Shahida Shaikh, a domestic worker from Bhagat Singh Nagar in Goregaon, says many in her locality are without ration cards and have been without work since the lockdown. “I just go to a mosque because somebody comes there to distribute food packets. The food being supplied through corporators has not reached us. It is becoming difficult because now we have to worry about where the next meal comes from every day.”
Even as the lockdown entered its fourth phase, the sight of many people asking for material help on the streets, especially outside grocery stores pleading with well-to-do shoppers to buy them flour, rice or milk packets, too has not been uncommon.
Even as thousands of migrant workers leave the city, workers in the unorganised sector, who have made this city their home for decades, stare at more weeks of no wages, dwindling savings and the resultant dependence on the administration, or charity from strangers for essentials like food and groceries.
Babli Rawat, the general secretary of Gharkamgar Molkarni Sangathana (GMS), said that from areas like Aarey, Bhagat Singh Nagar in Goregaon and Ambuj Wadi in Malad, she has drawn up a list of 450 people who have been receiving no food or dry rations from any authorities. She said among those on the list from Aarey Colony, Malvani and Goregaon were women working as domestic help and some men working as daily-wage workers.
Eknath Mane, president of GMS, said that many women who worked as domestic workers have now become dependent on the government for supplies and there are no special schemes catering to these women, many of whom have found it difficult to collect their pay from their employers.
“Most women were paid for the month of March but not everyone is sure that they will get paid for April. For example, one woman has been working in the same house for 27 years. She called and asked if she can get paid for April and she was told that as they have been doing all the housework, what should they pay her for,” Mane said.
Rawat said that much before the Covid-19 outbreak, in a drive held by GMS, as many as 2,500 women had opened bank accounts. At their last membership renewal, GMS had 3,500 members. “Many women had opened regular bank accounts but very few had opened Jan Dhan accounts. Those who had Jan Dhan accounts have received Rs 500 in their accounts,” said Rawat.
The control room set up by the state government’s labour department receives an average of about 100 calls per day, said Development Commissioner (Unorganised labour) Pankaj Kumar. Most of these calls, he said, pertain to non-payment of wages in which cases the department intervenes. However, these calls have been from both the organised and unorganised sectors.
Kumar said the state government has so far paid Rs 2,000 each to 12 lakh construction workers in the state. Kumar said that if an amount is fixed for economic relief in the unorganised sector, it will cater to 122 occupations that fall under it, including domestic workers.
BJP corporator from Mumbadevi Atul Shah said that among people who had now come to rely on either the corporation, state government or NGOs for food included various groups, including stranded labourers, painters, electricians, loaders and a small number of taxi drivers.
However, economists are still hoping that the pandemic shock that has taken away people’s jobs and incomes in one stroke, will not pull people below the poverty line, or that if that happens, it could be rectified. Abhay Pethe, professor of economics at Mumbai University, said the problem may be temporary. He said the economic relief packages announced by the Centre are good for later stages of economic revival but for now the state and local governments need to have resources “here and now”.
“I think this is a temporary problem. This may be longer than expected and during that time you may find an increase in reported poverty but, if India can manage its macroeconomics well, we will be able to bounce back stronger within a couple of years.”
He added, “In urban areas, the way we measure poverty as income poverty, is never very high. It is about 3-5 per cent. The real problem is vulnerability and the health outcome. The real measures should be multi-dimensional poverty that we need to measure. And if we measure that, we will find an increase. There may be a small jerk because of what has happened but on a sustained basis, we still have that kind of poverty and we need to change our strategy and start taking into account things other than income.”
Pethe said that if the government had data about migrant workers — the places they came from, where they work, where they are located — even local ward offices would have been able to help with resources and distribution of food packets. “In Mumbai, density of population is not the root cause, it is the density that is not well-managed. We should not draw wrong conclusions. Going forward we have to manage our urban densities well, we should have proper data and empowered local governance so they can take immediate, emergency measures,” said Pethe.
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