New Year's Message

working in India with sewing machine making masks

Remembering the Year Gone By

By: Shalini Sinha
January 2021

2020 has come to an end. How time crawled while we were trapped in our homes, away from people and tasks that defined us. And, paradoxically, time also flew, with not enough hours to devote to our cause and our commitments.

When the lockdown commenced in March in response to COVID-19, life ground to a halt overnight for the city’s informal workers. Over 122 million people in India lost their jobs in April, around 75% of them were small traders and wage-labourers. Domestic workers were asked not to come in to work, vendor markets were closed, itinerant waste pickers were harassed and targeted if out collecting waste on the streets, and construction workers were stranded as the construction sites where they worked and lived were shut down until further notice.
This abrupt loss of workers’ means of subsistence together with the cessation of public transport, triggered a massive humanitarian crisis. As a country, we witnessed scenes of hunger and deprivation like we had never seen before. Men, women and children set off to walk hundreds of miles back to their villages. The virus was not the biggest concern to these workers, hunger was a bigger monster to contend with. 
Even after lockdown was lifted, subsequent recovery remained uneven, leaving many behind. A study conducted by Focal City Delhi and partner organisations that assessed the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the livelihoods of street vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers and home-based workers, revealed that informal workers experienced acute crisis following the lockdown–with near total loss of livelihood. In Delhi, none of the four sectors we work with have been able to return to earlier levels of work and earnings. The precarity of informal livelihood, the absence of social security and the risks that a health crisis carries for the working poor, could not have been more pronounced. 

This crisis also had a gendered face. Women struggled more with loss of work and income and increase in care burden. Their needs were the first to be sacrificed in times of scarcity for the family and they received very little support from employers or the state. Early on in the crisis, the central government announced a relief measure of INR 500 for women, however, a study showed that over 70% did not receive these payments. 

It also became clear that there were other issues affecting informal workers that required urgent attention. Identity and registration are critical for accessing benefits and welfare—a fact brought into sharp focus by the COVID-19 crisis. The burden of rent payments pushed most working poor into further debt. As the world embraced technology this past year, the digital divide in India became clear—not only between the rich and poor but also between men and women, with women informal workers losing access to their phones either to facilitate access to digital education for their children, or simply because the family could no longer afford to pay for more than one phone in the household. Informal workers were nearly invisible in the city’s coping mechanisms and relief efforts, ironically at a time when their contribution to city life was visible and evident to all.

The silver lining  in these times of gloom and doom has been our partners’ dedication to their members. Many organizations acted almost overnight to provide relief, determined to not leave anyone hungry or deprived. Cooked and uncooked food was distributed nonstop for weeks. Community organizers, aagewans and youth leaders ventured into the field, risking exposure in order to support the informal workers of the city and in the face of restrictions on movement and fast depleting resources. Hand washing and sanitizing stations were set up in informal communities. Cycle rickshaws and push carts were distributed to revive livelihoods, and orders for stitching home-made masks were procured. Additionally, membership-based organizations worked with the authorities to help link workers to the PDS (Public Distribution System) and ration relief provided by the government.

As we enter into the new year, let us not remember 2020 only as the year of COVID-19. We started the year with the women of Shaheen Bagh keeping vigil against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and we close this year with farmers risking exposure not just to COVID-19 but also the bitter cold, on the borders of Delhi in a large-scale protest, the likes of which have never been seen before. Throughout the year, we saw time and time again the unbeatable spirit of the people’s organizations to provide relief and rebuild lives and livelihoods, their connection with the most marginalized and their deep commitment to the constituency they represent. 

The collective action to protect, promote and sustain could not be defeated by the epidemic, the lockdown, or even the largely unresponsive state. This collective endeavor to build a resilient, better new world in the face of unprecedented crisis, must stay with us as the abiding memory of 2020. May this collective strength grow in the new year. 

Focal Cities Delhi team wishes you a brighter and better 2021.