Focal City Delhi: COVID-19 response

When India went into an abrupt lockdown on March 24, it triggered a high-profile humanitarian crisis as migrant workers scrambled to get home. Less visible was the impact of the lockdown on the large population of the working poor in India.

More than 90 per cent of India's workforce is informal. They are street vendors, domestic workers, carpenters, autorickshaw drivers, waste pickers and other groups. After the lockdown, most were barred from their livelihoods. Police are now patrolling the slums to ensure people stay inside and there have been reports of arbitrary police harassment, including of shopkeepers selling essential goods and services.  

 India continues to be in a state of complete lockdown, which has been extended now until May 3rd. The country is reporting over 17,000 cases and 559 deaths from COVID-19. The lockdown and relief measures are being implemented differently in different states, and in Delhi the restrictions have been particularly strict. Some areas of the city - primarily informal settlements - have been labeled “hot spots” and have been sealed off entirely, preventing anyone from going in or out even for essential services. Some neighborhood groups have banded together to “enforce” the lockdown in their areas - which in some cases is resulting in xenophobic violence. The media reporting of the crisis is also characterized by anti-Muslim undertones, as a Muslim religious gathering in Delhi back in March continues to be referenced as a “super spreader event.” There are reports that BJP is explicitly denying support to Muslim communities in some states.

Some street vendors have begun to access designations as essential service providers, but only if they can show the proper documentation. Even where this is possible, they are facing huge difficulties: in accessing wholesale markets (where there are reports of fruits and vegetables spoiling because of inability to sell to vendors); in facing police harassment and exposure without protective gear. There are reports of Muslim vendors in particular facing police harassment and destruction of their goods and carts. Some waste pickers have also started attempting to go out and work, but are also being harassed by the police, and dealer shops are closed.

Impact on informal workers

All informal worker, regardless of occupation, gender or age, have been affected by this economic crisis. Since no informal workers have been deemed "essential", they have all, at least temporarily but some potentially permanently, lost their livelihoods. In addition to a loss of income, they are facing increased costs in the form of more expensive goods due to supply shortages and disruptions. 

Informal workers in Delhi face widespread hunger, migration out of cities on foot, overcrowding in homeless shelters (increasing risk of transmission), lack of basic services like water and sanitation in settlements. All these risks, even before the health crisis of COVID-19 hits the country and the working poor need, somehow, to access health care.

Specific worker groups are differently affected: 

  • Street and market vendors: All informal markets and vending sites are closed and wholesale markets are only available for a few hours. There is no transport available to procure and transport goods. 
  • Carpenters, electricians and other service providers are not allowed to enter middle-class housing societies and so cannot work.
  • Transport workers cannot work as cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws are not allowed on the road. Uber and Ola are not functioning. 
  • Waste pickers cannot roam the street to collect waste, those who attempt are increasingly harassed by the police.
  • Home-based workers have no orders coming in, and so are without earnings. 
  • Day-wage delivery boys and cooks have been laid off as shops and restaurants have closed. 

Policy responses

The policy response has been cash transfers at the national level, and food rations at the local level. But the cash grant is very small and food rations are dependent on registration in the public distribution system, which many households are not part of.

Central Government 

  • Prime Minister’s Welfare Scheme for the Poor (announced on 26 March) will provide 1.75 lakh crore (1.75 trillion) for estimated 80 crore (800 million) people for food rations and cash transfers. In this WIEGO blog, Marty Chen explains the gaps in the national relief package.
  • The Ministry of Labour and Employment has issued an advisory to states and Union Territories across India to transfer funds (Rs 52,000 crore or Rs 520 billion) into the accounts of about 3.5 crore (35 million) registered construction workers through the Direct Benefit Transfer mode from cess fund.

Delhi State Government

  • Immediate response of Delhi government was to set up free lunch and dinner at homeless shelters, and at some school premises (although NGOs involved in these distributions say the resources will dry up after a few days, the state is so far not providing support for these NGOS to provide this service). With no social distancing norms at these shelters they may soon be targeted as vectors and closed. 
  • Free rations with 50% more quantity are being provided to 72 lakh existing beneficiaries. However, this benefit is tied to Aadhar (ID) cards and so cuts out migrants and some lower-caste Indians who do not have this ID.
  • Pension pay out- Rs 4000-5000 for 8.5 lakh beneficiaries.
  • Rs 5000 grant to construction workers registered with the Construction Workers Welfare Board.  
  • ‘Hunger Helpline’ set up in all districts. Although the feedback from the ground is that these helplines are not always working and people are not always responding. 

Response of Focal City Delhi partners 

FC Delhi partners have been working on multiple fronts to advance a policy agenda for relief, and to provide front-line support to communities in dire need.

FC Delhi Response and Policy platforms

    FC Delhi has been supporting Delhi partners in their responses, including:

    ●       MHT’s work to help residents of relocated colonies access government provided relief through public distribution systems (navigating through bureaucratic bottlenecks).

    ●       Delhi Roundtable of Waste Pickers is focused on providing community relief and safety kits to waste pickers. Delhi Roundtable Network letter: Emergency relief for waste pickers

    Immediate relief measures

    • Hunger is a real and immediate problem. Nearly all FC Delhi partners are distributing essential dry rations (uncooked food). All of them are also seeking financial support to do so. Some are also distributing cooked food. 
    • One of the waste picker organizations affiliated to the Delhi Roundtable had procured masks to distribute in the community but could not do so in the initial days of the lockdown. They have recently started distributing food – in the past two days. 
    • Mahila Housing Trust (MHT) is working towards spreading awareness about government benefits and schemes through public announcements and their outreach by grassroots leaders (in particular they are playing an active role in rations distribution, described above). They report that many relocated residents may not have the ration card (registration documentation) that is needed to access because their registration may be in the geographic location that they lived earlier, before they are relocated. MHT is working with the departments to ensure ALL are included. 
    Informal Economy Topic