Unnoticed urban miseries

To begin with, let me share a tale of economic miseries of a professional. With a relevant academic background, he landed at a perfect workplace in private sector to carve out his livelihood. Being a fresher and naïve in his line of profession, he didn’t bother about the meager monthly salary. He though himself lucky to get a job of his choice and more importantly matching his academic background. All was going well till August 5, 2019 when structural changes were announced to alter the political landscape of Jammu & Kashmir.

Let me not deal into political dimensions of the episode, as my fellow columnists have been debating it at regular intervals.

Coming back to the professional, the lockdown on August 5, 2019 coupled with total communication blockade left him jobless and there was even no scope to look for alternative source of job. With consistent earning, he had expanded his living plans and even raised a bank loan. Even as there was some hope of revival of activities after a prolonged lockdown, the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic shattered such hope and this time the lockdown was induced because of an unprecedented health emergency. He continues to be jobless despite being a thorough professional in his field of profession. He is struggling with his finances and has now impacted his social life. The point to be noted here is that he is shying to discuss his financial miseries and bears the brunt silently.

There are innumerable such stories of urban youth who have suffered loss of income and continue to be jobless due to ongoing pandemic-induced lockdown. But the irony is that miseries of urban people in this crisis have remained out of focus of the government. We haven’t seen any solid tailor-made package for suck kind of urban youth who have lost job and have been rendered full of liabilities in absence of earnings.

To elaborate the scenario, let me first share some startling facts which have been made public in ‘The Rural Report’ revealing miseries which the coronavirus-induced lockdown has brought particularly into the lives of the people across all rural pockets of the country.  “The Rural Report’ is basically a survey report prepared by the news portal Gaon Connection and the Delhi based Centre for Study of Developing Societies and made public a few days back. The survey has covered 23 states and union territories to measure the impact of the stringent coronavirus-induced lockdown in rural India, which, according to the World Bank data (2019), houses 65.53 % population of India.

The survey has found that about 35% families went without food the whole day either many times or sometimes, 38% skipped an entire meal in a day several times or sometimes, and 46% reduced a few items from their meal often or sometimes.

As the lockdown left them without any source of income, the survey reveals that people have been borrowing money to run their routine domestic affairs, many have been forced to sell their valuables to take care of essentials at home and huge population has been rendered jobless which includes a huge number of migrant workers who have not been paid their dues. The miseries have compounded for the farmers as they have been unable to sell their harvest on time and at a fair price. Notably, more than half the farmers have managed to harvest their crops in time during the lockdown, but only a fourth could sell them on time.

Precisely, the findings revealed a gloomy economic scenario that is starkly different from the official narrative that rural areas faced minimal disruption due to the lockdown. The plight of rural India dug out through this survey belies the claims that the economy is bouncing back following a robust winter harvest and financial support rolled out through government schemes.

One of the interesting findings of the survey has been the peoples’ unflinching faith on government’s management of the COVID pandemic despite facing hardships due to lockdown. Most of the rural population, especially the migrant workers who were rendered jobless due to the lockdown, didn’t   grudge the government’s stringent measures which saw them out of job and ultimately the loss of income.

There is no denying the fact that revival of economic growth and pulling the country out of coronavirus-induced crisis is directly related to the economic activities in rural parts of the country. Many segments of economy, from manufacturing units of food items to vehicle makers, have been waiting for a bounce-make in rural economy to revive their sales.

If ‘The Rural Report’ has projected the plight of rural India where pandemic-induced lockdown has left people struggling to meet their two ends meet, the urban populations’ sufferings are equally matching to their rural counterpart. In some cases, it’s worst as the cost of living in urban pockets is always higher compared to rural areas. The lockdown bringing the wheel of economy to a grinding halt has left hundreds of thousands of urban population jobless and people have equally suffered drastic fall in their incomes. Those working in private sector irrespective of their official position are facing miserable time due to loss of income and majority of victims don’t reveal; their miseries and continue to face the brunt without bothering others.

Even as the government has responded with various measures to mitigate lockdown-driven economic hardships, such as food transfers or camps, and cash injections directly into bank accounts, how effective have these measures been in reaching the urban households, especially the low-income segment, bears a big question mark.

We have a huge chunk of urban population consisting of daily-wage workers in factories, construction projects, self-employed in the informal sector (petty business, small retail shops etc.). The outbreak of coronavirus pandemic has proved that this segment is particularly most vulnerable to any shock, be it economic or health emergency and people need significant support from the government to tide over economic losses.

The pandemic has given a massive shock to the livelihoods and wage earnings of urban families, especially those falling in low income group. Vast majority of those who were employed in private sector before the lockdown have either not earned any income during the lockdown period as they were rendered jobless or have witnessed over 50 per cent cut in their salaries. There is also huge number of cases where they continue to work in private sector, but salaries are not paid. Notably, the daily earning of people living in urban areas and carving out their livelihood through different means in private sector or self-employment ventures have drastically come down by over 70 per cent. It’s worth mentioning that a survey conducted in Delhi urban areas reveals that of those who were gainfully employed before March 24 and report some days of work post lockdown, the daily earnings have declined by 87% – from an average of Rs 365 to Rs 46 per day.

As far as government’s initiative to ensure food items and essential supplies, such as medicines, to the vulnerable sections in urban localities during this period of crisis is concerned, it has been inadequate, in fact, negligible.

In succinct, even as the government has rolled out stimulus packages to neutralize the impact of the lockdown, the fact is that these packages have proved a non-starter to revive economic activities. Reports are indicating that the government is planning another stimulus package to strengthen its efforts to let the economy recover. It’s fervently hoped that the focus will be on urban areas where economic miseries have been sweeping the population by leaving them in struggling. The story of a professional narrated in the beginning is just a lead to address to the financial turmoil of the youth who have lost job for none of their fault.

(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)