Supporting the daily wage labourers in the pandemic

Dr. Neha Lall*

The first case of the novel COVID19 virus was reported in India on the 30th of January and on 22nd of March the first Janta curfew was announced. From 25th of March onwards, different phases of lockdown have been implemented in India. The rapid spread of the virus and the sudden announcements of lockdowns left many paralyzed with little to no time to prepare. Businesses had to be shut, and transport came to a halt, leaving the country in an absolutely alien state. Unarguably, one of the worst affected were the daily wage labourers and the migrant workers.

Daily wage labourers usually have meagre or no savings and depend on their daily income for food and other necessities. The lockdowns meant no jobs which essentially translated to not even having money to buy themselves a meal. Many of them were migrant workers, coming from different rural parts of the country, and working in cities for better incomes. They felt stranded, away from their homes with no transportation available to take them back.

Government schemes were announced, and rations were distributed to alleviate the situation. However, the benefits didn’t reach to many and over millions didn’t qualify for the same as the 2011 census is still being used. Many had to resort to taking informal loans to just provide food and shelter for themselves and their families. At the same time, thankfully, many social institutes came forward in these trying times and did their bit to help the needy.

In Mumbai, Ms Shievani Upadhyay and her team founded the Annapurna Movement to help provide food to the needy in these unprecedented times. Ms. Shievani is an IIT Bombay Alumna and is a Social Impact Analyst. With a core team of just 8 members, they started the movement by raising money through donations from their friends and families. They used the money to buy ration kits from the local groceries and distributed it to the residents of Shivaji Nagar slum. As the movement started gaining support, they used several fundraising mechanisms such as crowdfunding, Ketto portals, social media channels and micro influencers, and created a system to provide ration kits to more and more slums.

It is very important to ensure credibility and to build trust when creating a social movement that requires donations. Ms Shievani Upadhyay and her team worked tirelessly to keep a record of every transaction and donation, taking photographs and maintaining a ledger for all to see. This transparency Shievani says, helped them gain overwhelming support to spread the movement. The kits now lasted 2 weeks, and they took help of the local community members (Aganwadi or Asha workers) for the distribution. The kits were directly delivered to them and safety measures were adopted to prevent transmission of the disease. The movement then expanded to provide daily meals through food partnerships and also to provide jobs to the displaced workers by partnering with different businesses.

Another section of the society that were adversely affected were the women coming from underprivileged backgrounds. Shievani found while working in the slums, that girls and women had regressed to using leaves and old dirty clothes as makeshift pads during their menstruation. Majority of the women in these urban slums knew the harmful effects of such products but due to lack of money had no other solution. Project Antarvastra and Bala were thus started by them to provide these women with reusable pads which were safe and economical. They also started a “Khushiyon ki Paatshala” to impart basic speaking and mathematical skills to 9th and 10th grade students from these slums as their education too had taken a hit with the ongoing pandemic.

However, with time “donor fatigue” has started to set in. With the easing of lockdowns and reopening of stores and transport services, many have stated to feel that there is no longer a need to help the labourers. A lot of them had their own financial concerns with many losing their jobs in the pandemic. In times like these, it becomes even more pressing for government bodies and corporates to provide aid to the less fortunate. The TATA group, Aditya Birla Group, Reliance Industries and many other MNCs and MSMEs have stepped in and contributed to the government funding, as well as started their own initiatives to assist those in need. Aajeevika Bureau, Chitrika, COVA Network and JANVIKAS are some of the Social Groups and Foundations that are working to help the migrants and daily wage workers in the different parts of the country.

Shievani says that one should not stop now and give as much as possible. “Give so much that it pinches you a little”- is her mantra and wishes that the rest of us follow suit. Food is the most essential need of an individual and no one should be forced to stay hungry. Social movements like hers have helped millions in the country but the onus of providing should not be on them, but rather on the different Government bodies. Social movements should not be made sustainable in fact, rather exhaustive benefit schemes should be in place that the need for such movements no longer exists.

*Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, PGP Class of 2021

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