Covid-19 lockdown impact: India’s unorganised sector faces an uncertain future

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As India braces for an extended lockdown to rein in the transmission of the coronavirus, the lower-rung of the society also braces for its battle with hunger and poverty. While some migrants have managed to reach the safety of their homes, braving thirst, hunger, the heat and the cold, some are still stuck in cities with no jobs and no shelter. Some others, who are lucky to have a roof to live under, have been robbed of their jobs that earned them their daily wages and thus, their daily bread.

Inventiva reports that as per the Economic Survey of 2019, 93 percent of the total workforce of the country is from the employed in the unorganized sector. However, government think tank NITI Aayog, in a report released in 2018 said that 85 percent of the total workforce was a part of the unorganized sector. The Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-18 showed that 71 percent of the regular / salaried employees in the informal sector (non-agriculture) do not have a written job contract. 49.6 percent of them do not even apply for social security schemes and 54.2 percent do not get paid leave.

A halted business with no guarantee of a quick revival after the lockdown stares many in the face. Wedding planners, florists, tailors, washermen, fishermen, coal loaders, security guards, folk artistes, salon owners, among other small business owners and artisans, and those in seasonal employment are bracing themselves for the impact of the pause in their livelihoods.

Testimonies of misery mingled with hope


“I estimate that 1 lakh tonnes of fish went to waste. We could not store it because there was no ice available, no cold rooms available. Even if there were cold rooms, there was no transport available. If there was transport available, there were no drivers or loaders available. Why are fishermen always left out of the fold of security benefits? I see a horrible picture in the coming days.” – Ganesh Nakhawa, fisherman and Vice Chairman of the Purse Seine Fishing Welfare Association to Sabrang India.

“It was only on March 31 that the government included fish as an essential commodity and allowed for fishing to continue, but it was too late. There has been no communication between the Centre and the States about how much stock was affected or how many fishermen are affected. We estimate that 16 million fisher folk are dependent on the industry. Almost 1.5 to 2 percent of the GDP depends on fisheries. In the past seventy years, India has faced many disasters, but it is only the farmers who get benefits, no one talks about fishermen,” rues Nakhawa.

His struggle as well the struggle of his colleagues is slowly paying off now. Yet there are innumerable hurdles in the way. He says, “For the first time the Centre has asked for the details of fishermen and promised to give relief and compensation to the fishermen until the lockdown continues. In this industry 90 percent of the fisher folk depend on daily wages. Lakhs of women are dependent on fish. If there is no fish in the market, what will they go and sell? Since they can’t catch fish due to the lockdown, they can’t even sustain their own fishing villages. To top it all, the monsoons are approaching. We’ve already gone 50 days without fishing and we won’t be able to until August due to the monsoon ban.”

Nakhawa also explains the global pressure on exports saying there is no country who is buying now. He says, “Export markets are down. The problem with the seafood industry in India is that there is no local demand. People in India don’t know what seafood is caught locally. Unlike campaigns for eggs, vegetable, chicken or milk, there have been no campaigns for fish in India. Had the consumption in the country been high, we would have been economically able to sustain, but that is not the case. It is now the government’s responsibility to innovate and figure out how fish will reach to consumers in the lockdown situation. How will social distancing work in fish markets? I see a very horrible picture in the coming days.”

“Everyone is afraid. The government has to make policies and guidelines around the concept of social distancing. There is no hope for a vaccine any time soon. Most of the fishermen come from remote villages. Even if the lockdown is relaxed in the coming months, they will be apprehensive. We as individuals too have to change our habits. Maharashtra has already lost almost Rs. 300 crores in revenue due to the halt in fishing. The industry is on the verge of a collapse. There is no help. Where will food come from? Fish has to be sold in a new way. I am trying to sell the catch of a few fishermen by putting them in contact with buildings who order for fish. We are delivering fish in bulk. Now supply will drive demand, instead of the opposite that has always been the case. Many industries can survive on work from home, but we can’t. We have to incorporate social distancing and plan policies for the industry,” he concludes.

Wedding Planning:

“There were 80 weddings planned in the locality, but all have been indefinitely postponed. I’m lucky to have some resources at hand, but I don’t know about those who live hand to mouth. How will they survive?” – Shweta Koushal, home salon owner in Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh to Sabrang India

Evidently, a gamut of services have been hit due to the lockdown that has been extended to May 3. Though the summer hasn’t shown any signs of arriving late, all summer weddings have been postponed and has put lakhs of people out of jobs.  These months which offer excellent seasonal employment to everyone from washermen to tailors to beauticians, have now become a dreary phase in their lives.

In Lucknow, over 1,800 weddings have been postponed and about four lakh people working in different sectors like hotels, marriage lawns, community centers, restaurant, florists, bands, tents, music and decorative lights, reported National Herald.

Surendra Sharma, President of the hotel and restaurant association in Lucknow, said, “There are about 800 small and big hotels in the state capital and almost all of them were booked for the wedding season. Though the cancellation of bookings has led to losses and unemployment, we can safely say that the sector has suffered a loss of around Rs 125 crores.”

“The impact of the lockdown on the wedding industry is going to last a year. The manpower who used to work on a per-day basis have everything to lose. Their families aren’t here, they have to arrange for food and money. I am helping all my employees. I have suffered losses too, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” – Dharpesh Chhajed, owner K’real events to Sabrang India

Dharpesh Chhajed, a celebrity manager who also runs a wedding planning company, is relying on divine intervention. Speaking about the stress he underwent during the first ten days of the lockdown, he mentioned he passed that phase and now advises everyone to meditate at home because that is all one can do till this phase passes.

Chhajed also says we can’t rely on the government for everything, but we can ensure our support to whatever measures the government has put in place. “Pehle desh, phir hum (First the country, then us). I’m thankful that the lockdown was implemented early. It wasn’t a wedding that could have been planned.”

He also spoke of precautionary measures taken during this time. Reflecting awareness of the threat of the spread of the virus and the micro measures taken to protect his employees, he said, “I have stopped the bank transfer of salaries as people use ATMs to withdraw cash. ATMs at this time are very risky to use. The door and the numbers on the machine could have the virus on them. The underprivileged may not be as educated about the virus and as aware as us. Their problems are related more to hunger than the virus. It is my responsibility to ensure their safety and I request others too to hand over salaries in cash. Precautions are a must.”

Security guards:

“We have paid the security personnel the entire salaries for the last month. But this month, we don’t know the exact scenario, because we don’t know how we are going to get paid by the client or how much are they willing to pay us. Yet, we are hoping to pay all employees the maximum amount of money.” – Ronak Karnik, Owner, ACE Squad Security Services to Sabrang India.

Another group of people severely affected by the lockdown are security guards serving at malls or commercial sites. While most from the industry have retained their jobs, the uncertainty of getting salaries is posing a problem to most of these personnel.

Speaking to Citizen Matters in Chennai, R Nambiyar, a security guard who returned to his village in Thiruvarur due to the uncertainty over Covid-19, said, “Forget advance payment, I had to leave immediately if I wanted to get back home, and I have not even received my salary for March yet.”

R Iyyasamy, who starts his day helping workers like him at the Unorganized Workers’ Federation before starting his duty as a security staff, says, “Since many of the workers are out of jobs now or working with no pay, the federation is helping us have at least one meal a day. I eat my breakfast there, serve others and walk down four kilometres to the bank in Ayanavaram where I work.”

Just like Iyyasamy who has been provided with gloves, masks and sanitizers by the bank where he works in Chennai, closer home in Mumbai, Mr. Karnik too says that he has provided all employees working with his company, with masks, sanitizers and gloves.

He says, “In industrial premises, security personnel are still employed, may not be in 100 percent capacity, but at least 60 percent of the workforce is function. In residential premises, the full strength of the employees are at work. The cops are helping them to reach their work locations, except those personnel who are employed in areas where there are high number of cases.”

“The guards travel by BEST buses to their work locations, however long distance travel is not allowed. Some come walking, some cycle, but they do go to work. We are taking complete care and precautions from our end. For people staying at the site (residential or commercial) and who can’t leave due to cases discovered in the area, we have provided a place to stay, washrooms and snacks and beverages. If an employee resides in area where there are positive cases, that employee is asked to stay home as we don’t want to hamper his / her health further,” he adds.

Karnik says most of his employees are not facing a cash crunch. He also adds that there are organizations who are working on-ground to help those in need. He says, “We are so caught up in operations and shuffling duties that we are unable to provide other utilities to people. However, we appreciate those who are involved in relief and urge others to help too. From our end, we have ensured that none of our employees face a problem whether on site or off site.”


“We don’t want to have negative thoughts. We want to think about what we’re going to do in the future. We are supporting craftsmen and have asked all our members to also pay pending dues to all craftsmen working with them.” – Source, Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts to Sabrang India.

March to July is supposed to be a good time for weavers, tailors and the whole of the handicraft industry. However, according to the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH), as Hindustan Times reported, the industry has run into losses to the tune of Rs. 8,000 crore.

“We cannot generate business for craftsmen at this point. The government is trying to provide for everyone and we are urging our exporters who employ craftsmen to clear dues. After the lockdown, the revival of the industry depends on the government’s policies. The last two months have shown us huge losses. But with the help of the government, we hope that the next two quarters will be good. This is a good time for entrepreneurs,” says a source from EPCH.

In Jharkhand, The Telegraph India reported, folk artist, percussionists and traditional pyatkar painters across villages of East Singhbhum district, whose incomes depend on tourism, are at their wit’s end for they haven’t earned a single penny for a month now.

It is only due the NGO, Kalamandir, which has been working with these artists for over 21 years, that these folk artists and painters in the areas of Dhalbhumgarh and Ghatshila are gaining access to non-perishable food iteams – rice, lentils, cooking oil, salt, sugar and other grocery essentials.

“I just spoke to a mask maker and told him instead of making an innovative show mask, make a mask that covers the nose and mouth. It will at least fetch him some money. The mask makers who make items for these Chhau festivals are in tears.” – Amitava Ghosh, Vice President of NGO Kalamandir, Jamshedpur to Sabrang India

Speaking to Sabrang India, Amitava Ghosh, Vice President of Kalamandir expressed grave concern about the impact of the lockdown on the lives and livelihood of these artists, but also highlighted the generosity of people who came forward to help those in need. He said, “I used to work as a banker before I entered this industry to help artisans and revive certain dance forms and crafts 35 years ago. Today, all those dreams have been shattered in one go. These artists are scattered in 4 major clusters where there are more than 25 or 50 artists in each cluster. I just spoke to a mask maker and told him instead of making an innovative show mask, make a mask that covers the nose and mouth. It will at least fetch him some money. These are Chhau tribes and the Chhau season has begun from now until September. The mask makers who make items for these festivals are in tears. They have invested all their capital in making these masks and costumes and now their orders worth around Rs. 50,000 are just lying there with them. There are no takers. Imagine their plight. Our shop in Biponi which makes a sale of Rs. 10,000 to 12,000 every day is empty. We don’t see any respite for the next two months.”

Explaining the terrible situation and explaining their aid provision measures, Mr. Ghosh added, “We have already supported 365 such artists and artisans. People whom we don’t know, including government officers, have come forward to donate and help.”

“Even those who were very critical of the NGOs, are coming to support us now. Now they are sending me money. Kahin na kahin accha kaam ka result aa hi jaata hai (good work eventually pays off),” he says, reflecting the government’s understanding that things have gone too far and the support of such NGOs is really needed.

But all hope is not lost for Ghosh. “India is winning. I salute the Indianness,” he concludes on an optimistic note giving thanks to all those who have sent donations to save art and these artisans.

The situation for artists in Jamshedpur and coal loaders in Dhanbad isn’t quite different.

Coal loading:

“If the situation continues like this, I don’t know how I will arrange food for my three children.” – Om Prakash Yadav, 35-yo coal loader at Rajapur, Dhanbad to The Telegraph

50-year-old Bhagatdih resident Arun Mandal who also works as a coal loader at Bharat Coking Coal Limited’s (BCCL) Rajapur colliery area told The Telegraph India, “I had raised all my four children with my income as a coal loader. I have never faced such hardships. After the lockdown, we are somehow making do with the khichdi distributed in our locality.”

Om Prakash Yadav, 35, who too worked at the Rajapur loading point, earning Rs. 200 – 250 per day, but lost his livelihood due to the shutdown.

The coronavirus induced lockdown in India has now been extended up to May 3. Yet, there is chaos in the calm that prevails on the streets. The relief provided to the marginalized doesn’t suffice and the Prime Minister has urged the society to come forward to help. There seems to be no plan in place for the underprivileged and if there is one, it hasn’t been executed on ground.

Millions have been robbed of their incomes and are going to have to wait for aid and face an uncertain future. As food and money run out, will the authorities take stock of the situation or will it just shrug off responsibility to those who are helping?

Kudos to the government for implementing the lockdown soon enough, but could the government have executed the lockdown better? The resounding answer from all quarters only seems to be – Yes, it could have.


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