Chapter 6 of the ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-wide Lockdown’ webinar series
The sixth chapter of the webinar series, ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-Wide Lockdown’, focused on Ahmedabad and Bhuj, was held on 15 June 2020. The session was moderated by Venugopal Agarwal from SAATH, and the speakers included Mina Jadav of the Majur Adhikar Manch, Kumar Manish from Centre for Communication of Child Rights, Lataben Solanki, the President of the Bhuj Municipality and Aseem Mishra, Programme Director with Homes in the City.
Venugopal Agarwal began by welcoming the panel and giving a broad picture of the situation in Gujarat. The state has had a number of hotspots in the larger cities. These cities have a number of migrant workers, not only from the nearby rural areas but also from other parts of the state and from other states of India too. The lockdown has hit migrant workers the hardest, with the critical issue being that the lockdown was not communicated effectively to the people. Due to this, people didn’t have the time to prepare for it, and income and savings have been badly affected. While the relief package announced by the government may have had different levels of success in different cities, even within Ahmedabad the results have been uneven. Many of the services did not reach people until a few weeks after they were announced.
After this, Mina Jadav, who has been working with unorganised sector workers addressed the session. She mentioned how over 90 per cent of the country’s workers are in the unorganised sector and while they contribute a huge amount to the country’s economy, they are not accounted for anywhere. This lockdown has really shown the true face of the ‘Gujarat model’ — although the Constitution guarantees the right to life, thousands of people had no access to food or even drinking water, let alone water to wash their hands frequently. She mentioned that 4–5 organisations had come together and conducted a survey of a number of bastis (informal settlements), and found that around 37 per cent people had not received any rations, including those who had ration cards. Even those who received rations didn’t get as much as their entitled quantity. There is a real problem that many of the most vulnerable people don’t have ration or Aadhaar cards.
If this is the situation of the local people here, then one can imagine the difficulties being faced by the migrant workers. Many people, especially in construction work, had said that since demonetisation they had been struggling and this lockdown had pushed them back by many years. The train fares for people to get home safe were also chargeable at high rates; had these trains been planned properly many people would have been able to reach home much more easily. There are still many more who want to return home but have not received wages from their employers, creating a situation almost like bonded labour. When they tried to protest against this, the government was heavy handed, suppressing it and arresting some people. Whereas those in foreign countries had flights arranged to pick them up and bring them home, the same was not done for the workers within the country itself.
She also said that many people, without money or food, have been forced to take to begging. Agarwal commented that although certain channels have been used for relief measures, such as the Public Distribution System and Jan Dhan accounts, there are still many people who are not aware of this and the same has not been communicated to them; so access to these channels is not present. These are some of the people who have suffered the most.
The next speaker, Kumar Manish, mentioned that the lockdown, coming in the middle of the month, was a big problem for people since they did not have income or savings to deal with the situation immediately. A number of organisations came together to try to deliver an immediate response because they knew that there would be a gap before government efforts reached the people. They started a crowdfunding campaign, with different teams trying to raise funds, sort out logistics, provide relief distribution, etc. They were also able to train volunteers on how to be safe and take all the necessary precautions while conducting the relief efforts. By leveraging technology like social media and Whatsapp groups, they were able to reach a large number of people.
Manish and team also undertook a mapping exercise of the city, as the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, being already stressed and under-resourced, had a serious lack of data. They began by focusing on the most vulnerable groups, such as those without ration cards or necessary documents, and have extended efforts to travelling migrant workers and by securing personal protective equipment (PPE) kits for health workers. He then pointed out a few learnings from the recent experiences — first, that local level government bodies have a serious need for useful data; second, that while people were enthusiastic in coming forward to help, this would require coordination, possibly on the part of nonprofits and civil society organisations; and third, that social media could be used effectively in situations such as these to reach a larger number of people than would have been otherwise possible.
The next speaker was Lataben Solanki, the President of the Bhuj Municipality. She spoke about the measures that were put into place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from an early stage, such as preventing crowds, and distributing immunity boosters. Thorough sanitisation initiatives have taken place across the city, including at airports, train stations, quarantine centres, government and private offices, and people’s homes. Farmers, charitable organisations, and others have also come forward and offered their machinery to help in the sanitation exercise. Since most cases in Bhuj have been of those with a travel history, those entering the area from outside have been kept in quarantine.
The municipality has been trying to ensure that all the facilities are present, especially for senior citizens and other vulnerable groups. They have distributed more than 20,000 masks, which have been acquired from independent women workers (providing them with some income as well), and have also been ensuring regular check-ups for municipal employees, doctors and nurses, and sanitation workers. They have been taking efforts towards helping street vendors and other groups, and have also been able to help some migrant workers with the help of nonprofit organisations. She also thanked the police and the administration for their help throughout the pandemic. Agarwal commented about the scale of the city being a major challenge, and noted how many of the concerns being faced by the city of Ahmedabad could be due to the scale and population, despite best efforts.
The next speaker was Aseem Mishra, whose work has been focused on organising and empowering marginalised communities. He spoke about his experience with informal sector workers. He mentioned that when the lockdown was announced, people didn’t know how long it would last, and didn’t have the cash or rations to survive for very long. Because Bhuj has a number of civil society organisations, they were able to mobilise quickly and coordinate relief efforts. Collectives that were formed for street vendors, migrant workers, cattle workers, sex workers, etc. began to prepare lists of needy families and what they required in the form of relief, which was very helpful. They were also able to provide cash to people who needed more than dry rations (such as milk and medicines) through a crowdfunding campaign. As a result, there are relatively few people in Bhuj who have not got rations.
Now that the lockdown is lifting, the challenges of lives and livelihoods must be dealt with, since many people’s incomes have been severely affected. Since the vast majority of workers are not registered, their access to government schemes must be ensured. He then spoke about short-term and long-term initiatives that could be implemented. For one, enrolling unorganised workers under the 2008 Social Security Act can help them access state schemes. Focusing on the universal ration scheme by helping people with Aadhaar cards, and drawing up standard operating procedures for informal workers to conduct business safely are other important short-term measures. At the long-term level, the focus needs to be on shelter, basic services, and social security. Cities will need to become more self-reliant — water supply is a major issue, as is food security. They are working with cattle workers to organise and protect their livelihoods, and secure grazing lands and market access.
This was followed by the Q&A round. On the topic of private companies paying wages to workers, it was pointed out that many people have not received their salaries, and don’t know who to complain to. Employers, contractors, and the police are all apathetic to their appeals. Some contractors and employers have been advancing money in the form of a loan — this can be very dangerous as it sucks people into debt traps and can lead to bonded labour.
On the question of the public health system in Gujarat, it was noted that the pandemic had brought attention to the health system, with many people now realising that the private sector is not accessible, and the public system is not upto the mark. The situation is a little better in smaller towns with fewer cases, but the issue of infrastructure is present there too. There is a lot of stress on Ahmedabad’s health system, but this seems to be less on the patients and more on the doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers.
Finally, it was pointed out that urban planning would have to start taking centre stage, especially in the sphere of housing and basic services. The compactness and density of Ahmedabad had been a major factor in the spread of the disease, and moving forward it would be important to consider urban planning perspectives to move towards safer and more resilient cities.
To watch the complete webinar, click here.
Compiled from the original webinar by Andrew deSouza