Talk

Starved, of jobs and dignity

Omair Ahmad | Updated on December 09, 2020

No end in sight: When tragedy strikes, we react, and then we move on. But for far too many, the tragedy continues to linger   -  PTI/ R SENTHIL KUMAR

Handouts and largesse filled some empty stomachs during the pandemic. But it’s work and wages that the poor need

* Over the last few years, we have watched India move from being the fastest growing large economy to a faltering one, and then enter a recession

* While two other major economies — the UK and Spain — have done worse, this is little reason for complacency

* In a 2016 paper titled Affordability of nutritious diets in rural India, Kalyani Raghunathan, Derek Headey and Anna Herforth estimated that “63-76% of the rural poor could not afford a recommended diet in 2011”

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A few days ago, my mother had a chat with a man who irons clothes for a living. “He is struggling,” she said, after returning from an afternoon stroll in the south Delhi colony we live in. We were aware that sudden lockdown and the fear of infection had all but choked his only source of income. With the country at a standstill, and with thousands of migrant workers walking back home along highways this summer, the pain and the suffering was in the face. And a number of people and organisations had stepped up to help the affected. Since the period also coincided with Ramzan, it was easy for some of us to help through groups that were feeding the poor.

When tragedy strikes, we react, and then we move on. But for far too many, the tragedy continues to linger. Even if our care has ceased, their problems have not. Over the last few years, we have watched India move from being the fastest growing large economy to a faltering one, and then enter a recession. While two other major economies — the UK and Spain — have done worse, this is little reason for complacency. Developed countries are much richer and while an economic downturn hurts, it does not, like in India, lead to significant cutbacks in food and medicine among the poor.

In a 2016 paper titled Affordability of nutritious diets in rural India, Kalyani Raghunathan, Derek Headey and Anna Herforth had estimated that “63-76% of the rural poor could not afford a recommended diet in 2011”. According to data leaked from the 2017-18 expenditure survey (the government claimed that the findings had been withheld because of “data quality” problems), this has only become worse. The problem is so large, and so widespread, that we are almost immune to the fact that almost half the country doesn’t have enough food to be able to lead a normal life.

The case of the man who irons clothes in the colony is a small example. He is dependent on daily work. As demand has plummeted — whether out of fear of infection or just because people are mostly working from home — his income has shrunk dramatically. He now comes to work only a few days in the week. There just is not enough work.

We can help with handouts, but this also is a problem. Such people are skilled labour. They take pride in their work and to reduce them to being dependent on largesse affects their dignity, their sense of being equal, hard-working citizens in a republic.

In some ways, even our good intentions have been subverted.

Over the last two years, we have had an annual get-together for friends at our apartment. We hired tables from a place nearby and asked a local restaurant to send their staff with utensils to make kebabs and parathas. This year, we spent the equivalent, or a little more, to buy food and essential supplies for those who were packing up to leave Delhi during the lockdown. But these are not earnings, only a one-time gesture of help.

To add insult to injury, the richest continue to get significantly richer.

According to the World Inequality Database, the income of the top one per cent in India equals 21.4 per cent of income while that of the lowest 50 per cent accounts for 14.7 per cent of income. In 2004, this was almost even, at 18.4 and 18.8 per cent respectively. While the effects of the pandemic and the lockdown may ease up over the next year with the arrival of vaccines, the problem of hunger won’t go away.This problem has become more painfully visible, like the ribs of an undernourished man working as a labourer. Surely we did not win our freedom to reach a point where fellow citizens depend on charity just to have a proper meal?

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on December 09, 2020

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