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Opinion: How The Pandemic And BJP Increased Inequality In India

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

I assume, all of us must have wondered once at least in our lives, how people in the earlier times used to travel such large distances on foot. It was amazing even to imagine that! It is not amazing anymore, because it is a reality that is mocking each one of us in our sun screened faces while we sit back in our comfortable homes.

The COVID-19 outbreak has left naked the condition of the lowest strata of the society in India. It was shocking to note that while the government decided to lock down 1.3 billion people in their homes, to curb the spread of the virus, the picture of the poor didn’t flash even once in their minds.

Forced to flee their homes in search of better work opportunities and the desire to give a seemingly better life to their families, these migrants labourers, sweepers, guards, street vendors, anyway must not have expected much from those in power and perhaps the reason why they took the pain to walk thousands of kilometres on foot to reach home.  

198 migrants lost their lives due to government inaction.

Is this what the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, meant when he talked about ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat(Self Reliant India)’? Well, I don’t know but could be! These people did all that was within their capacity, without a helping hand. They gave their blood and sweat to earn daily, fed themselves on that money and sent back the rest home. And when no one cared they left for home on foot.

And of course, the governments, states or centre made their priorities clear. It took them more than a month to wake up from their indifference. 198 migrants lost their lives on roads alone. In one incident, 16 migrants were crushed to death by a goods train while they settled down to rest, unconsciously on a railway track in the western state of Maharashtra. When the transportation resumed, close to 100 people died in the railway premises.

Government And Labour Laws

Meanwhile, as all this was happening in the country, various state governments announced ordinances exempting the factory sector, establishments and businesses from all major Labour laws, except the basic one’s. In May 2020, Uttar Pradesh announced an ordinance called the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020, exempting the factory sector of all major Labour Laws except three – Building and other Construction Workers Act,1923; Bonded Labour Act,1976; Section 5 of Payment of Wages Act, 1936, for a period of three years. 

Major laws that have been done away with include the Minimum Wages Act, Trade Unions Act, Industrial Disputes Act, Factories Act, Contract Labour Act, Payment of Bonus Act, Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, Working Journalists Act, Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act.

States like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and others also followed suit. Interestingly, the working class was not even considered a party to these decisions, in any of these states. This comes also as the gross violation of the ILO convention (C144) that mandates all its signatories to make “Tripartite Consultation” before ascertaining any changes to the labour laws.

Tripartite consultations involve the Employers, the workers and the governments for making any legislation to the labour laws.

Legal protection for the unorganized labour force is next to non-existent.

Governments have repeatedly claimed that the Ordinance would help in promoting the ‘ease of doing business’, attract foreign investment and protect jobs. But again, it is the workers who have been made the scapegoats for protecting the business class. The entire burden of protecting the businesses has swiftly been shifted on the shoulders of the working class, at the cost of their human rights.

Here, both, the urgency and intention of the state governments to protect businesses should be noted and should be compared to their delay in action for the crisis-hit migrant workers.

We need to question the labour laws too. The laws are designed to serve only the better off labour class, the organized labour force, despite the fact that only 10 per cent of the entire labour force belongs to this group. Only a handful of laws like the Contract Labour Act,1970, the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 and a few others assure protection by law to the unorganized sector. Contractors exploit their lack of awareness or even literacy to deny the benefits that are legally due to them. Sadly enough, both the acts have been rendered inoperative for the period of three years in UP.

The people we’ve seen on the streets, struggling to reach their homes are informal labourers, meaning, they have no social security from the employer’s side. To make things clearer these are the ‘kabadiwalas(garbage collector)’, the nai(barber), the vendor, the cobbler, the tailor, and so on. 

In 2018, 50% of the Indian population participated in the labour force. 81% of the total workforce was employed in the unorganized sector. But, a large portion of the formal sector also comprises the unorganized form of labour ( as contractual/casual labourers). When that is also taken into account, the proportion of informal workers in the total participating labour-force reaches around 92%.

As noted Journalist and Politico-Economic Analyst, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta likes to put it, “the class character of these governments is such that they are interested more in trying to save the interests of the employers rather than the employees.

It is this character that paints the grim picture of economic and social inequality in India.

According to Oxfam India, India’s top 1% population owns 73% of the wealth, while 67 crore citizens, comprising the country’s poorest half own 1%. In the United States of America, the top 1% own 37% of the wealth.

Welfare State Or A Crony Capitalist State?

Oxfam India CEO, Nisha Agarwal said, “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system. Those working hard, growing food for the country, building infrastructure, working in factories are struggling to fund their child’s education, buy medicines for family members and manage two meals a day. The growing divide undermines democracy and promotes corruption and cronyism.

The same survey also finds out that it will take 941 years for a minimum wage worker in rural India to earn what the top paid executive at a leading Indian garment firm earns in a year.

The division that exists in the social structure of the Indian society is quite manifest in the increasing economic inequality in the country. Just as darker skin tone people or lower caste people don’t get the hero’s role in Bollywood films, people who are poor and marginalised don’t matter for the governments. Politics, after all, is Public Relations these days and there’s no reason why the governments would want to maintain cordial relations with the poor, the weak. Wouldn’t that be a deficit deal! 

Wherefrom, Does This Inequality Derive Its Authority?

Much of the problem is a result of the lack of willpower and empathy on parts of the governments. In Indian democracy, people are looked upon not as humans but as ballot papers.

When that is the case, expecting empathy from the powerholders would mean social distancing ourselves from the world realities. It is the rich who run the political parties and once the parties acquire the chair, the rich get served. Of course, the poor vote, only to be forgotten.

What we see today is just the manifestation of all the apathy that successive governments have shown over the past many years. Till date, the governments have failed to devise a way to identify poor. The concept of the poverty line is vague, completely insensitive and the one which lets the governments escape their responsibilities. 

The Tendulkar Committee(2005), set the poverty line at just Rs 32 per capita per day in urban India Rs 27 for Urban areas. This was inclusive of health and education expenses!

In 2015, the Rangarajan Commission set the new poverty lines at Rs. 32 for the rural areas and Rs. 47 for the Urban Areas. It emphasised largely on food as a source of nutrition and overlooking the contribution of sanitation, healthcare and access to clean water.

Most recently, the National Statistical Office’s report on Household Consumer Expenditure for 2017-18 was junked by the Indian government, so there is no latest data about India’s poverty estimates. Social scientist, S Subramanian used data from a leaked version of the consumer expenditure data to conclude that the incidence of poverty in India increased from 31.15% to 35.1% between 2011-12 and 2017-18. The absolute number of poor people also increased from 270 million to 322.22 million over the same period, which translates to 52 million more poor people in six years.

Globally, according to the World Bank’s latest, about 60% of India’s nearly 1.3 billion people live on less than $3.10 a day, the World Bank’s median poverty line. 21% of the population, which boils down to 250 million people, survive on less than $2 a day. What do you eat with that money, what do you spend when you’re sick, how do you send your children to school?

The governments don’t consider the poor as citizens, especially the hyper Nationalist BJP government in power, caters only to the TV citizenry, for which they’ve created well-placed machinery.

Often, those who desperately need aid are left out because they don’t possess the necessary documentation or even awareness, and some others with political connections get access to the government subsidies even when they don’t need it.

It brings us again to the question of the class character of the various States and the centre. If one has to look at discrimination, masks, sanitiser, social distancing, however necessary, are the privileges of the middle class and not the poor. It also indicates the priorities of the government and the population it wishes to serve. You cannot expect a poor to invest in masks and sanitisers when their stomachs are empty.

Many died in the way, many were left with permanent scars and many discovered the heroics within them. Heroics that came out of helplessness! 

Can we expect the government to consider these people the next time they take any countrywide decision? Let’s be hopeful.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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