“The situation is dire among the working class,” an interim report on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown on Bengaluru’s informal-sector and migrant workers noted. “If some particularly vulnerable communities are starving or at the verge of starvation, many others dread the start of the next month when rents have to be paid, loan instalments have to be cleared, ration stock for the house has to be bought.” The report was jointly prepared by trade unions, rights organisations and concerned individuals, and published in two parts, on 23 and 30 March, respectively.
The two-part report highlighted many shortcomings of the Karnataka government’s response to the public-health crisis and demonstrated that in Bengaluru, as has been the case across the country, the informal sector was the worst affected. The organisations involved in the study were The All India Central Council of Trade Unions, the Karnataka Domestic Workers Rights Union, the Garment and Textile Workers Union and the Savithri Bai Phule Mahila Sanghatane. The first part of the report was based on testimonies from 65 people—which rose to 83 people in the second part—across different sectors, including garment workers, domestic workers, street vendors, construction workers and gig-economy workers.
It warned the government about the plight of Bengaluru’s informal and migrant workers and the need for immediate state intervention. The trade unions and rights organisations pointed out that social-security measures announced by the government were yet to reach the most vulnerable sections of the society. These measures included a Rs 200-crore package intended to contain the pandemic, provide a social-security pension, set up fever clinics for potential COVID-19 cases and serve meals to the poor in the state’s Indira canteens as part of its subsidised-food programme. But many of these policies were introduced very late, and others were insufficient and poorly implemented, leaving those worst affected by the lockdown—predominantly the city’s massive informal-sector workers—in dire straits.
“The very unfortunate things is that current crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the social reality of the migrant workers,” Clifton D’Rozario, the national secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, told me. “Currently in Karnataka, there are lakhs of migrant workers without any food. They don’t have any money in their hand and they have no work. The response from the state has been quite abysmal. The state government is completely at a loss in dealing with this. It is a human-rights issue and question of survival.”
According to a 2011 parliamentary response, a total of 63.83 lakh people from Karnataka’s urban areas lived below the poverty line. The interim report prepared by the trade unions noted that over seventy percent of Karnataka’s workforce is from the informal sector, according to a state government survey from 2016. It is in this context that the trade unions studied the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Bengaluru’s informal sector, and the efficacy of the government’s response.