Reema Nanavaty of Self Employed Women’s Association: “Pandemics and economic crises set in motion a spiral descent into starker poverty”

News 29.06.2020

India, which is the second most-populated country and contains some of the most densely-populated cities in the world, has been hit hard by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Poor people have been disproportionately affected. Reema Nanavaty, Director of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which received the 1984 Right Livelihood Award, has shared some insight on how the organisation’s members have been affected by this crisis.

What is the current situation in India and what are the main concerns? 

SEWA conducted 3 rounds of survey with its over 1,500 members to understand the issues and challenges faced by informal sector women workers over the past 65 days of lockdown. The results of these surveys are very depressing. They clearly show that the issues and challenges of the informal workers have magnified over the past two months. Over 71 per cent of workers have lost their livelihoods and are unable to find new employment, and over 68 per cent of households do not have money to buy even a week’s worth of essentials.

India has now announced the “Unlock-1” phase wherein most of the economic activities are allowed to resume (except in containment zones) while following physical distancing norms. At the same time, the curve of COVID-19 cases in India and Gujarat is still on an upward trajectory. While the resuming of economic activities has raised the hopes and enthusiasm in our members to resume and re-stabilize their livelihoods and lives, it has also increased panic and fear. The reverse migration of rural workers to their villages has increased the stress on the rural economy manifolds. This has also led to exacerbating issues around gender inequality, gender pay-gap, preferential employment of men over women, etc. in the rural areas.  These challenges directly translate into reduction in women’s earnings – and thus continued challenges for women to manage the household expenses as well as unscrupulous demands of their family members.

Is access to health guaranteed? 

Until recently, testing for COVID-19 was being carried out by the government. Most of the members of SEWA live and work in the containment (red) zones and many have been infected. However, due to lack of awareness as well as inaccessibility to government testing facilities, they were not properly diagnosed, isolated and treated. Therefore, SEWA has been working hard connecting these members to government testing facilities and ensuring that they are properly diagnosed and treated. Similarly, as our members start resuming their livelihood activities, SEWA has rigorously started reaching out to our members to create awareness using WHO, UNICEF and the government’s health messages, and translating them into colloquial language. SEWA has reinitiated sending voice-based messages on precautions, symptoms of COVID-19, and measures to address the infection, etc. It also prepared posters which are being shared with members through social media.

Due to loss of income and livelihood, and unavailability of cash, many poor families have been forced to cut down on their regular medications for chronic diseases like diabetes, blood pressure, heart ailments etc. without consulting the doctors. Because of this, there is a sudden aggravation in their ailments. At the same time, most local hospitals are reluctant to admit / treat other ailments to prevent spread of the COVID-19 infection. This is leading to the deterioration and aggravation of ailments of several poor workers. To address this issue, SEWA had collaborated with expert medical doctors from reputed private sector hospitals in Ahmedabad, Gujarat and arranged a free-of-cost telemedicine facility for our members. Over the past one month, over 100 women members from Ahmedabad as well as various villages in Gujarat have availed this tele-medicine facility and have reported positive results.

What impact is the crisis having on the most vulnerable? 

“We are surrounded by challenges from all sides… we poor already depend on multiple streams of income to sustain ourselves… but this virus has blocked all our income sources… how will we survive if this extends any longer…”- Savitaben from Indroda village, Gujarat

The above quotation describes the issues and challenges faced by a few of SEWA members. The livelihood of most of these workers are hardly hit in some way or other. An internal survey shows that over 67 per cent of members have reported loss in employment during the lockdown – 57 per cent in rural areas and 80 per cent in urban areas. Weekly earnings of casual workers have halved during the lockdown, that of non-agricultural self-employed have completely vanished and half of the salaried workers were not paid or saw reduction in their salaries during the lockdown.

The majority of informal casual and domestic workers across the country come from the state of Rajasthan and Bihar. As they increasingly face uncertain livelihoods, they have started to move back there. However, there is a lack of awareness about the disease and hardly any testing done on those people, which has led to a steep increase of infection rates in these rural areas. The members of SEWA residing in Dharavi – world’s largest slum located in Mumbai, Maharashtra – are finding it extremely impossible to practice physical distancing – owing to the population density. These slums are also home to several micro textile and garment industries, catering to the European markets, which have now closed down for the past 2 months and unemployed thousands, putting whole families into uncertainty.

It is directly and in a very destructive way affecting their income: (1) Whatever asset that they have in terms of land, working capital etc are lost or become redundant. (2) Their access to food and nutrition has dropped which means access to food and nutrition by entire family has dropped as most women are the last to eat and they eat the least. (3) Their children who have started going to school have faced a setback at least for a year and in many cases dropout rate especially of daughters will be high.

What about specific challenges experienced by women? 

“Currently, the temperature of our men’s brain is around 52 degrees Celsius. Whatever comment / small talk we attempt – is misconstrued and they start shouting, screaming and even beating us… We, the women in the household, have decided to stop talking at all …. The Covid-19 crisis has affected the mental stability of our men” – Reshmaben from Surendranagar, Gujarat.

This quote depicts the experience of several members from all over India.  As the pandemic evolves, we hear more and more of cases of domestic violence, especially in rural areas. There, many women take care of the household chores and day-to-day farm-management activities, men often work as casual labourers, construction workers, auto-drivers, working in local stores and factories in nearby villages. Due to the lockdown, men’s livelihoods have completely come to a halt, which is creating a tense atmosphere at home. Additionally, while the income of most men in the rural areas has stopped, livelihood activities of many women have slowed down but continued. Thus, in many cases, it is the women’s earnings that are sustaining the household expenses these days. In such a situation, many men’s ego is hurt, which translates into increased domestic violence. To address this, SEWA has arranged for teleconsultation with qualified psychologists.

Additionally, women in India generally eat after the men and children in the family. However, due to low income, there is a shortage of food and often there is hardly any food left for women – adversely impacting the health of women workers.

Lastly, for most women – their homes are their workplaces. However, due to all family members living at home, women’s household responsibilities have increased thereby reducing their time for income-earning activities. Similarly, space constraint is also a factor in reducing their productivity.

We have seen videos of abuse of violence by the police, is it still happening? 

In order to enforce strict lockdown, local authorities often use very strict measures, such as fines, beating rule-breakers with sticks, confiscating vehicles and wares etc. Some of SEWA workers have indeed been hit by the police during the lockdown. Shantaben Parmar, vice president of SEWA and a street vendor, is one of them. During the lockdown, street vendors were allowed to vend only for 2 hours in the morning. If their stock has not been sold by 9AM, the police ask them to leave the market, sometimes violently. Additionally, to avoid chaos, organic markets were shut down. Therefore, police didn’t allow vendors to sit at the allocated place of vending and also broke the platforms made especially for street vendors.

Now, with India entering the “Unlock-1” phase, the restrictions and also the violence by the police has reduced. Yet, police do use force if chaotic situations are created. Especially in areas where most of SEWA’s member live and work – members live cheek-to-jowl in narrow, congested areas and hence such chaotic situations are often created – subjecting them to violence and atrocities at the hands of local authorities.

What measures are in place to protect the country’s most vulnerable? 

The government of India is taking several measures to curtail the spread of the virus as well as to address the issues and challenges of the informal workers. However, with such a large population and over 93% of the workforce in the informal sector, it is a humongous task. The government is providing wheat, rice and sugar but families need cash to purchase other household groceries and pay the rent and utility charges. The government has also initiated cash transfers in informal workers bank accounts. However, an internal survey showed that more than 65% of the households have not received any kind of cash transfer benefits.

To address these issues related to access to government schemes and benefits, SEWA has started identifying and studying several govt schemes and policies and preparing brochures and leaflets in colloquial language to create awareness about these amongst the members. SEWA’s grassroots leaders have also started facilitating members’ linkages to the schemes. In the rural areas, SEWA has also facilitated urgent issuance/ renewal of ration cards of several members enabling them access to PDS – On these lines, awareness and facilitation by SEWA enabled over 89% of members access to free ration from PDS.

In the face of all of this, how has your work been impacted by this crisis? 

SEWA strongly believes that poverty is one of the worst forms of violence. Pandemics and economic crises like these set in motion a spiral descent into starker poverty. SEWA has therefore always worked on a joint action of struggle and development, bringing positivity and hope among the most deprived informal sector workers. For microenterprises of informal workers, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in challenges in their operations from altered market conditions and changing customer demands. This calls for restructuring and repurposing supply chains of SEWA members enterprises, which is what we have done.

During this pandemic, SEWA also plans to conduct an action-research on remote relief and rehabilitation tasks for informal sector workers using virtual platforms. Some actions include: pandemic prevention and management through evidence-based awareness raising as well as sustaining the economic slow-down by helping informal workers in adopting innovative ways of working.

Our experience working with informal workers in the current and various previous crises has shown that one of the biggest challenges for informal sector workers and their microenterprises is access to capital. Hence, SEWA plans to establish an integrated financing framework for informal workers and rural communities. The innovative financing mechanism will be a fund that aims to provide immediate support in the event of a calamity by helping informal workers and small farmers recover and stabilize, additionally facilitating them to engage in long term mitigation by receiving the knowledge, technology and resources. Such a fund could be a blend grant, equity, patient capital, soft loan with a longer-term moratorium, insurance etc.

What do you think are the long-term risks of this pandemic and of the measures presently taken by the government?  

Looking at the current effects of Covid-19 crisis, it can be projected that the impact will be far-reaching, pushing millions of people into vulnerable situations, with no cash for farmers and self-employed communities, no markets to sell, no takers for service providers, unemployment, underemployment and working poverty may push the entire world into poverty of basic needs like food, water etc. We, at SEWA, strongly believe promoting decentralized local economies is the answer to this challenge. It would strengthen local markets and local skills. Several such local decentralized economies when overlap, can strengthen the nation’s economy – which is the need of the hour as the world faces a global economic slowdown. It is a powerful idea and we must strive to make it work. We also believe that while distant and virtual working and globalization is one important way ahead, it is not the only way ahead. There was a world before the airplanes and before the eighty-storied office buildings. We must also try localization.  That is local production, local management, and local consumption.

The pandemic is overwhelming not only for citizens but also for the Governments. It is impossible to reduce loss of life and damage to health unless both work together. It is absolutely essential. Let me suggest some ways of working and some concrete ideas: In most countries the approach to containing the virus is top-down, for this to be effective there has to be an equally well-resourced bottom-up approach to containment where citizens and communities and similar collaborative structures have resources to respond. Similarly, the governments are taking a blanket approach for all citizens to be protected but the government needs the support of civil society to focus and reach out to the most vulnerable and poor, such as the informal sector, minorities, ethnic groups, women and children and elderly and other groups.

Lastly, what could be the contribution of the international community to raise awareness and react to such long-term risks?

A large portion of workers in the informal economy are engaged as home-based workers in Global Value chains. These Global Value Chains are the most affected due to the Pandemic and several of them are unlikely to resume operations any time soon. This will directly impact the livelihood of several millions of informal workers across the global south. As Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA says… “foreign relations are not only about war and peace or borders and arms.” We at SEWA strongly believe that time has come for foreign relations to go beyond trade and strategic positioning to nurturing and caring. Time has come to manage the world not like a king but more like an elder sister.

In these times, it is the need of the hour for countries of the world to adopt a nurturing and caring approach towards the poor tiny microentrepreneurs and their micro-enterprises – so that we can reduce the inequalities and ensure sustainable growth – thereby overcome the current economic slowdown in which the world is being pushed into. Time has come for Universal Social Protection for not some but all informal sector workers in our economies. May it be in India or in Switzerland or in the USA, China or Canada or Ghana or Kenya.

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