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Opinion: “Instead Of A Social Security Net The Poor And Marginalised Are On A Tightrope”

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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.

In May 1886, Chicago saw a watershed moment for labour rights worldwide with the Haymarket protests. The aim of the strike by workers and labour rights activists was to legislate an 8-hour working day. To commemorate these protests, 1 May is now celebrated as International Labour Day.

Thus, it is ironic that the last two May Days have seen the plight of workers increase in India due to Covid-19 and the government’s mismanagement of the situation. What is indicative of the government’s contempt for workers is the attempt to increase the working day from 8 to 12 hours after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the government was criticised and failed in its attempt to increase the hours in a workday, many states have gone on to suspend major labour laws in the aftermath.

Migrant Workers Headed Back To Their Home In Panic Amid Three Week Lockdown To Curb COVID-19 Coronavirus
A wave of migrant workers seen at Anand Vihar Bus Terminus near the Delhi-UP border on March 28, 2020, in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Effectively, workers’ rights have taken a hit in the country over the last year. More significantly, due to the unplanned lockdowns, labourers and migrant workers lost their lives and livelihood. Instead of a social security net, the poor and marginalised in our country are now on a tightrope.

The government had no data on how many migrant workers had lost their jobs or had died due to the effects of the nationwide lockdown. It did not have any data on migrant labourers in general, and thus, the free ration, monetary support and welfare schemes aimed at the poor hardly reached the vast migrant workforce.

The Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan was aimed at providing free ration to an estimated eight crore migrant workers. By August 2020, only one-third of them had received the benefits of the scheme. The Centre justified this by claiming that the eight crore figure was a “liberal estimate“.

study by Azim Premji University (APU) estimates that almost 81% of migrants lost employment in the lockdown and about 31% of migrant workers reported not being able to access rations.

After the first nationwide lockdown was imposed in March 2020, Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) received hundreds of calls from migrant groups. From the data they gathered, they estimated that 96% had not received rations from the government and 70% had not got cooked food. Till 13 April, 2020, 44% of the calls they received were from people desperate for food or cash.

Maharashtra accounted for most of the workers in the data and less than 1% had received any ration from the government. They estimate that 3 weeks into the lockdown, only 4% of migrant workers had received any ration.

About 10 crore Indians lost jobs during the nationwide April-May 2020 lockdown. Even by the end of 2020, about 1.5 crore workers remained out of work. Similar trends are being seen this year as well. Localised lockdowns have resulted in 75 lakh jobs being lost in April this year.

A recent SWAN study estimates that 81% of workers stated that work had stopped due to localised lockdowns and restrictions. Only 18% received any money from their employers after work had stopped.

Most migrants have decided to cut their losses and go back home again. They fear a crisis similar to last year is imminent. Although state governments are assuring that the current situation will only last a couple of weeks, migrant workers have not forgotten the almost identical statements made last year. In April alone, more than 80,000 migrant workers have returned to Agra.

The APU study also estimates that the first wave of Covid-19 pushed almost 23 crore Indians into poverty. This means that the number of people who lie below the poverty threshold has increased by 23 crores. They estimate that in April and May of 2020, the poorest 20% lost their entire incomes.

The study used a ₹375 daily wage as the threshold to get to the estimate. It should be noted that even though ₹375 is not the most conservative figure, using the recommendations of the 7th Pay Commission, the Delhi government fixed the daily wage of unskilled labourers at ₹598. The living wage in India is estimated to be between ₹15,000 to ₹20,000. Trade unions also have for long demanded ₹600 a day be set as the floor wage.

SWAN has recommended that the Centre provide ₹7,000 wage compensation to all priority households and migrant workers. According to their survey, over 70% of workers need ration or cash support immediately.

The PM has urged states to use lockdowns as a last measure even though the country has witnessed an average caseload of almost four lakhs in the last 7 days. He fears it will impact economic activity. He would rather see workers go back to unsafe environments to work than provide relief to them.

The numbers clearly indicate that the government has failed to protect the most vulnerable communities in the country. With the second wave, the number of people below the poverty threshold is only going to increase. Scientists also warn that a third wave is likely to hit India. The poor and marginalised have been affected disproportionately by the government’s policies as well as the Covid-19 virus.

Currently, the country has been gripped by a shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and other medical supplies and is seeing the worst daily death tolls recorded due to the virus. Simultaneously, migrant workers are forced to go back home at a time when the virus is at its deadliest. Thus, policies like Universal Basic Income (UBI), Universal Healthcare, Public Housing and Food Security are important to help those who have lost everything in this pandemic.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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