By Anuja Sirohi and Sneha Tatapudy
What we know, what we need to know and what we can do to advance the urban poor’s right to relief
“For how long will things be like this? No business, nothing. From where will we bring money? From where will we eat? If we have to continue like this, we won’t have anything.” These words from Sheela, a street-vendor living in a slum in Jogeshwari, Mumbai, echo the growing need for relevant relief provisions that can equip the urban poor to cope with the ugly aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While various civil society groups remain rightfully concerned about the long-term perils of replacing ration with direct cash transfers, the pandemic and its impact on the urban poor has drawn attention to how these forms of much-needed relief can effectively complement each other. Given the unequal and devastating impact of the pandemic on the nation’s poorest, ration and cash transfers for the urban poor is both an urgent need and a means to uphold the right to life. With incomes slashed and a crashing economy, food on the table needs to be made available along with cash in-hand to ensure that the city’s poorest communities have the power to make choices about how to respond to their own emerging needs.
In response to India’s deepening hunger crisis due to the pandemic-induced lockdown, the government of India introduced an INR 20 lakh crore relief package. With regard to immediate relief for the urban poor, this included provisions for additional grains and pulses to priority ration card-holders, ration for people without ration cards and direct cash transfers to several vulnerable groups including pensioners, widows, people living with disabilities, women and construction workers.
Despite being overtly inadequate in most of their offerings, it has become increasingly clear that such measures are the need of the hour—not only to firefight the ongoing humanitarian crisis but more importantly, as a means to safeguard the basic rights of communities that continue to grapple with the impact of long histories of systemic exclusion.
Even though the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) was a direct outcome of a widespread understanding that food is a human right and a means to ensure the dignity of life for all, the rhetoric surrounding government-led relief initiatives in a COVID-affected world indicates a repackaging of ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’ in the form of ‘charity’.
While the severe lack of food for the urban poor emerges as the most prominent non-health outcome of the pandemic, relief provisions are being offered to the urban poor in the form of disaster-response measures, with no recognition that these are, in fact, their most fundamental rights.
At this juncture, some skeptics may wonder, does it matter whether relief is given as a right or as a favour? In the end, aren’t we most interested in ensuring that the poorest communities receive the help they need? Why is it important to reevaluate ‘how’ we achieve this? The simple answer to this is that when we do not inform our emergency response efforts with a rights-based approach, we have no means of holding the state and society accountable.
It is easy to forget that it is the state’s ‘duty’ to advance the dignity of life for its poorest people and as a result, it is also easy to overlook major trends of exclusion that continue to unsee and silence the struggles of India’s most oppressed communities.
It is no secret that the people of India are constantly faced with the paradox of ‘rising hunger in a growing economy’. Recently, the country ranked 94 among 107 countries on the Global Hunger Index. Riddled with major exclusion errors that denied access to the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) and Direct Cash Transfers for those most in need, these systems have been out of reach for millions of people living on the margins.
When any form of government-support for marginalized groups is announced, the unsaid expectation is that civil society organizations and local-level leaders will build bridges to increase people’s access and awareness of their entitlements. This trend continued during the pandemic, and as a result, several NGOs stepped in as relief and awareness-providers for Mumbai’s poorest communities whose fundamental rights were violated indiscriminately during the pandemic.
Local leaders who were tasked with providing cooked meals to their constituents as well as with the responsibility of overseeing the effective implementation of relief measures were often seen as being disinterested in learning about the practical challenges experienced by the communities they served.
Instead of intentionally addressing predictable challenges of exclusion due to pre-existing gaps in the urban poor’s access to basic services, the relief measures offered to India’s urban poor during the COVID-19 pandemic depended upon the idea that dysfunctional public service systems would suddenly transform and become responsive to people whose struggles were overlooked for years. As per the norm, people’s right to information was not prioritized enough while rolling out provisions that promised to strengthen the urban poor’s linkages to basic services at the peak of a global emergency.
A recent study conducted by Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), titled ‘Living with Multiple Vulnerabilities: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Urban Poor in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region’ highlighted some of the major barriers of access to relief and entitlements experienced by 39,562 urban poor individuals living across 10 cities who attempted to receive food, cash transfers and social security during the pandemic.
Specifically, this study surveyed 18,218 households regarding enrollment in the TPDS, 4,111 households regarding Aadhar and ration card linkages and 3,908 registered construction workers on 16 construction sites regarding receiving cash transfers. The study also included 175 in-depth interviews with people living in urban poor communities.
1. Exclusion From The Public Distribution System
Data from YUVA’s study revealed that 17.22% of the urban poor in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region reported not having a ration card at all. Even people with ration cards faced severe challenges of access, availability and adequacy of ration. Many couldn’t access state-provided ration because they had no money to pay for long commutes to ration stores and were given lesser quantities of grains due to arbitrary decisions made by shopkeepers and because of the unavailability of sufficient ration especially at the beginning of the lockdown.
Additionally, a sizeable population of migrant workers and their families who were enrolled in the PDS had no access to ration while they remained stranded in the city. Only 45.49% of the surveyed households had ration cards registered within the MMR. Among those who lived on construction sites, only 10.38% reported having a ration card registered in the city.
On 14 May 2020, 21 days after the lockdown was announced, the government announced the provision of ration—5 kg of grain (wheat or rice) per person and 1 kg of channa per family per month for two months, free of cost—for migrant workers and urban poor individuals who didn’t possess ration cards.
These provisions were made accessible to excluded groups who were able to present a valid Aadhar card to access ration, thereby overlooking the food-related needs of urban poor individuals who didn’t have both Aadhar cards and ration cards. In some cases, people were denied access to ration even if they had an Aadhar card due to rampant misinformation among shopkeepers at the fair price shops.
Calling attention to this major roadblock in the implementation of relief provisions, Sarita, a participant in YUVA’s study explained, “The shopkeeper said that we will give ration only to (ration) cardholders; that the people not having a ration card would get something from NGOs. But the government said that we could show our Aadhaar card and get ration.”
With no form of livelihood and limited savings, India’s urban poor have solely relied on state-provided entitlements that are both inaccessible and insufficient in response to the ongoing health crisis. At this time, India’s flagship Mid Day Meal (MDM) system, the largest school feeding program in the world that served as a daily necessity rather than a complimentary meal for children belonging to poor families, stopped providing food after schools closed due to the lockdown.
This created greater risks for hunger and starvation among children from poor households. The food safety net provided by Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Centers for 0-6 year old children also came to an immediate halt, impeding access to basic nutrition for children.
2. Exclusion From Access To Cash Transfers
With the head of the household being a daily-wage earner in 56.91 per cent of surveyed households, people’s financial distress immediately intensified upon the sudden announcement of a nation-wide lockdown. Millions of urban poor families were unable to purchase food, medicines or pay for rent due to the loss of work. The Finance Minister announced a DCT of INR 500 to all women for April, May and June under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY).
Given that these cash transfers could be accessed by poor households only if a woman in the family had a bank account, the fact that only 23.13 per cent of the women in YUVA’s study reported having a bank account raises major concerns about how a large majority of urban poor women would be able to access their cash transfers. Meanwhile, transgender people have been left out altogether—they have not been listed as potential recipients for the cash transfer or any of the other relief packages.
Construction workers needed to be registered with the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board (BOCW–WB) to be eligible to receive the Maharashtra government-facilitated Rs 2,000 cash transfer (a second tranche announcement of Rs 3,000 has recently been made). Data from the study revealed that only 24.64 per cent of the surveyed construction workers were registered with the BOCW–WB.
Even though 87.64 per cent of registered workers reported having a bank account, a mere 29.49 per cent of them reported receiving their Rs 2,000 cash transfer. Without inclusive methods of relief-delivery and reliable beneficiary identification mechanisms, the needs of the most marginalized communities will remain forgotten.
Despite the poorest people across India repeatedly questioning how their families are expected to survive on a meagre amount of Rs 500 per month, their protest hasn’t been registered. Even with experts stating that the per-person expenditure of the poorest of the poor is 20% higher than the INR 500 per month relief amount, there has been no change to the total amount of money offered to the urban poor. The lack of action on this front is both a failure of state and society—it reflects a blatant unwillingness to value the lives of the people who make our cities function and thrive.
With the number of COVID-affected individuals increasing manifold each day, it is a well-known fact that the process of recovery will continue for a very long time. Given the reality of these circumstances, we need to re-evaluate what we really want ‘recovery’ to look like: In what ways are we ensuring that COVID-recovery isn’t simply about restoring the status quo?
In order to build resilience for the long haul, it is imperative that we not only revive the economy but also aim to build back better. We need to reorganize power structures and ensure that our efforts are guided by a consistent engagement with the ideals of democracy and human rights, instead of reducing these revolutionary concepts to meaningless buzzwords. Here’s what we can do to get started:
1. Listen to the voices that matter and understand gaps in the implementation of relief measures
Even before the emergence of the ongoing humanitarian crisis, it was common to hear stories about brokers asking migrant families to pay thousands of rupees if they wanted to access their Aadhar cards and ration cards. It was also a well-known fact that many people simply didn’t know if they had a PMJDY bank account (a requirement for access to cash transfers) or how to withdraw and deposit money.
YUVA’s study recommends paying attention to such loopholes and designing provisions that navigate around predictable challenges and barriers of access, for eg., the ration should be made accessible to the poorest of the poor regardless of where their card was issued or what legal documentation they don’t have, income brackets for ration-eligibility should be expanded, community-level camps to issue emergency ration cards and Aadhar cards should be organized, Aanganwadi workers should resume remote check-ins with women and children, and a monthly cash transfer of INR 5000 should be made available to all urban poor households regardless of whether or not they have a PMJDY account.
2. Identify and invest in inclusive public service infrastructures to ensure greater access to basic rights for all
The urban poor’s predicament during the COVID-19 lockdown is a direct result of the unpreparedness of institutional support mechanisms that were designed to uphold the rights and entitlements of the most vulnerable populations. Whether it is a young boy in an adivasi pada who cannot afford a long commute to the ration store or an elderly widow who is unaware of her food and cash-related entitlements during the pandemic, there is a rising need for tangible responses from the government through investment in relief programs that reach out to the most excluded populations.
This would involve introducing the community-level provision of essential foods, a greater focus on financial literacy for women and other vulnerable groups, access to cash at fair price stores, and a dedicated effort to train government staff (including fair price shopkeepers, police officers and locally elected representatives) with a rights-based approach towards the implementation of relief and response programs. The undisclosed amount collected through the PM Cares fund can be used to ensure that inclusive relief for all is urgently prioritized.
3. Ask tough questions and promote a culture of accountability
At this point, we know that when entitlements are denied to the nation’s poorest, people remain stuck in a cycle of poverty and marginalization. We know that when a pandemic hits and disproportionately affects the poorest communities, rights that were previously denied are ‘given’ in the form of ‘relief’ to people who are rendered vulnerable by unjust systems.
We know that there is a lot that can be done to reimagine and recreate a society that prioritizes the idea of freedom, dignity and justice for all. It’s time for us to confront some of the toughest questions. What led us to this point? What can be done now? What will we do about all that we know?
Even the most inclusive policies don’t automatically translate into practice. While a policy may set an expectation, it only creates new norms when there is a consistent, collaborative movement for transformative change. Months since the first lockdown was imposed, we are at a significant turning point – collective action to build accountability mechanisms that pursue the transparent and effective use of unspent funds can pave the way for new norms, where people’s right to relief during a global crisis is both recognized and respected.