Coronavirus climate change image

Asha worker Kamlesh from Haryana explained how, in a time of crisis, the government machinery can prove a hurdle  – when people were reeling under the fear of the coronavirus during the first wave of the pandemic last year, there were Union ministers and ministers from Haryana asserting that Muslims who gathered for the Tablighi Jamaat in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, were carriers of the virus. “This caused an intensification of local divisions, and it was a mammoth effort for us on the ground to work against this propaganda,” she said. The government was also responsible for spreading misinformation about what to do to keep safe – it recommended ringing of bells and clanging of vessels, but when the Haryana health minister developed complications after infection, he was rushed to the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research and then to Vedanta – why could not the clanging of bells help?” Kamlesh asked, saying government is meant to govern, not engage in dramatics. Asha workers in Haryana have refused to install the MDM 360 degree shield app (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/gurgaon/privacy-concerns-asha-workers-to-shun-track-app/articleshow/83470224.cms) that they have been instructed to download on their phones, because they do not wish to enter into digital slavery. The app will force them to cede control over the data they gather and monitor their movements, she said.

Kamlesh was among speakers at the first conference of Bahujan Economics on Tuesday. This is a group of young researchers from across the country attempting to change the focus of the discipline of Economics by incorporating voices from the margins.

Surekha, another Asha worker from Haryana, described how she was among workers who were forced to undertake testing and counseling of those suffering from symptoms, without getting any protective gear. Workers were also bringing essentials to people’s houses and helping deal with cases that tested positive. Even so, many of them came from lower caste groups and were thus unable to persuade people who were from higher castes to do as was required, to isolate themselves if they tested positive. In fact, even testing some people became hard as they refused to do as the Asha workers requested, she said. People hid their symptoms and attacked workers – so several Asha workers sustained injuries.

Those who died while at work were unable to claim any compensation – even though the government had announced compensation for frontline workers dying after getting infected, Asha workers were required to produce proof that the death occurred from coronavirus. In the absence of post-mortem examinations, this was impossible to do.

Sanitation workers and Asha workers who died in the line of work were not offered government compensation, even though policemen and other categories of health workers – doctors and nurses — were entitled to them.

Nitin Kumar, speaking from Indore, said he had been working among sanitation workers – many of them had been working for 25 years, but without any security on contracts that allowed them to earn just over Rs11,000 per month. Indore is a city consistently ranked high in the Swachch rankings of the government. Yet, those doing the cleaning are often workers who are over retirement age, or little children, he said, demanding regularization of jobs and provision of good education and health services for sanitation workers across the country.

Grace Banu, speaking about the problems of the transgender community, said all access to government programmes require documents proving identity – the Aadhaar identity and bank accounts are not common among people in her community, she said, and there must be a way for government to provide rations and basic essential services even to people who seldom can do anything but beg or work as sexworkers. Even when the government makes announcements of schemes for the community, the coverage of those actually needing the help is very poor. Of the over four lakh strong community of transgenders in Tamil Nadu, less than 7,000 got the rations that were distributed for the community under lockdown, Grace said. Forms are required to be filled online for access to services under different schemes, but the online format only exists in Hindi or English.

Sanjay Sahni, who contested the Bihar assembly elections last year as an independent candidate, said the condition of migrant workers and those seeking work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act needs to be more closely studied. He said old schemes are being tom-tommed by the government, but how many people now benefit under them, given how they are starved of funds, needs to be known. Sahni, who was himself a migrant worker in Delhi for 20 years before returning to his home in Ratnauli village in Bihar and seeking work under MGNREGA, said elected representatives do not actually represent people like him and so MGNREGA workers would soon organize and form their own party.

Migrant workers stay away from their families, there is no provision for good schools or healthcare back home in the village, and when their children grow in such circumstances, they have no option but to migrate and walk the same path as their fathers, he said, determined to bring about change. “The long spell of lockdown has drained us of our resources. We have had to meet expenses even without earning, and workers are selling property now to meet hospital expenses,” he said.

Sima Kumari joined the webinar from Jharkhand. She had been working as a home nurse in Goa, but when the lockdown occurred last year she was left with no option but to return to her home state – she had found work at a nearby hotel, but with the lockdown again that work too was taken from her. “I’m at home these days,” she said, her voice occasionally interrupted by thunder as it was raining heavily in Jharkhand. She had joined the Stranded Workers Action Network, a voluntary group that had formed to help migrant workers with supplies and help with transport after the lockdown was imposed in March last year. “Our prime minister shows up on TV and makes announcements by night, and we are forced to adjust our lives. He regularly strikes us with bolts from the blue,” she said.

Kiran Deshmukh, who heads the National Network of Sexworkers said hers was a group of over 1.5 lakh workers in eight states of the country. “Our work involves close physical contact and since workers do not often know how to read, we made short videos to explain what measures could be taken to prevent spread of infection. We explained what the coronavirus was and how it might spread. We showed that by encouraging customers to wash up as they entered, we could reduce infection. Last year, we did not have any among us infected. But the second wave has taken a toll. There were HIV positive sex workers who returned to their village homes, and we had to call and inform district hospitals about the need for ART treatment. The National Human Rights Commission heard a petition we made, and announced relief for sexworkers, seeking that governments recognize our work. (https://www.gkseries.com/blog/national-human-rights-commission-recognised-sex-workers-as-informal-workers/) Maharashtra government did indeed implement this and ordered rations, she said, speaking from her home in Sangli district. She also had words of praise for Asha workers, who she said would arrive to help each time they called.

Kiran also mentioned that some academic work occurs with little appreciation of ground reality, and criticized the study from Harvard and Yale medical schools in the US that recommended closure of red-light areas, stating that sexworkers in India were spreading the virus. Kiran questioned where the data was from – much sexwork now occurs outside red-light areas, and the study only demonstrated the bias of those conducting it. (https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/yale-to-probe-controversial-study-on-sex-workers/article32035565.ece)

Economist Jean Dreze explained that Bahujan Economics was formed after one student, Aditi Priya, wrote a paper last year explaining the need for the discipline of economics to expand to include the voices of the marginalized – professional economists are usually drawn from the higher castes, and caste usually does not feature as a consideration in studies in the discipline, he said.

Rosamma Thomas is a freelance journalist


GET COUNTERCURRENTS DAILY NEWSLETTER STRAIGHT TO YOUR INBOX


 


Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B. Subscribe to our Telegram channel


GET COUNTERCURRENTS DAILY NEWSLETTER STRAIGHT TO YOUR INBOX


Comments are closed.