IMPLICATIONS OF LOCKDOWN ON THE DOWNTRODDEN SECTIONS OF THE SOCIETY
While the mankind was as usual functioning to get up to their aspirations, what knocked in with the dawn of 2020 was the devastating outbreak of “NOVEL CORONAVIRUS”, termed as COVID-19 by WHO which was then declared as PANDEMIC on 11th March 2020. With the world around, still experimenting to discover permanent cure to combat with such a terrifying disease which is highly contagious, what most of the affected nations followed, was social distancing in the form of series of lockdown to prevent the proliferation of this disease. Since there can be multifaceted consequences of lockdown and pandemic, the straight outcome visible for now is the sufferings of disadvantageous sections of the society.
The introduction of lockdown had put the economic activities to rest, impacting the people lacking resources, for instance, casual laborers, daily wage earners, contractors, street vendors, people securing their livelihood from small businesses, sex workers and migrant workers are the ones being affected the most, be it physically, financially, emotionally or otherwise. This concept of social distancing seems to be unrealizable for these sections who have to cope up with the filthy living conditions combined with deficiency of resources. Though lockdown has turned out to be successful to some extent, in preventing high surge in transmission rate and death rate in a densely populous country like India, when compared to other global powers, what is the disheartening facet, are the issues of hunger, health, homelessness, poverty and stress among the underprivileged.
Apparently this formula of lockdown which turned out to be the savior for many from this dreadful disease, is the reason for resentment amongst those with empty pockets, unfilled stomach, and no roof over their head. What should now be the priority, are the measures to provide safeguard against COVID-19 and stability to the deprived section.
The Model of Lockdown
There is an urge to find the vaccine for the cure of this dreadful disease worldwide, but for now what appears to be a possible solution to escape its repercussions is the concept of social distancing. For a populous country like India, it is necessary that social distance should be maintained or else the disease could transmit so quickly that the death toll would see no downfall. Thus, quarantine and lockdowns have been the evident firefighters to help escaping extreme times. After the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), being satisfied that the country will be hit hard by the pandemic, the Central Government announced an initial lockdown for a period of 21 days on 24th march 2020 as a measure to tackle the spread of the disease. Thereafter, the guidelines were being issued to the Ministries/Departments of Government of India (“GoI”), State and Union Territory Governments and Authorities under the power conferred by Section 10 (2) (l) of the Act by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) shutting down all commercial, private as well as industrial organizations, commutation services, hospitality services, educational institutions, etc., barring essential services and supplies.
The tally of infected people has been increasing at a slower pace contrasted with the other countries and as per the ministry of health, had there been no lockdown the country would have witnessed more than 8 lakh cases by April 15. However what came out to be the darker side of this arrangement was that, with the declaration of lockdown the economic and social activities across the country came to standstill and what followed was the crisis, insecurity, panic and rage among the vulnerable section of the society.
Vulnerable section of the society suffers the consequences of the Lockdown
Of course the pandemic does not discriminate between rich and poor, alas, the harsh reality is that the distress of the pandemic and the measures to overcome its effect, has oppressed the poor around the world. For as much as only the brighter side cannot always be looked upon, what needs to be assessed is the adverse effect of the lockdown on the population. Prima facie what turns out to be the fact is that it favored only a minimal of the population — those who had white collar jobs, bank balances, spacious fridges to pile up groceries, and luxurious houses making them stay indoors for their beautiful aura without provoking health issues.
For those who have been afflicted, mostly falls into the category of daily wage labourers, workers in informal sector, migrant workers, casual labourers, gig economy workers, petty businesses, street vendors, the newly self-employed, sex workers, women and children subject to domestic violence, various people living in compact spaces and those facing some physical or mental ailments. Such measures have turned to be antagonistic for those who are encountered with health issues — starvation, homelessness, perils of contacting more dreadful diseases. When compared, this threat of catching corona-virus infection is smaller to this serious risk of losing lives owing to the issues of starvation, domestic violence or expulsion.
Ample of human resource in the developing economies is engaged in the informal sector due to lack of educational opportunities and basic work skills, with such share being more than 50% in India. In 2018, the labour force comprised of 50 percent of Indian population, out of which 81 percent was employed in the unorganized sector or the shadow economy. With the economy advancing further, gradually the size of unorganized sector has reduced (as it stood at 86% of the population in 2005), although the amount of casual workers within the organized sector (as contract/casual laborers) has been hiking.
Calculations while taking this into consideration, results in the proportion of informal workers in the total participating labour-force to be around 92%.One of the most severely affected section of the population due to the execution of lockdown had been migrant workers, those in the urban areas across the country. The internal migrants constitute up to 20% of the workforce as per Indian Government’s Economic Survey 2016-2017 with their contribution turning out to be approximately 10% of India’s economic output, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Considering that people sustaining below poverty line saw a downfall from 29.8% in 2009-2010 to 21.9% in 2011-2012. The world data lab report anticipated that less than 50 million people may now be living on less than $1.90 a day.
Notwithstanding such statistics, which glorifies the country’s shining position to be able to alleviate poverty, the grapple of poverty stricken citizens to sustain themselves in this lockdown should not be forgotten.
Further talking about the hardships faced by sex workers, according to National Aids Control Organization (NACO), India has close to 6,37,500 sex workers and over 5 lakh customers visiting the red light area on a daily basis, the scientists noted in a release. Due initiation of social distancing they urge to return back to their native place since their business is stalled making the living conditions harsh for them.
Comprehensiveness of their tribulations
Albeit, the Central and States Governments had issued the guidelines for social distancing to be followed, no provisions safeguarding the interest of downtrodden were furnished along with it, and since the masses were unaware of this new concept as the rules were not perspicuous to them, they apprehended it to be detrimental for their survival and elapsed into the state of panic. Bhagwati J. held that rights and benefits conferred on workmen employed by a contractor under various labor laws are clearly intended to ensure basic human dignity to workmen, nonetheless the lockdown in India to curb the explosion of COVID-19, had divested many workers of their well-earned wages along with the benefits secured by them, infringing their fundamental rights. Result being no food and no work for the poor and thus a scene of panic being created amongst the migrant workers who had to set in the motion on foot to return to their houses at distant places, without adequate provisions. Due to lack of commutation facilities, paltry money in their pockets and unfilled stomach, many innocent migrant workers lost their lives, while they were trying to avoid their hassle ,which resulted in encroachment of their right to food, shelter and livelihood enshrined by the constitution of India under Article 21 of part III, as observed by the Supreme Court in Francis Coralie v Union Territory of Delhi, that the right to live incorporates the right to live with human dignity, including basic amenities of life such as sufficient nutrition, clothing and roof over head.
In Shantistar Builders v. Narayan Khimalal Totame, the Court stated that the right to life would include the right to food, the right to clothing and the right to decent environment along with a reasonable accommodation to live in. Similarly in Chameli singh v State of U.P., the court held that the right to shelter is a fundamental right available to every citizen. A densely populated country, India, where housing is a big issue, millions of people accommodate in chawls, jhuggis or societies where the concept of social distancing is onerous to abide by due to common lavatories, bathrooms, passages and hallway, which are rarely sterilized, thus proliferating the menace of contacting virus.
The dearth of awareness among the underprivileged section has caused a sense of disruption amidst them, which caused them to take up actions detrimental to their fellow beings, for instance, piling up of buses and trains to go back home, crowding up of public places or pelting stones and showcasing anger towards Corona warriors. Furthermore, what had been witnessed as a muddled scenario is the deliberate ill treatment offered by the Policemen, or other authorities to the oppressed class, by beating them up for venting out justifiably or for opening up of grocery stores or for providing other essential items. And about the sex workers, they are generally not accepted by the society and did not fetch any government support, then the onus to help the marginalized has fallen on the voluntary sector.
Women working in the sex industry are now dependent on charities for their basic needs, including food and access to medication during the lockdown. Series of lockdown had provoked declining patience level and depression, mostly among the downtrodden society causing mental, emotional and psychological distress, who wish to get back to their normal lives in order to sustain their families.
Rationale behind their sufferings
Rationalizing the grounds, which being the reason of misery amidst subdued, the lockdown though proved to be fruitful is not pleasant for all. As claimed by the reports of Asian Development Bank, 10.7 percent proportion of Indian population sustain below $1.90 PPP a day and adding twist to the story are the statistics that show the density of Indian population per square km being 405 which poses the biggest challenge in fighting with this contagious virus due to unhygienic, mucky and lamentable living conditions in these densely populated regions with which people have to put up all throughout their lives. Inequality in access is profound, with more than 90% of urban residents accessing sanitation facilities compared to only 39% in rural India in addition to 44% of the population still defecating in the open.
Meagre sanitation amenities and contaminated water, abysmal drainage system being supplied to preponderance of marginalized population, broaching the authenticity of the Government of India’s flagship scheme, the Swacchh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), which asseverate that more than 12 million toilets have been constructed in rural areas. Nevertheless, there are significant inequalities in access to quality and affordable health services, and a disproportionate burden of communicable and non-communicable disease still persist, making the obstacles to strive against the virus quite vivid. The government’s health expenditure has lingered around 1% of the GDP over the past decade, with funds not being employed efficiently due to disintegrated planning and vertical disease programmes, the welfare of the marginalized section has not been ameliorated to be able to immunize them against dire diseases and whacking medical bills.
Despite husky economic growth which averaged at over 7% per annum for over a decade, income inequality dilated, and the proportionate rate at which national poverty is receding is inconsistent with the growth in gross domestic product. This incongruity designate the fact that the poorest sections of the population are not blessed from the country’s GDP growth by virtue of being excluded from the organised production process. Since the workmen in India lack dexterity and efficiency, the route to formal sector is often arduous for them, the unorganised sector constitute such undertakings which are largely dependent on labour intensive techniques being able to immerse such wretched workers for trivial wages in abundance who, otherwise would have been jobless.
The workers relocating to the other states for employment, having no security, usually have tendency to remit their earnings to their dependents back in their native places, leaving almost nothing with them to fight out such contingencies, making them desperate to go back home. Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted in 2017 by the National Sample Survey Office, had estimated that there were around 1,9,53,750 workers who had vulnerable jobs. In 2011, the real average daily wage in India’s organised sector was Rs. 513 whereas the corresponding wage in the informal sector stood at Rs. 166. No guaranteed job security or any kind of social protection is being provided to the workers engaged in such sector as the unorganized firms operate outside the purview of corporate law and there is no mechanism to keep a strict check upon them. The gigantic population of the country, leading to oversupply of the unskilled workers can be blamed for easy exploitation by the unethical employers making them work on immoral standards.
Measures followed by the Government
Article 39 of Directive Principles of State Policy under part IV of the Indian constitution insists on the state to direct its policy towards welfare of the citizens and community.
In Consumer Education and Research Centre v. Union of India, the Supreme Court laid down that, “Social justice which is a device to ensure life to be meaningful and livable with human dignity requires the State to provide to workmen facilities and opportunities to reach at least minimum standard of health, economic security and civilized living. The health and strength of worker, the court said, was an important facet of right to life. Denial thereof denudes the workmen the finer facets of life violating Art. 21.”
Concerning the issues that would surface amidst the lockdown and a complete pause on all economic activity (barring essential activities), the Ministry of Labour& Employment, Government of India (“GoI”) issued an advisory on 20th March, 2020 to the All Employers Association- not to lay off the employees from their services, specifically casual or contractual workers from jobs or taper off their wages as it would not only pressurize their financial condition but also hinder their spirit to combat the pandemic. Further declaring, that if any worker takes leave or their workplace is not functioning due to Covid-19, the employees should be reckoned to be on the job without any consequential subtraction in wages for this period.
The MHA took note of the situation and with a view to mitigate the economic hardship being faced by the migrant workers issued Orders to take certain additional measures vide Order dated 29th March, 2020. Notably, clause iii of the said order stated “All the employers, be it in the industry or in the shops and commercial establishments, shall make payment of wages of their workers, at their work places, on the due date, without any deduction, for the period their establishments are under closure during the lockdown;”(“MHA Order”).Simultaneously, several other State Governments of India- Rajasthan, Punjab, Telangana, etc. issued orders complying with the MHA Order, insisting on payment of full wages to the employees during the period of lockdown. Even for the workers under MGNREGA the wages have been increased from Rs 182 per day to Rs 202 per day.
The foundation of social security laws have been laid down in the Directive Principles of State Policy under Part IV of the Constitution of India with the matter of Social security and Labour Welfare finding its place under the concurrent list, both, the Central and the State Governments have authority to make laws on social security. Article 43 of Indian constitution sets out the ideals by which unfair labour practices can be judged and urges the Social Welfare State to approximate in an attempt to retrieve living conditions of workers. Under the Constitution, it is the duty of the State to make provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief and it should endeavor to provide social security, not only to organised, but also to unorganised workers. As the sufferings of labourers become paramount, yet certain states have resorted to ‘reform’ labour laws, in view of the pandemic for instance, the state of Uttar-Pradesh, has adjourned all labour laws for the time being. Easing out the compliance issues for the employers, it also abridges acquiescence to something like the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 and other social security legislations favourable to workmen and employees generating a general sink in the wage rate and will render most sectors as practically ‘unorganised’.
Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (“ED Act”) being invoked by the Government of India, whereby, the Central Government or a State Government may take necessary measures and prescribe regulations to curb harrowing epidemic disease. Schools, malls, colleges and other places have been metamorphosed into quarantine homes to give shelter to lacs of homeless or migrant workers. Landlords have been instructed to let the tenants stay in the house and give up the collection of rent to reduce the financial stress on them posed due to lockdown.
Notwithstanding the fact that more than 3500 “Shramik Special Trains” have been run by the Indian Railways ferrying more than 48 lac passengers with majority trains destined to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the tribulation for poor migrant workers has not yet dwindled as delayed train journey coupled with lack of amenities has been causing them pain, even leading to deaths. Thus the government needs to do enough to address the issue of migrant laborers and their exodus by taking appropriate steps. Government of India has permitted State Governments to utilize State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for setting up of shelter for migrants and providing them basic amenities.7,200 new Self Help Groups of urban poor have been formed during the period starting from 15th March 2020. As a part of Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) scheme, the government decided to transfer Rs 500 per month for three months to poor and vulnerable sections of the society whose livelihood has been hit hard due to lockdown. About three crore poor senior citizens, widows, disable to get one time ex-gratia amount of Rs 1000 in two installments.
On 12th May 2020, the GoI has announced an economic package worth 20 lac crore, calculated to be around 10% of the total GDP of the country, to boost the country’s economy. This Atamanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan Scheme has been initiated to give relief to unskilled labourers, migrant workers, cottage industry and MSMEs. As much as Rs 3500 crore has been allotted to distribute free food to migrant workers for 2 months under Atamanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan, howbeit states governments do not possess clear records of tally of migrant workers in their states making it challengeable to actually handover the benefits in the needful hands. The need of the hour requires the government to assist employers in the form of wage subsidy or financial assistance by apportioning a certain percentage of the GDP towards the wage burden.
Just four hours prior, the lockdown was anticipated to be executed, the proclamation invoked trepidation among the citizens of the country, as the directions which were released, paused the economic and social activities which led millions belonging to the downtrodden section to face indigence and impoverishment. In a densely populated country like India, social distancing seems to be luxury for most of the suppressed class to withstand the pandemic and thus the lockdown has striked them the most.
Poor social security net, thin bank balances, lack of food, water or shelter along with many dependents in the family, is what makes the things worse for the vulnerable community, as people are more prone to pass away by the reason of starvation than this pandemic itself. The situation calls for implementing the provisions ensuring food rations and income security to revitalize the morale of vulnerable class. Majority of the workforce is engaged in the informal sector without any proper contract, whereby they can be fired without any claim to compensation therefore in effect to this, the notice was released by Ministry of Labour and Employment requiring public and private establishments not to lay off the staff, especially casual or contractual workers, which is not of strict punitive nature. Escaping the ordeal of punishment, the employers have retrenched many temporary and seasonal employees leaving them with no other option than to return back to their homes, making their survival more difficult. The workers, who are the backbone of the economy require protection in every possible way for which an efficacious solution has to be instigated. The involvement and participation of NGO’s, minted citizens added with active contribution of various departments to supply with basic facilities such as clean water and hygienic living conditions would be constructive to dampen their complications. Petty business owners, street vendors and casual workers should be given monetary relief enough to be able to run their households. Effectual preventive steps are required to tackle this emerging issue and bring people out of this quandary. Regardless of the number of directions and regulations issued by the Government at both Centre and State level, what needs to be recognized is their actual influence on the marginalized society and analyze is if it will be actually supportive to uplift them and bring their woes to an end.
Author: Nancy Jain, Department of Laws, Panjab University Chandigarh
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