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Insights on Chennai

By June 16, 2020December 23rd, 2023No Comments

Chapter 3 of the ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-wide Lockdown’ webinar series

The third webinar of the ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-Wide Lockdown’ series, on 30 May 2020, focused on the city of Chennai and, more broadly, on the state, and the response of the government and civil society. The panelists included Esther Mariaselvam of ActionAid, J. Sam Daniel Stalin of NDTV India, Jerujones Priyatharshini Shrithar of Nathamedu Village Panchayat, and Amba Salelkar of Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice. The discussion was moderated by Edwin of Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation.

Esther Mariaselvam of ActionAid spoke about the impact of the lockdown on the poor and on migrant labourers, mentioning the uncertainty created by the sudden lockdown and the ambiguous responses of the government. It was difficult for her to get permission for conducting relief work, and even when a volunteer’s wife tested positive, the other volunteers whose symptoms had developed were not tested.

Mariaselvam mentioned how the vulnerabilities have been increasing over the years and only been exposed with the COVID-19 pandemic. In Chennai, authorities have used natural disasters in the past to increasingly relocate people to the periphery of the cities, where they are not able to access important public services. While the team was already aware of the informal workers living in the periphery, the lockdown brought to attention the plight of the migrant workers living in even more inaccessible areas. Those who do the work of building, running, and cleaning these cities can be found at its edges, far away from basic amenities. The complete lack of transport facilities during the lockdown further exacerbated the situation.

The talk of physical distancing also requires us to reflect on a few things. For instance, in Kannagi Nagar, Semmechery, and Perumbakkam, house sizes are anywhere between 120 and 300 square feet. For an entire family, living in such tight quarters and for such extended lengths of time can be extremely difficult. Daily reports are being received, both of the difficulty of day-to-day life in these harsh conditions, but also of the violence and brutality of employers. It is not always physical violence, but often ends up affecting and disrupting people’s lives all the same and as deeply.

One of the disappointing aspects of the government’s response has been that, while during many of the other natural disasters it worked alongside civil society and other organisations, it has not done so this time. Usually, by forming a co-ordination committee, it was possible for civil society to be a part of the decision making process, but that has not been the case this time. The lack of the people’s say in any kind of decision making has really been the most challenging aspect of the whole situation.

Next to speak was Jerujones Priyatharshini Shrithar, the Panchayat President of Nathamedu village in Thiruvallur. A fairly large village, the government did initially extend some support in the form of relief money and 2 months of free rations. But that has not been sufficient for most people to get through this period. As a panchayat member and elected representative, she has been approaching various organisations, philanthropists, charity bodies, and other associations in order to raise funds and distribute basic goods and services within the village.

Following this, Amba Salelkar spoke about the impact of the lockdown on persons with disability and how the approach to the lockdown has often excluded them. She spoke based on research that had taken place at the national level, with the participation of several organisations who were involved in disability rights and advocacy. The focus of the research was on social protection for persons with disability during the pandemic.

For the persons with disability, there is already discrimination in accessing employment, healthcare, and public facilities. The pandemic has further widened these gaps. The four hours given to people to prepare for the lockdown were hard enough, but this was more so for the persons with disability, many of whom require information to be communicated in a different format, like sign language or braille. Even now, there is difficulty in accessing this information. Persons with disability may also already have pre-existing health conditions making them more vulnerable, requiring them to stay indoors. However, many depend on either care workers or family members for assistance, and these people were not initially recognised as essential workers. For children with disabilities, the shutting down of schools has meant not only the stopping of education, but also of essential services. Their parents are often not able to provide these facilities in their own homes. Families of persons with disability are often already in financial stress due to the extra cost associated with care and other expenses.

Salelkar then spoke of state-level responses to the persons with disability, mentioning the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP), which provides pension to the elderly, persons with disability, and women with Jan Dhan accounts. A one-off cash top-up was made to beneficiaries in three installments. However, it is important to note that only an estimated 10 per cent of persons with disability are covered by the scheme. Additionally, it only applies to persons between 18–60 years; after 60 years, it is the standard old-age pension, and for those below 18 years there is no assistance. She also mentioned that states often add on to this amount, and different states have different approaches. For instance, Kerala topped-up the amount and also committed to providing cooked food, whereas in Tamil Nadu, 2 months of disability maintenance was paid in advance, and after pressure from civil society, a helpline and Whatsapp number was set up. While the helpline was given prominence, the distribution of the maintenance has been low, and even the effectiveness of the helpline is limited to urban areas, especially because most facilities for persons with disability are present only at the district, and not the sub-district level.

After this, the moderator requested Dr Venkatraman, a senior consultant, working with UNESCO and other international agencies, to speak. He raised a few questions regarding children and the state of the education system. He asked how appropriate the model of e-learning was, considering how far it can reach and whether the material is suited for this format, and pointed out how an already present digital divide may be widening. He also referred to the functions of nutrition and care-giving that schools provide, and pointed out the need to have a plan for how the system would resume after the lockdown ends.

The next speaker was J Sam Daniel Stalin of NDTV India. He spoke about the response of the state government to the pandemic, how they were initially happy with the low number of cases and spent too much energy on building the perception that they were hard at work buying equipment, medicine, etc., but lapsed in ensuring ground-level work, like ensuring distancing and putting tangible systems in place. Even claims that everyone had been given rations or that the rate of recovery was high were not fully justifiable — rations did not cover all ration card holders, and certainly not migrant workers, who make up a large chunk of the population; and present guidelines were allowing many patients to be discharged before a full recovery, inflating numbers. Even the money given to migrant workers were only to those registered with their respective boards (domestic workers, construction workers, etc.), who made up a very small portion of the total.

The government response to workers has also been hit-and-miss. While it ensured salaries were given to government employees, it only recommended the same for the private sector, and there was no mechanism to actually check or enforce this, so many employers have not been paying salaries for months of April and May. The same is true for many informal workers, domestic workers, etc. The government has also made the mistake of trying to hijack relief work to score political points. While initially the system allowed for volunteers and civil society organisations to help in relief work, later they required for all supplies to be routed through government bodies. This has affected the people who were being left out by government schemes, and who the non-profits were trying to reach. The government has seen civil society organisations as rivals rather than partners, and this has ended up hurting the people who could have benefited from a combined effort.

He concluded by outlining a path forward for the state. It is necessary to stop treating people as dependents, and be more proactive in trying to reach the vulnerable. The sophisticated IT systems that various governments keep praising are of no use if they are not used to help people in distress. If political parties can create systems sophisticated enough to reach every person with a cash gift for voting, surely they can manage to do effective distribution of essential goods. Even in terms of logistics like the trains for migrants, it would have been better and easier to simply set up and run the trains rather than create the extra hurdles of asking states to prepare lists and cross verify them, etc. Finally, it is important for governments at all levels to start maintaining contingency emergency funds, so that when a crisis does develop, it can be used to help people with dignity, rather than looking for funds and saying there aren’t any.

The session wrapped up with some closing comments from the panelists. The issues of raising the lockdown, and that of existing marginalisation getting deepened, were raised. For instance, many persons with disability are worried that if only 30 per cent of the workforce are to be retained, it is possible that they may end up losing their employment. Another common theme was how the crisis was a medical one, but the response was one of policing, rather than of healthcare. The government seemed to have used its technological tools, too, for surveillance rather than support. It would be necessary to stay vigilant of these surveillance systems once the lockdown did end, and the role of the media would also be important in this. Finally, it will be increasingly important for communities to start building up their own systems for dealing with crises, in the event that government institutions are not up to the task.

To watch the complete webinar, click here.

Compiled from the original webinar by Andrew deSouza

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