Chapter 7 of the ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-wide Lockdown’ webinar series
The seventh chapter of YUVA’s webinar series ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-Wide Lockdown’ took place on 4 August 2020, focused on the city of Guwahati in Assam. The panelists included Banamallika Choudhary (Founder, NEthing and Executive Director of W.L.T.C), Anupam Chakravartty (Freelance Journalist) and Pooja Nirala (Activist and Consultant at YUVA). The discussion was moderated by Syeda Mehzebin Rahman of YUVA.
This blog presents the highlights from the session.
Q. What are some of the common challenges faced by the low income groups to access basic scheme packages announced by the Government during the lockdown period and your experience with the voluntary ration/food distribution drive?
Banamallika Choudhary spoke about the economic relief package which was initially announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the month of May 2020 and later was revised by the government. Under this initiative, people with or without ration cards are entitled to receive 5 kgs of ration each and the card holders are to get this benefit in addition to the regular ration they receive. She pointed out that there were people from the marginalised communities in the city who were not getting their regular supply of ration from the Fair Price Shops during the nationwide lockdown, it was only during the unlock phase when some of them managed to secure ration. She shared experiences from the field where she came across only few people who have actually received 5 kgs of rice (as a part of the relief package), there were cases where domestic workers living in informal settlements were denied relief package as the owner of the Fair Price Shop was not aware of any such announcements or did not receive any ration allocation.
The real picture on the ground is very different, there is a major gap between government announcement and implementation, people are not aware and they do not know the procedures or from where they are supposed to get the ration, the other players like the Fair Price Shop owners are also clueless. Few of them who have received the relief packages only got 3 kgs and not the entire quantity. Many people from Basistha and Kharghuli area did not even receive good quality dal or ration from the shops.
She specifically focussed on the domestic workers who are badly affected as a result of the pandemic and lockdown. Since 22 March(when nationwide lockdown was announced), workers did not receive their salaries and couldn’t get work. There is a stigma attached to the workers that they are the carriers of the virus. She along with her colleagues drafted radical guidelines on the conduct of both domestic workers and their employer during COVID-19. They also led a deputation to the Labour Commission for raising concerns over social security protection for domestic workers. On their visit, they were informed that the Commission has started a mobile phone registration of domestic workers having Aadhaar cards, however, few who have registered did not get any support from the government.
There has been loss of income for daily wage workers as a result of the lockdown, for the ones who live in rented houses in the city the situation is even worse, they are in dire crisis and are not able to pay rent, some of them were even on the streets without any shelter. Additionally, there has been a rise in cases of violence against women as well.
In conclusion, she shared major findings of a survey that was conducted by her team on the ‘Impact of COVID -19 Lockdown on Women in Assam’. The report highlighted cases of violence and discrimination (biases that minrity groups carry the virus, domestic workers carry the virus etc.). As a result of the lockdown, women’s work burden has increased, most of them do not count their labour, for example earlier they used to cook two times a day and now (since everyone is at home) a woman cooks more than usual. Overall, in the surveyed areas many underprivileged communities did not have ration cards or access to food. The issues are critical when it comes to loss of livelihoods and food security.
Q. What has been the preparedness of the state of Assam to deal with multiple shocks such as the pandemic, floods and the Baghjan oil blast which has damaged the ecosystem and displaced many people? What were the main challenges?
Anupam Chakravartty pointed out that the Baghjan incident was waiting to happen and a lot of people living in the area would agree. It is unfortunate that the incident happened around the same time as the pandemic. Before Baghjan there were many social movements on coal mining and forests. The initial few days after the blast, panic stricken local residents were leaving their villages. Particularly in Tinsukia, people were more concerned about the tragedy rather than the pandemic. In one of the villages next to where the incident happened, only few people were discussing or talking about COVID but then as positive cases in the area started rising, there was some amount of awareness building that could be seen. Arrangements for the blast affected families or local residents were made in relief camps. In total, there were around 12–15 relief camps, people stationed there started vacating these camps due to the growing COVID fear, as these camps were not in liveable condition and some of them did not even have basic sanitation facilities.
Amidst the pandemic, when the spilled oil caught fire, people lost their homes, their valuables and many couldn’t imagine what they were going through or what was to happen next. There are also a lot of seismic activities happening in the place, there are tremors, people who still have their homes in and around the area are living in constant fear. Instead of addressing the issue, the Oil authorities are trying to play people against each other and only a handful were compensated for their loss as a result of the blast.
The state was hit by another shock, namely floods, many people are affected especially the ones located close to the river beds, the tea garden workers. By the end of June floods had already destroyed many lives and livelihoods. In the coal mining area, a lot of workers are affected and currently they have no source of livelihood or food security. People have started leaving the mining area and walking back home — the flood situation led to large scale displacement of people and their habitat. On the other hand, the situation in Baghjan continues to be the same, there is no clarity when the oil well is going to be plugged. There are about 8 to 9 committees probing on the issue but justice is still a distant dream for the people and with floods and pandemic their situation is worse than ever.
With the unlock phase in Guwahati, people/workers are again moving to cities (outward migration) to look for work. The Baghjan fire and the floods also led to migration of people to the towns and cities to earn livelihoods. People are not aware of the social distancing norms, workers who are walking (intra/inter city) are found sleeping on the roads. In some cases, for those who are going to rural areas, there are barricades on the way to control their access/entry to the villages (of people from outside). With the increasing distress caused due to the floods and rising deaths in this regard, the pandemic seems to have taken a backseat.
After this, Anupam responded to some of the questions from the audience. On how the national media was not initially covering the flood situation in Assam, he mentioned that while coverage on national media was happening, it was the day-to-day struggles of people whose crops were damaged and animals dead which was not being reported. Another gap in reporting was to deep dive towards what had led to the floods or what had happened to the funds from the State Disaster Relief Funds. To another question on the role of the government, he added that the government is not responding to people’s demands and their focus is primarily on COVID and not to tackle floods. Ironically, the Assam flood is not even recognised as a national disaster.
Responding to another question on the role of Floods and State Disaster Management Authorities and the status of small dams/embankments in the state, he said that in Assam, there are small dams. The river course in Assam moves at an average of 240 metres towards north and this happens every year! The state of Assam is a flood prone area, it is a low-lying area and some communities have learned to co-exist with the flood. There is a lot of water availability in Assam. In the name of flood control, a lot of hydro power projects are getting installed there and there are a lot of scams involved in it. For many such projects Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is not done properly and dams are constructed with a poor knowledge of the floods. Even for construction of the embankments there is often caste based discrimination.
Q. What are some of the common challenges faced by the labourers working in the unorganised sector especially during the lockdown? Share your experiences from the field.
Pooja Nirala called attention to the issue of food security for the unorganised sector workers. She shared her field experiences from the dry ration distribution drive where she came across domestic workers who were helpless and left with no food or work. With the announcement of the nation-wide lockdown she started getting calls from the community people. They were panicking and not prepared to face the lockdown. To address the increasing issue of ration and food insecurity, Pooja along with a collective decided to distribute ration to help poor communities especially women and they reached out to over 2,000 people.
These people were not treated with basic dignity and were left with no option to run the house! She highlighted the crucial need to respect the dignity of every individual. During the distribution drive they experienced the crisis that people were going through — they were ready to get beaten up by the police for relief packages. Many voluntary organisations were distributing relief but no one could ensure dignity for these people. India is a welfare state and there has been no effort on the part of the government to ensure systematic distribution of ration in the state. Even after the Finance Minister announced relief packages, the ration distribution did not reach the people at the margins and even now the situation hasn’t changed.
Women are walking many kilometres to get basic ration/food supplies. Pooja met one woman who had a family to feed and was walking a long distance to secure food. The woman had lost her job as a domestic worker. The condition of domestic workers has worsened, their labour is not recognised, there are no social security measures/protection for them as workers. In 2018, the state issued a Domestic Workers Social Security Scheme which had many loopholes, an amendment was proposed but nothing was taken note of. There is no progress when it comes to implementation of the Unorganised Sector Social Security Act (2008) as well. People who are raising their voices (union members or activists) are put behind the bars for no valid reasons.
For construction workers, atleast the registered ones under Building and Other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, they have received the government-facilitated one-time cash transfer of INR 2,000. Street vendors are not able to start their business because of ongoing restrictions and increasing police atrocities. Also, the overall price hike has affected common people. This has been the condition in the past 4 months. The city is faced with frequent lockdowns and sudden announcements, severely impacting the working poor. There is no democratic space for people’s participation — what will the people eat or how will they survive? The decisions are taken in a top-down way and accessibility is a privilege in terms of basic services and welfare schemes.
Responding to the state of the public health system in the state, Pooja answered that the condition is pathetic. In hospitals there are no water facilities in the toilets, lack of hygiene, class divisions are visible — some privileged people are quarantined in hotels and others in minimum arrangements. On the question on the D-Voters and National Register of Citizens (NRC) issue, Pooja mentioned that some court cases are ongoing but discussions on D-voters are now suspended.
Lastly, on a question of non ration card holders getting ration in Assam, Pooja remarked that such incidents are rare, how will the state identify non ration holders, no survey is carried and practically there are complications in this regard.
To watch the complete webinar, click here.
Compiled from the original webinar by Brishti Banerjee