Social workers distribute cooked food to people during a nationwide lockdown against the Covid-19 coronavirus in the eastern Indian state Odisha's capital city Bhubaneswar, May 5, 2020. Photo: AFP / Stringer / NurPhoto

Why does this happens every time in India: If there is illness, a recession, demonetization, drought, flooding, communal violence, lynching or the present countrywide lockdown, it hits the poor the hardest?

Why do poor people have to walk hundreds of kilometers for survival, when the government spends millions of rupees to fly the children of rich people back from foreign countries? Why is that a large chunk of our population finds it difficult to survive for few weeks in an unprecedented situation like the present one?

Shall we conclude that the successive policies to eradicate poverty have gone terribly wrong and that we have made poor people’s lives even more vulnerable?

Are we not sending a direct message, “Hey, poor people, if you will not do physical labor today, you are certain to be hungry tomorrow and die of starvation in the next few days”? Where is the safety net for these poor, where is the social security for these people?

Why have we been made to believe that poor people can only be good for physical labor?

We do not know when this situation, the present approach and behavior toward poor people, will change. We do not even know when the government, instead of spending its resources on statues, temples, rallies, election campaigns, building palaces for ministers, will change its priorities and allocate a good amount of resources for those people, who are seeing no end to their misery, vulnerability, exploitation, helplessness.

We also do not know when our government will recognize the contribution of these poor people to the country’s economic growth and reward them.

What we see today is that more than half of India’s households do not have enough food or savings to survive even for a few weeks of economic shutdown. This most vulnerable group, if they do not get access to engaging in physical labor for a few days, they are left with no option but to stand in queues on the road to wait for themselves and their families to be rescued from hunger.

Where is the plan, the policy, before government when such a big chunk of our population is facing such insecurity, helplessness? Why can our government not ensure enough food for these people?  

The International Labor Organization in its latest report cautioned the Indian government that there are about 400 million workers engaged in the informal economy, which accounts for a staggering 90% of the total workforce, at risk of falling deeper into the poverty trap because of the present crisis.

The entire supply chain has been disrupted because of the lockdown and the farmers have suffered a great economic loss. In India, less than 20% of working population has some level of assured salaries. The rest are daily wage earners or into small businesses with uncertain and very low average incomes. In developed countries, the proportion of salaried employees varies roughly between 85% and 94% of the total workforce. In India, the proportion of people with vulnerable employment is projected to be above 80%.

There is a possibility that when the pandemic declines, the fatalities from hunger may be equal to or more than that from this virus. Even before Covid-19 arrived in India, unemployment had reached a 40-year peak. Once the lockdown started, job losses grew abruptly.

Data from the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) show that urban unemployment increased from 8.7% in the week ending March 22 to 30% one week later. In rural areas, the corresponding figures were 8.3% and 21.0%.

The government has to stand up and compensate these big chunks of the population at this juncture. Providing just 500 rupees (less than US$7) per month to a few thousand people will not able to solve any problem. The government must set up a high-powered task force to develop a concrete implementation plan to help these 80% of vulnerable population and put maximum government resources on a war footing to bring them back from the poverty trap in the next six to 12 months.

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Sachi Satapathy

Sachi Satapathy is an international development practitioner who has worked on large-scale projects. His interests are in public policy, poverty alleviation and public-private partnerships for development in middle-income and developing countries. The author can be reached at sachisatpathy@yahoo.com