A note on suggestions for taking the urban poor along in the response to Covid-19

In light of the current global pandemic, Professor Amita Bhide, Dean, School of Habitat Studies, TISS, and several friends and collaborators from the development sector in Mumbai have compiled the following note, enlisting suggestions on how to make the state’s response to Covid-19 more inclusive and considerate. 

Introduction

The Covid-19 is an unprecedented global disaster whose spread, morbidity and mortality India is currently attempting to minimize. Public health measures have impacted the urban poor negatively, resulting in loss of livelihood, compelling migrant workers to return home despite the risks involved, and creating a deep crisis of hunger and uncertainty for thousands of others who chose to stay back. There have been several measures undertaken by the central, state and local governments to mitigate some of these impacts in the last few days through social protection measures in the form of food relief, cash transfers and setting up of camps for migrants, homeless, etc. The crisis experienced by the diverse categories of urban poor is however multidimensional and is only partly mitigated by these measures. The implications of a failure to take the urban poor along in the measures to deal with the pandemic may be far too costly for the nation and hence, it is necessary to recognize and respond to the impending humanitarian crisis with as much fervor as the health crisis. It is with this objective, that this note outlines some suggestions.

Backdrop

  • The urban poor constitute a sizeable proportion of the urban population. Governance mechanisms must scale up their operations accordingly, and treat these populations as not marginal, but central to their policy measures.
  • The urban poor are not a homogenous group, but are highly diverse, comprising migrants who stay at their place of work, residents of informal settlements, the homeless, children living on the streets, commercial sex workers, and unorganized sector workers.  The exclusions and marginalization they face are diverse and must be addressed as such.
  • The larger the scale of the city, the more complex the issues of the poor. For several of them, their entitlements are unclear. Their relationship with local governments is transverse; their access to ration cards and other basic services is variable. Many of them may not be included in BPL lists, they may have yellow ration cards, or they may have caste certificates as they are migrants.
  • At a time of crisis, all of these aspects matter. Everyone needs to be included and made a partner in the effort to minimize the potential damage of the pandemic. It also is an opportunity to correct the historical injustices done to this contingent of the city which toils and contributes to the city but is given very little in return.
  • The importance of police in maintaining discipline is important, but it is even more important for state actions to be seen as ‘caring’, in order to ensure that the urban poor populations cooperate with relief measures.

Suggestions

       A. Redressing the crisis of hunger

  • Universalize food entitlements temporarily so that every urban resident, irrespective of discrepancies or irregularities in the ration card may receive food provisions.
  • Ensure that the contingent of free food is given prior to the regular rations.
  • Provide food to the homeless and migrant populations without family.
  • Responsibility of delivering rations at the fixed entitlements should be that of the state machinery, i.e. the Collector’s offices should prepare lists and ensure regular delivery of these entitlements
  • Even when contributions from the private sector and NGOs are sought, the Collector’s office should ensure norms for ration disbursal and their universal coverage and compliance. Variable standards in delivery, unevenness of coverage, duplication, wastage and gaps should be avoided.
  • Local ward levels should be the centres of grievance redressal for all these issues
  • Setting up of community kitchens in localities of high migrant population should be the responsibility of the local government and Collector’s office. NGOs and civil society support can be sought, but with logistical support from the state.

          B. Needs of informal settlements

  • Informal settlements are densely populated and often have very poor basic services. The water and sanitation facilities in these settlements need an urgent upgrade if frequent hand washing is to be promoted and faeco-oral transmission is to be prevented. In several cities, there are already dormant networks passing through the informal settlements and this should be leveraged.
  • In cases where such networks are absent, makeshift infrastructural facilities such as water provision through tankers, mobile toilets, etc. should be constructed. The objective should be to create universal coverage at acceptable norms.
  • The fear of the pandemic has prompted several settlements to undertake actions where gullies or lanes are being organised as restricted entry enclaves with water drums or tubs with soaps being placed at the entrance. These initiatives need to be built upon. Residents should be encouraged to organize as localities consolidating several chawl or lane committees, and the municipal ward offices should be encouraged to have a direct relationship with these locality committees. Their requirements should form the basis of disaster management efforts at the city level, ranging from food distribution to health awareness to creating containment zones to bringing other grievances and issues to the attention of authorities with a certainty of action vis-à-vis the same.
  • All knowledge of schemes, the distribution of forms (if any), and evolving measures being undertaken should be shared with the locality committees.
  • Locality committees should be asked to collect data about the areas and their needs, and share the same with the local ward office. They should be educated about the disease, the basic principles of prevention, containment, quarantine, and encouraged to develop feasible solutions.
  • Local ward offices should be the centre point of all Covid-19 linked efforts in relation to settlements. Efforts should be made to activate all local institutions- anganwadis, schools, dispensaries or health posts and create a common linkage to the ward office on one hand and the locality committee on the other.
  • Markets in informal settlements are an important exchange point, and since people cannot keep or afford large stocks, they need to buy at frequent intervals. This dimension needs to be recognized and regulated so that markets stay open, but the presence of people is distributed across the day to maintain distancing. Regulations for the same can be evolved and enforced by locality committees.
  • The nutritional status of several communities is poor. Thus, there are several preexisting morbidities. There is a need to begin health checkups through outreach in these settlements.

         C. Migrants staying in the workplace

  • Several thousand workers stay in their workplace. Many of these migrants may be staying in close proximity to informal settlements but are viewed as outsiders.
  • In several cases, employers have forsaken all responsibility or accountability, resulting in the migrants being left on their own with no money or food. Their access to shelter may also be under threat. Strict action needs to be taken against defaulting primary employers and landlords. Besides legal measures, such defaulters need to be shamed into corrective action, such as payment of dues to employees, taking total/partial responsibility for feeding their employees and foregoing the rent of a few months.
  • A register of all migrant workers and enterprises they work for must be put together.
  • Migrants need to be explained the risks in returning home in the current situation. At the same time, they need to be assured of support from the employers/city, instead of using police force as a deterrent.
  • Post the lockdown, their decision to return home may be respected with suitable health checks.

         D. Homeless

  • The effort to move the homeless off the street and into shelters is often accompanied by highhandedness, violence and confiscation of all their belongings. This is not likely to inspire trust among the homeless. The approach needs to be humane.
  • Shelters need to be identified in close proximity to the refuge areas of the migrants, i.e., within a radius of 2-3 km. .
  • Shelters so identified need to have basic facilities, be habitable, and arrangements for assured food need to be in place.

        E. Other excluded groups

  • There are multiple other excluded groups in cities. The local government should take special effort to identify such population groups and their needs through a proactive involvement of voluntary groups, journalists, etc.
  • It is likely that such needs are more dispersed than the informal settlements and hence, the involvement of NGOs, volunteers may be necessary.
  • Requirements may range from cooked food to dry rations to health needs to needs for psychosocial intervention. Even though the number of such people may be low and the liability on finances and human resources high, these requirements should be paid close attention to and responded to effectively.

         F. Management of Camps

  • The creation of camps, especially those that house 250 people or more needs to be prevented as much as possible. Effort should be made to use local institutions and facilities with set infrastructure, such as schools, hostels, etc. Only when these options are exhausted should we resort to camps.
  • In establishment of camps, the residents of camps need to keep whole families together and not separate them.
  • They should be considered as partners and contributors to the upkeep, maintenance of the camp and not as mere recipients of societal patronage.
  • It should be borne in mind that camps are spaces where people spend entire days and nights. Therefore, thought and attention should be given to activity patterns to be set in place.
  • No people should be shifted unless the camp is fully established to acceptable standards.
  • Clear norms need to be developed about standard amenities, regulations and mode of management of camps. There should be a clear structure for grievance redressal.
  • Health care in camps has to be given special attention as they can be harbingers of transmission.

         G. Health care of the poor

  • It has been observed in several countries that the health care system tends to favour the elite and neglect the poor.
  • It is a given that the geographies in which the urban poor stay are often characterized by poor quality infrastructure, including health care infrastructure.
  • Special effort has to be undertaken by city authorities to ensure that this inequality does not translate into a denial of adequate and quality care to the poor.

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