About 67 per cent of the respondents to a survey have said they had been unemployed in the last 50 days. The telephone survey was conducted among 3,970 households by Azim Premji University (APU) in Bangalore amid the lockdown.
The varsity presented its findings during a web-in-air programme through YouTube Live on May 12. According to the survey, the unemployed persons not only include those who had suffered a job loss for good, but also the people who had not been working since the lockdown was announced.
The remaining 33 per cent comprises farmers who continued their agricultural activities amid the lockdown, people who had been engaged in providing essential services, petty hawkers, grocers, milk vendors and pharmacists who had been allowed to operate during the lockdown.
APU has conducted the survey when there exists a need for a detailed professional study to gauge the degree of impact concretely on different segments of the workforce like daily wagers, the self-employed, casual workers, migrant workers and farmers.
It was needed as a crucial input to fine-tune the policy response and to reshape the immediate relief package to address these specific problems on the ground and scale up the relief package as required for a more targeted relief.
Given the magnitude of the unemployed people, the findings suggest that its consequences would be devastating. The government had directed employers to pay their workers during the lockdown. But this idea can neither work in the self-employed sector, nor be enforced in the informal sector.
In urban settings, loss of employment is the highest among the self-employed, mostly artisans and shopkeepers. About 84 per cent of the respondents were out of work. It was a shade less at 81 per cent among casual wage workers.
In rural areas, only 47 per cent of the self-employed (mostly farmers) were out of work, but the figure among casual-wage workers was significantly higher at 66 per cent, which means agricultural and daily-wage workers are the worst hit in rural settings, the survey revealed.
But what about those who are still at work and earning? The casual and self-employed non-agricultural workers suffered a 63 per cent fall in earnings during the lockdown, compared to February.
Farmers and the self-employed seem to have taken a greater income drubbing from the lockdown: about 57 per cent wage workers in urban India and 43 per cent in rural parts of the country received reduced or no wages.
On the other hand, a whopping 86 per cent of self-employed workers in urban areas and 92 per cent in rural areas reported losses of income. Around 88 per cent of farmers could not sell their produce at normal prices but had to resort to distress sale thanks to the transportation coming to a grinding halt.
The lockdown appears to be precipitating a health crisis of a different order. About 74 per cent of all households surveyed consumed less food than before. This is a sure recipe for a quantum leap in malnutrition and would probably erode all the gains in bringing down malnutrition in the previous couple of decades of sustained growth in real incomes.
Worse, the seriousness of the fall in the food consumption and consequently in immunity levels in the midst of a virus pandemic needs no elaboration.
Further, the survey clearly brings out the precarious conditions of the livelihoods of causal and self-employed non-agricultural workers. About 45 per cent of the surveyed households did not have enough money to buy essentials needed for a week. But the lockdown has already continued for 7 weeks and might, in all probability, get prolonged further partially.
Naturally, the people incurred debts to survive and the survey finds that 43 per cent of the surveyed urban households and 34 per cent of the rural households had taken fresh loans to survive during the lockdown period.
According to the 2011 Census, 45 per cent of the workforce was employed in the non-agricultural sector and the share of the casual labourers was about 33 per cent in 2016 according to a Labour Bureau report. So, about 73 million precarious workers are getting pauperised by the lockdown in India.
This is the scale of acute suffering of the poor in India. Let us now see how effectively the Modi government’s relief package, announced somewhat belatedly on April 25 — almost a month after the lockdown began — addresses this crisis.
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The government provided Antyodhaya Anna Yojana and BPL households with 5 kg of free foodgrains, but that was for a three-month period from April to June. PM Modi seems to be convinced that a family of five can survive on 5 kgs of foodgrains for three months! Only 1 kg dal for three months is free for a whole family and one can imagine the resulting protein imbalance.
Even worse, presently the total number of families covered under BPL and AAY is around 6.52 crore. If we assume the findings of this small sample survey covers the whole of India, at least 50 per cent or more of the working population would face severe food and nutrition crisis.
On the other hand, PM Kisan beneficiaries among farmers were supposed to get ₹2,000 as livelihood support. Though conceived as a relief measure for an acute agrarian distress, it has been passed off as a COVID-19 relief.
Similarly, the government released ₹4,431 crore to clear pending MGNREGS wages. The belated payment to the labourers who had worked under the scheme was also passed as COVID-19 relief. MGNREGS works were given exemption from the lockdown after a time lag but no additional allocation was made, and the number of workdays was not increased.
Women with Jan Dhan accounts were supposed to get ₹500 in their bank accounts. From APU survey, it emerges that only 36.21 per cent of the Jan Dhan account-holders had received the amount. About 47 per cent of rural households and 64 per cent of urban ones did not receive a single cash transfer from the government — either Jan Dhan or PM Kisan.
Modi declared a ₹20 lakh crore mega revival-cum-relief package on 12 May 2020. But neither the PMO website nor the Finance Ministry site carries the details. Nor has the PM bothered to explain how he would raise the revenue to the tune of ₹20 lakh crore.
Whether it is revival component for the industry or rescue component for the labourers, the relief has to come here and now. The package cannot be extended over the years as that would become meaningless.
The total receipts projected in the 2020-21 Union Budget was ₹22.45 lakh crore. Considering the increase in other expenditure, the revenue target needs to be doubled to meet the cost of Modi’s package 2.0. Probably, Modi must be having some magic wand. Let us see.
In a nation where rulers think it is possible to revive the economy only by giving a holiday to the rule of law, suspending labour laws for three years or mandating 12-hour work instead of 8 hours, and thus taking back the society by a century, it is difficult to predict who would give greater agony to the working population — the virus or the rulers.
Despite the Constitution mandating the right to life for the citizens, there is no right to relief in India even on occasions like life- and livelihood-threatening disasters. Hopefully, this painful experience of passing through a pandemic would help in making amends for that.