With close to 2000 active COVID-19 cases reported across the country, India is under a total lockdown for 21 days that started March 24th. Prime Minister Narendra Modi strictly called upon citizens to stay at home to contain the spread of the novel virus through social contact.
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Maharashtra, with one of the highest reported positive cases, has imposed Section 144 in order to fight the virus, banning the gathering of five or more people and closing down everything with only the exception of essential services. However, the testing rates remain worrying in India with only around 21 people tested per million population (as of March 29th), among the lowest in the world. This has caused increased concern among public health experts, many of whom have been critical of the government for masking the real scenario and not comprehending the scale of the outbreak.
The growing pandemic
As the country goes into a state of self-isolation, the poor in Mumbai and its neighbouring cities face an unprecedented challenge, not only to stay safe but also to survive during this time of crisis. The Finance Minister, on March 26th, announced a fiscal stimulus package worth INR 1.7 lakh crore, intended to provide a safety net to the most severely affected populations of the country, mainly the poor.
The relief package for the urban poor includes direct cash transfers to eight categories and to individuals holding Jan Dhan accounts, increased wages under MNREGA, additional supply of food grains free of cost for a period of three months and collateral-free loans worth up to INR 10 lakh for women Self Help Groups (SHGs). Even though the package is wide-ranging in scope it fails to elaborate how it would extend to include those families that are excluded from the Public Distribution System (PDS), are struggling with Aadhaar-bank account linkages, are not registered with construction boards or are migrant workers, many of whom are travelling back on foot to their villages in a state of panic after the lockdown.
A few state governments—Kerala, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh—have taken the initiative to announce relief packages in cash and kind, set up relief funds, defer payments of electricity and water bills to Municipal Corporations, provide medicines etc. to daily wage earners and other vulnerable groups, emerging as frontrunners in providing support and reducing the anxiety amongst their populations.
The situation in Maharashtra, on the other hand, remains dire while the number of infected COVID-19 cases continue to rise at a rate that is much faster than in other parts of the country. The Maharashtra government has directed ration shops to be provisioned for three months but the distribution of grain stocks to the fair price shops has still not commenced, causing overcrowding and shortage of food supplies among the dependent population consisting primarily of wage earners and the homeless.
Furthermore, Chief Minister, Uddhav Thackeray, has confirmed the formation of a working group that is developing a plan to tackle the economic challenges being caused by the pandemic but is yet to announce it. In Mumbai itself, more than 18 lakh ration card holders are identified as the poorest of the poor and another 1 lakh are covered under the Antodaya Scheme. Without adequate essential supplies and relief packages in the absence of livelihood options, this entire population is at grave risk of contracting the disease and facing a threat of survival itself. Going forward, it will be critical that the state and central governments work together for the smooth operationalisation of relief measures; they must also find a way to include those among the poor who currently fall outside the scope of the relief packages.
The situation on the ground: A rapid assessment by YUVA
While the poor wait apprehensively for relief, another cause for concern among the communities is the lack of awareness and misinformation being spread regarding the virus itself. Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), a non-profit organisation, has been making an attempt to reach out to the low-income communities where they work and conducted a rapid assessment on 18th and 19th March in over 20 settlements across Greater Mumbai where they work – Vasai Virar, Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Panvel – covering 2,817 households.
The interactions with the residents revealed contrasting views: from extreme fear to conceptions of the virus being too distant to affect people personally. Several people also appeared uncertain about the exact scale and magnitude of the problem, as they were only aware of the presence of a virus but did not understand the current scenario. On the other hand, lack of understanding coupled with rapid misinformation through hearsay and social media resulted in arbitrary decisions being made among some sections of the slum settlements, causing unwarranted panic over false speculations.
The lack of social protection schemes and the inability of the poor to protect themselves in an increasingly misinformed surrounding also raised serious questions regarding the state of preparedness of the urban poor as well as the planned containment of the virus.
The predicted domino effect of the failing economy has already become visible among the most vulnerable communities of homeless people and daily wage earners. Several have either lost their jobs or taken a wage cut, many are trying to move back to their villages in a state of panic due to lockdowns being announced, and those who remain have now begun experiencing difficulty in procuring food and other essential items. Many homeless communities are surviving on little or no food.
The analysis of YUVA’s assessment revealed that already vulnerable groups such as homeless, recently evicted and individuals from disadvantaged groups (Pardhi’s, transgenders, people who beg for a living and others) are on the brink of starvation. Families wanting to avail rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS) aren’t receiving adequate amounts of food grains due to the lack of or poor Aadhaar ration linkages.
ICDS centres or anganwadis where children between the ages of 0-6 years are provided basic nutrition have stopped daily food supplies in many areas. With the shutting down of schools, mid-day meals, on which several children sustain themselves, have also stopped. Most domestic workers have been asked not to come for work, daily wage construction workers with no alternative source of income are being forced to stay home and sales of all vendors have taken a hit, especially those who sell food items. Elderly citizens in daily wage labour are among the groups suffering the most, with many having to resort to begging in the last few days.
Based on the situation emerging from the ground assessment and in an effort to take the demands of the urban poor forward through advocacy, YUVA has also submitted an unequivocal list of demands to the Government of Maharashtra to ensure that the most vulnerable communities are provided with basic needs on equal priority, while the government attempts to contain the virus.
As the ministers have suspended appointments for personal meetings, YUVA is using social media to disseminate and amplify these demands. YUVA is also sharing this memorandum with Members of Parliament representing different parties for special mention in the Parliament and trying to establish contact with the COVID-19 Economic Task Force announced by Prime Minister Modi on March 19th.
The road ahead: Together we can
In an attempt to support the communities and offer immediate relief, YUVA has launched a campaign ‘Together We Can’ to raise funds and in-kind support in the form of food grains and provide emergency food supplies to the urban poor, starting with the most marginalised families first, identified through a rigorous process. These families are being provided with a food kit (comprising of rice, wheat, pulses, oil, etc.) amounting to a week’s worth of ration for Rs 600. The kits have already been supplied to 940 homes comprising of over 4,700 people and work on reaching more households is continuing.
Steps to ensure the safety of YUVA workers have been taken in parallel. Several civil society organisations have launched fundraising efforts and YUVA is also engaged in increased collaboration in an effort to expand outreach and efforts.
We are living in uncertain times. With the development of vaccines for coronavirus disease projected to be months away, we are unsure of whether the disease itself will affect us more adversely or the collapse of the economy that it brings in its wake. Even with precautions and planning, the situation is expected to get much worse before it gets better. The economy will continue to collapse, the infection will spread and the mental well-being of all will be severely tested and affected. This will hit the vulnerable communities and groups the hardest, especially the poor, who contribute significantly to the local economy and provide essential services, but struggle to meet their basic needs. It is therefore important to ensure that they are supported continuously and provided relief during this period, even as efforts to contain the virus continue in parallel.