t rely on that alone. “Of course, the government has given basic ration – rice, pulses, etc. But, that is not sufficient to meet family expenses such as rent.”

Though state government has said that house owners should not collect rent from tenants for the lockdown period, enforcing this is difficult. Most tenants are still forced to pay up, and don’t know which authorities to approach for help.

Initially, uncertain about the riders of the lockdown, Kavita’s employers had assured her that she can continue to work. But then, a few other apartment residents objected to her presence and threatened to call the police. “Only one of my employers backed me and assured I’d be provided gloves, masks and hand sanitiser. But I can do only sweeping now, and not other work like cooking and washing clothes, which has also reduced my salary,” Kavitha said.

City-based cab drivers like Mohan face uncertainty too. During tourist season, the 33-year-old could pay monthly rent of Rs 30,000 to the car owner.  “I could easily make up to Rs 80,000 per month, and my family used to live well. But I never focused on saving much; now things have changed,” he said.

In the past one month, Mohan has not been able to pay the dues to the car owner. He has even ended up borrowing several thousands of rupees from local loan sharks to meet his household expenses. “They frequent my house. It’s fair that they are asking me to return their money, but I swear I don’t have any source of income. What do I do?” he asked.

About 32% of the respondents said they had managed to stretch their weekly wages or previous month’s salaries to make ends meet… About 20 percent said they would have to borrow from family members or moneylenders. Most were likely to borrow from the moneylender, despite heavy interest rates, because their extended family members were also similarly affected by income losses… Of the respondents, 83% had no income support from the state through any government programme or schemes. – ‘COPING WITH COVID-19 PANDEMIC’ Report

“Either I have to pay interest or the whole amount, and go to my native town Hassan. How do I do that without any earnings? They are right, the disease must not spread. But, how long can we live without earning? This city is very expensive,” Mohan said.

By an estimate of NITI Aayog in 2018, approximately 85% of all workers in India are employed in the informal sector. But large sections of these workers are left to fend for themselves in the absence of a uniform labour policy for daily wagers. Many of them live in low-income households, don’t have any skill training, lack safe work conditions and health facilities, and are not covered by a social security system. Their poor living conditions – lack of adequate housing, water, sanitation facilities, etc – further exposes both them and the larger society to the dangers of the pandemic.

Kavitha, Manjunath and others understand the need for the lockdown and accept the advisories. Among Kavitha’s prized possessions is a two-week-old ‘surgical mask’ with a taint of yellow. “It’s very expensive, costing Rs 30,” she said.

There was overwhelming consensus among our respondents about the necessity of the lockdown and insisted that more measures to contain the spread should be taken. Equally, there was near-unanimous consensus that the government needed to step in to provide food and income support immediately for daily wage earners. – ‘COPING WITH COVID-19 PANDEMIC’ Report



  1. H k prakash says:

    My servant cannot come but I have deposited full amount salary by neft in her saving acc. Not her fault. While announcing lockdown, govt should consider weaker sections. Eg give free food at Indira Canteens

  2. David says:

    Government is aware of the hardship faced by not just migrant workers but also of middle and lower middle class people. However, has turned a blind eye to everything.

  3. Sunny Suman says:

    Government needs to keep this in mind and act to provide for the people. Majority of the people are not aware due to the lack of clarity on what to do and where to go. I appreciate the lockdown decision, because else it would have been worse! But if they do not address the plight of the poor in a timely manner, they would have still failed their citizens..

  4. Mukti Nath Sharma says:

    Government of Karnataka has been keen and very responsible towards the migrant workers. As they have been collaborating with NGO to assist them for the fundamental requirements.
    However the help has been limited. It is may be due to the lack of resources. As we know wants are unlimited and to accomplish the same an individual needs money. Due to the lock down the industries have
    been remained close due to which they are not able to pay the allowance to the workers. Mostly unskill labour thoes have not come under PF facilities they are in deep crisis. Moreover the salary decision has been uncertain. That leads to more depression among the workers. However there expenditure has not been reduced like they have pay the room rent, buying of groceries items. Henceforth it has been miserable condition of the poor worker. The parent state of the migrant workers has not been effective.

    In this scenario government and private stakeholders should come together to tackle the crisis. As being a common man I have an idea to tackle the situation by paying the salary of the workers. Like during this crisis government should withheld the CSR fund and use the same to pay the salary of the workers. However the companies can deny the salaries of the employees having salary more than 50000.
    In this deep crisis if the workers will not be assisted.That will definitely creat a negative consequences. It may change their perspective to migrate into the other state. As we know labour is most important factor of production in an economy. Already Karnataka is a industrial state. Henceforth it is right time to show the solidarity towards them.
    RBI has already announced the moratorium. And extension of filling the tax and TDS by the ministry of finance .

    I have been also a victim of such critical condition.Hence I am speaking on behalf of thoes illiterate migrant workers.

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