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Building on empathy: can we broaden the conversation?

[By Usha Raman]

As India imposed a near-complete lockdown in March, accompanied by social distancing recommendations, things began to fall apart for the millions engaged in daily wage labour across multiple sectors. To them, the sudden absence of work meant the inability to pay for shelter and food, the barest needs to sustain oneself in a monetized economy. The central government and many state governments began announcing relief measures but alongside, civil society began to step up with small community led efforts. The emerging discourse of shared responsibility among the privileged classes holds promise for a wider appreciation of the rights of those in the unorganized sector, and a greater appreciation of the precarious nature of such work.

Writing in the Peoples Archive of Rural India the day after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown on March 24, journalist P Sainath remarked: “Somehow, the better off and middle classes seem convinced that if we stay at home and practice social distancing, all will be well. That, at least, we will be insulated from the virus. There is no recognition of how the economic distress will work its way back to us.”

Sketch by Usha Raman

The economic distress he was referring to was, of course, the distress of the millions of daily wage earners, a majority of them migrants from the poorest states in the country—Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand. Soon the mainstream media purveyed hundreds of images of migrants stranded without shelter and food in cities that had turned hostile to them. Even as many began to exit cities in the thousands, in the hope of finding some succor in their native villages, many others, who had made a more permanent home in the city, were left with nowhere to go and no way to earn a living. Photographs in newspapers and videos circulating on social media told heart-rending stories of fear, confusion and hunger, whole families walking with their few belongings and being harangued by the police, whose job ironically was to ensure that citizens were protected from the disease. While the government’s hastily cobbled together relief measures—reactive rather than proactive and strategic—began to be implemented, many other groups swung into action. Moved by the stories of sudden displacement and deprivation, civil society groups, both organized and spontaneously formed, stepped into the vacuum caused by the loss of jobs and the absence of social security of any kind.

An analysis by IT4Change team members Sohel Sarkar and Deepthi Bharthur put it, the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has given us “a universal teachable moment”. While the cynical may point out that not all teachable moments lead to learning, one can discern in this moment the potential to refashion our imagination and understanding of what an equitable and just society should look like.

While precarity has been a recurrent theme in conversations about the future of work, the pandemic has brought into sharp relief what this could mean, not only for those in the shadow of automation and the network economy, but also for those engaged in, quite literally, the “brick and mortar” sectors of construction, sanitation, and the numerous other jobs that turn the wheels of the city’s machinery. Journalist Rukmini S writes that close to 12 percent of urban households rely on casual labour for their income, while many more may be classified as “self-employed” such as petty vendors, providers of low-skill services such as cobblers, dhobis (clothes washers) and workers contracted through platforms.

The Covid-19 conversation has brought new eyes and ears to attention. Middle class India is forced to see what life looks like for those who do not have the privileges that come with assured salaries, stable living arrangements, and for a few, the continuity provided by the means to work from home. This is not a new realization, but never before has the story been so consistently in the headlines and presented in such detail over and over again to the Indian middle-class media consumer. It is in this context that the “teachable moment” holds potential. From being a concern for a few do-gooders who advocate for workers’ rights, precarity has acquired the sharp contours of materiality—it leads to loss of shelter and food, and the inaccessibility to [what should be] the most ordinary of services like health and education and ultimately, dignity. Even for those who have been in the thick of the battle for workers’ rights, this moment pushes even further the need to demand not only fairness in wages and working conditions in the present, but also a security net that envisions precarity in the broadest way possible.

Sketch by Usha Raman

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of MKSS, refer to the need for us to recognize the deep inequities that have persisted and made newly visible due to the Covid-19 lockdown: “Those who benefited most from this growth see this workforce in utilitarian, rather than human terms. The privileged must understand that if they do not want to be affected by impoverishment and insecurity that has afflicted these workers, a minimal level of livelihood security will have to be guaranteed to labour, farmers and workers in the informal sector.” This also calls for responses that go beyond charity and lead to structural and policy reforms that can build a more caring society, not just a more efficient one driven by narrow notions of economic productivity.

Our work in FemLab.Co attempts to understand what livelihood security could look like from the bottom up, for women workers in the selected sectors of the informal economy, and fill out the notion of precarity in real, experiential ways. These months under lock down will have, hopefully, engendered greater empathy among those who provide employment and those who have taken the city’s labour for granted, while possibly giving advocates a keener sense of how demands must be articulated.

Those whose lives are lived on the edge have always had a sense of precarity. The rest of us have now, second hand, had a glimpse of it.