More than two months have passed since the nationwide lockdown to fight novel coronavirus was announced by the government. The largest shutdown in the world may have helped save several thousand lives, but it has put India’s poorer population face-to-face with an existential crisis.
The sudden economic disruption triggered by the lockdown left almost 12 crore people in India — daily wager labourers, small shop owners, migrants — jobless in April, according to Centre For Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).
From household helps to daily-wage labourers and lower-salaried employees, a large section of India’s poor have been severely hit due to the lockdown.
The viral video of a toddler trying to awaken his mother’s dead body or a starving man feeding off a dog carcass on the Delhi-Jaipur highway are extreme examples of how badly the lockdown has impacted India’s poor.
Crores of migrant labourers and workers engaged in low-paid jobs continue to face extreme difficulties as they still have no means of income during the lockdown; most have exhausted the little savings they had. Others have sold their belongings to reach home, or at least tried.
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As India plans to further ease lockdown restrictions after May 31, experts say that at least 10 crore poor Indians will be pushed below the World Bank-determined poverty line of $3.2, which is slightly above Rs 240.
A Bloomberg report quoting Ashwajit Singh, managing director of IPE Global, suggests that the percentage of poverty-stricken people in the country could rise from 60 per cent to 68 per cent.
The 60-day plus lockdown has put many migrant labourers out of jobs. All they want now is to go home. Some say they will never return to the city for employment. (Photo: PTI)
This means at least 90 crore people in India will earn Rs 240 or less due to the impact of the lockdown. India’s total population is slightly over 135 crore.
Singh also told the publication that such poverty among so many people has not been observed in the country in more than a decade.
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Now as the situation becomes grimmer by the day — with rising coronavirus cases and reports of increasing unemployment — many economists have asked the government to at least introduce some monetary benefits for migrant labourers, many of whom are still trying to reach home.
India’s poor need cash
Public interest technologist Thejesh GN along with a few other members are maintaining a public database to record all non-Covid deaths due to the lockdown.
The database shows that over 100 people have died due to starvation and financial distress during the lockdown, while as many as over 200 people have died in accidents while travelling or walking long distances to their native places.
Noted economists like Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee, senior Congress leader P Chidambaram and former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan agree that India’s poor are facing the biggest crisis of their lives and the government should provide direct cash relief to help them.
And since cases in India are spiking faster than before, speculation is rife that the lockdown will be extended in some areas. In case the lockdown is extended, it would be long before employment opportunities creep back to normal for low-paid workers and migrant labourers.
Most of these labourers, now out of work and without any income, may not get any opportunities to earn or support their family. It may be noted that the additional free food grains announced by the government for poorer sections are hardly enough to support the large number of migrants who have been displaced due to the lockdown.
This India Today Insight report provides more insights on how migrants are struggling to survive this difficult phase.
Wealth chain impacted
Even if the lockdown is significantly relaxed after May 31, the aftermath of the crisis may last for over 18 months, as reported earlier by IndiaToday.in.
The thousands of layoffs across companies in India will also have a direct impact on employment opportunities in urban areas.
For instance, many people who have now discovered they can survive without a maid or have lost their jobs, may not opt to call them back. This could significantly dent the pyramid structure of wealth flow, especially from middle-income groups to poorer sections.
Many reports suggested that migrants were not even paid a salary for work done before the lockdown. India Today TV earlier interviewed four young migrant labourers who said they will never forget how they were treated during the crisis.
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Same goes for other low-paid jobs like laundry and food delivery as companies may not get the desired number of orders as they used to before the lockdown.
Then there are others who work in small companies, hotels and single-unit shops for a fixed monthly or daily wage. But with no income support insight, not all of them may be called back by their owners.
As the fourth phase of the lockdown ends on May 31, the government claims that the restrictions saved several lives, but it has also amplified challenges faced by India’s poor — hunger, poverty and jobs.
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