Chapter 4 of the ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-wide Lockdown’ webinar series
The fourth chapter of YUVA’s webinar series ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-Wide Lockdown’ took place on 2 June 2020, focused on the city of Nagpur. Nitin Meshram of YUVA moderated the session, and began by introducing the panelists:
- Anil Wasnik is a social worker, journalist, and writer, who has been working in and writing about Nagpur for decades now. He is also associated with the Shehar Vikas Manch, a city development forum working on housing, land rights, basic services, and other urban issues. .
- Sandhya Rajurkar is a columnist based in Nagpur, and the Principal of Sidharth College. She has been involved at various levels with a number of different publications, including the Marathi newspaper Lokmat. She has been involved in various social issues, and has worked on issues of unorganised labour and women’s rights.
- Prafulla Gudadhe is the General Secretary of the Maharashtra Congress Committee, and is a Councillor for the Nagpur Municipal Corporation.
- Urmilla Aatey is Manager at Mahila Krantikari Bachat Gat Sahakari Path Sanstha, a credit cooperative.
Anil Wasnik pointed out how the coronavirus and mass migration are large-scale problems. He contextualised the state of the Indian economy by noting how the majority of the country works in the unorganised sector, and over 80 per cent earns less than Rs 10,000 per month. The lockdown has led to the largest scale of migration seen in India since Independence, but the government doesn’t seem to care, he added.
The lockdown has endangered many of these workers by compelling them to walk home. More than 200 people have died so far. The employers who have built their fortunes off the backs of these people have thrown up their hands and sent them away or indirectly forced them to leave. Most workers today are not really employees, as they are all on temporary contracts. There is often no record of them. The contractor controls the exchange, finds the workers, and hands them over to the employers, who often compels them to work in exploitative conditions. This is despite the Contract Labour Act of 1970, which had tried to prevent this. Now the proposed change in the labour laws is another huge problem for the working people of the country. Employers will keep trying to keep people outside the purview of labour protection, as it is more profitable for them. Whatever protection was there is being dismantled. The employers are using the pandemic as an excuse to say that their industry has suffered, and so they should be able to do this. The fact that the government is even willing to entertain this shows on whose behalf it is acting. The migration has also raised more issues, with many states trying to impose restrictions on workers leaving or entering the state. This goes against the spirit of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to live and work in any part of the country to every citizen of India.
The biggest effect of this whole crisis is going to be on the workers of the country. Whatever little wealth or capital they held is also gone. Factory owners in Nagpur are saying that there are no workers to work for them, but it is their callousness that forced all the workers to leave. Even then, people had no way to return, so they began to walk. Finally, the state transport buses and the trains began. Stranded workers were kept in refuge homes and other converted buildings, and the neighbouring people came together and tried their best to help them and provide them with food and support.
The shortcomings of the ration system have been exposed. Although there are 600 ration shops, thousands of people don’t have ration cards. Only after people complained did the authorities take note and start conducting a survey. They have said they will try to deliver rations to everyone, so one can only hope that is the case.
The government has said it will try to develop a system of rental housing for migrant workers. This has been discussed for over five years now, but nothing has been done. If it is being done now, it needs to be asked who will implement it and how, and whether it will be affordable for common people to live in it.
The situation of the pandemic in the city is very bad and it is likely to get worse. The Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) should try to focus on the areas where there is a high infection rate, to control the infection, and support the people there.
In conclusion, it is time that the workers of the country stop having their rights snatched, and the governments stop considering them migrants and start seeing them — and all others — as citizens of the country.
Sandhya Rajurakar too spoke about how the largest effect of the pandemic has been on the workers, and how they are the ones fighting the battle against the disease. Although there are terrible situations, there is also a lot of humanity, with many people, volunteers, and non-profits coming forward to help. Many people are forced to walk thousands of kilometres home, sometimes going without food for 300 kilometres at a stretch. People have lost lives on their way.
The question has to be asked — why are they suffering like this? Is it their fault, and if not then who is responsible? Both employers and contractors have turned their backs, leaving the migrant workers helpless. When they had no choice, they took some money from home and started back. We tried asking them if they would return to the cities, but they said they would rather starve in their villages than come back.
There are many questions also about what is to be done next. For one, since so many migrant workers already have gone back, the government of Maharashtra should now at least focus on those who are here. Employment needs to be generated, perhaps through employment offices that can connect factories or companies to those looking for work; even the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) can be looked to for an example. Many women and women’s groups have come forward. Some are involved in distributing rations, others are engaged in providing different kinds of support. The government should push resources towards encouraging home-based work and other kinds of employment for women. Mental health has also been badly affected, and there has also been a rise in cases of domestic violence, so it is necessary to be sensitive to these realities as well.
The government of Maharashtra has done a good job of defusing tension among the people; the administrative workers, health workers, and the police have been working tirelessly since the beginning — they deserve all the praise. In the end, we have to defeat the virus together. It doesn’t require us to fight anyone, but those who are fighting it and facing the biggest impact need to be given relief, support, and justice.
The next speaker, Prafulla Gudadhe too echoed that the biggest effect of the pandemic has been on migrant workers. The government implemented the lockdown without thinking much about them, but actually over 80 per cent of the country is working in the informal sector. Just like in the case of demonetisation, however, the government seems to be looking only at the other 20 per cent, the formal, urbanised part of the country. Just like demonetisation, the poor have been hit the hardest.
Gudadhe then spoke about the different effects the lockdown would have on the various sectors — the entertainment industry workers, hospitality workers, salon workers, auto and taxi drivers, security guards, street vendors, etc. would all be hit badly. Together with construction workers and manual labourers, these make up the majority of workers in the country.
So the future challenges will be huge and what will be needed is a long-term plan. The economic plan announced by the government will have to be seen, but we must ask whether any of that will make its way to the poor, and what relief it will provide to those who are suffering now. Thousands of people don’t have ration cards. Even those that do are only given 5 kg of rice; in our community kitchen people said they can’t afford to buy gas, oil, milk, or sugar. We need to seriously consider the plight of this section of people as well. Development keeps being spoken about but it only seems to refer to rich people. The people through whose effort this development has been achieved are the ones facing the worst difficulties. Any step taken should keep that in mind.
This is also the time to ask ourselves what kind of society we want when this ends. Do we want to go back to the old society, or move towards a new one? Physical distancing is happening, but along with it, there is increasing distance between people’s wealth. This is an opportunity to reduce that distance. This is also a time to seriously take questions of governance, especially for local bodies who must be self-sufficient, even though government help will be needed to get there. How can we generate more income sources at a local level, increase skills at a local level, and govern better at a local level.
The next panelist, Urmilla Aatey spoke about her experiences of working in a co-operative bank. Many people who she came in contact with did not have the money to pay back the loans. At their end, they told them not to worry and not to pay back the loans until they have a stable source of income. They also told them they could take whatever money they had that was with the bank: perhaps through their own savings or benefits, schemes, etc. that had been collected there. But still, this is not a lot of money. Even if they survive for these two months, what will they do after that? People are scared, they don’t know what to do. This is also affecting their mental health. Marginalised groups are also worried, such as many Muslim families and Scheduled Tribes. The former have also been the target of a communal angle being given to the disease, and the latter used to work in the garments sector, which has been affected badly. Everyone is wondering what to do next. For example, domestic workers are also in a bad situation. Many people don’t want them to come back to work, understandably, but they are also not paying them any money, leaving them in the lurch. Now, with all of this, people are asking, how will we even find employment when everything is closed?
At their end, Aatey mentioned how they have tried their best to help people by delaying loans, and releasing money to people; but they too will be in trouble soon. Being a co-operative society, they don’t have very deep pockets or large sources of funding. Soon, they will also have to figure out what to do next.
After this, the panelists responded to the questions from the audience. One topic of discussion was on the financial status of the municipal corporation. Gudadhe said that while the situation of the corporation had certainly worsened after the COVID-19 outbreak, it was already in a bad situation before it as well. He explained how, having spent a lot of funds in the name of development, the corporation is in a bad situation now, as it has been unable to raise funds using the goods and services tax (GST) and other taxes that it normally would have over the last two months.
Another question was on the communal angle that had been given to the virus initially. Most of the panelists agreed that while the situation was quite bad in the beginning, with people and communities being targeted because of their religion, the situation was a little better now and people were aware that no religion or community had anything to do with the disease.
On the topic of Nagpur’s public health system, the experience was that the infrastructure is very poor. Despite this, in the areas where the outbreak has been especially bad, the health workers have gone above and beyond not only from a medical angle, but also to spread awareness and information. The commissioner, police, and administration have also been working very hard, trying to reach everyone they could, and they deserve all the praise and thanks they could get. One of the audience members also asked whether certain political outfits were really was doing as much relief work as was being shown on TV news channels. To this, Rajurkar said that most TV channels often don’t show the real picture of what happens on the ground, and that other organisations are the ones doing the most work, even though their names don’t show up in newspapers or TV channels.
Another question was asked regarding the migrant workers and what facilities had been made available to them, and what difficulties they had had to face. The answer was that in the beginning, there was nothing forthcoming from the government. Had the lockdown been communicated in advance, people could have been more prepared and either left earlier for their hometowns or been better secured the places they were in; a lot of the problems that have sprung up could have been avoided. But because of the hastiness of the lockdown, everyone has had to face a number of problems, and the worst situation has been that of the migrant workers. Later, some 14–15 days later, there were some facilities provided for migrant workers at the toll nakas, and in the coming days, the Maharashtra government has said it will help in transporting them to the borders of their states. For this, the Nagpur administration and police have been working, and there are provisions for food and footwear at the toll nakas.
A question was asked to Anil Wasnik about the number of migrants who had left, where they had returned to, and what effect this had had on the city of Nagpur. He answered that 50,000 people had left. Many had gone to the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. This has had a large impact on the industries in Nagpur.
To watch the complete webinar, click here.
Compiled from the original webinar by Andrew deSouza