The epidemic to follow the Covid-19 pandemic
- The lockdown started on March 25, 2020 and continued with full restriction till July and with reduced restriction till April 2021, when the restrictions were again increased in the light of second wave of infections.
The last salary that 40-year-old Pushpa Awale earned, working as a member of the housekeeping staff at a private firm received was exactly a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown on March 24, 2020 to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, she had only about ₹3000 saved up. Her husband, 45-year-old Avinash who worked in a construction site, earned ₹10,000 a month; she earned ₹1000 less.
At first, Awale thought that the Chembur-based sales company where she worked would reopen within a few weeks. Fifteen months on, Awale has still not been called back to work. Avinash’s income too has drastically reduced as the pandemic hit real estate and construction sector. He now works as a daily wage labourer which pays him a few hundred rupees doing odd jobs on certain days of the week. Awales’ sons, aged 19 and 20, are both high school graduates, but neither has been able to find employment this past year.
The lockdown started on March 25, 2020 and continued with full restriction till July and with reduced restriction till April 2021, when the restrictions were again increased in the light of second wave of infections. The loss of wages and livelihood is one of the most significant impacts of the pandemic that has infected over 31 million people in the country and killed more than 400,000 till date.
The biggest impact of the loss of livelihood is on the Awales’ food intake, indicating that for the most vulnerable in the city, a silent epidemic of hunger and malnutrition follows close on the heels of the pandemic.
“On most days, we survive on dal and rice,” said Awale, who lives in Mandala, a slum pocket in Mankhurd. She makes vegetables only on days she can afford to buy some onions and tomatoes; milk is no longer part of their daily diet and they now drink their tea without it. It’s been a year since they have eaten either chicken or fish. “On some days when my 19-year-old son throws a tantrum, I buy one egg for ₹6 for him for a meal,” she said. Her elder son, who is 20, lives with her mother in the Bainganwadi, in Govandi (also in the same ward) since the lockdown. “It became very difficult to feed all four of us, so I sent him away,” Awale said.
The M-East ward is home to over 800,000 people (as per the 2011 census), including a large number of migrants; many work in the informal sector. There are over 250 slums pockets in the ward, 13 resettlement colonies and it is also home to one of the country’s largest open dumping grounds. Human development indices like life expectancy, education and per capita incomes are among the lowest in M-East. Indeed, food insufficiency among its residents is a known fact.
A study of 26,000 households conducted over a period of two months, between November and January by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ Community-Led Action Learning and Partnership (CLAP) in the city’s M-East ward (Mankhurd, Govandi, Shivaji Nagar, Cheetah Camp, Trombay and Deonar) revealed an increase of 47% in the number of unemployed in the ward, and 12.5% of loss of livelihood opportunities from the job market itself since the restart of economic activities taking the unemployment rate to nearly 12% across 26 bastis spread across the ward. Nearly 58% of males in the informal sector and 25% in the formal sector lost their livelihood during the lockdown as compared to 10% and 6.5% for females. What’s more, the average income of the residents decreased by 47%.
“The survey revealed the monthly average income of a household at ₹12500, indicating the hand-to -mouth lifestyle prevalent across the ward. In events like lockdown, where all economic activities were severely restricted, sustaining basic needs of everyday life became a challenge,” the as-yet unreleased report stated.
“I skipped many meals to ensure my children could be fed whatever little food we had,” said Sakina Khatun (38) who lives with her three sons, aged 11, 13 and 20, and a daughter-in-law in Mankhurd’s transit camp slum. Khatun worked as a shrimp peeler at the dockyard but lost her job in the lockdown.
For every 5kg of peeled shrimps, she would get ₹200. On days, when her hands got too scraped with the continuous shrimp peeling, she would make up to ₹400. “I called my employer many times, but he says there is no work. My eldest son managed to get a temporary job of spraying sanitiser in the ward but he too was left without work during the second lockdown,” she said.
The family does not have a ration card through which they could get subsidised rice and wheat under the Public Distribution System. They have an LPG connection but affording a cylinder worth ₹860 became impossible during the lockdown. “I cook on a chulah most days,” said Khatun, adding that she and her daughter-in-law went to bed hungry on many days, to ensure that her “boys” have something to eat.
“The pandemic has set the ward and its people back by nearly 10 years,” said Sandeep Wadhe, a resident of a resettlement colony in M-East and a facilitator with the CLAP project.
“The daily nutrition of people has been hit the hardest. When the money runs out, the poor first compromise on the food intake,” he said.
NGO, volunteer groups, PDS helped some
Many non-profits and philanthropic organisations distributed dry rations and cooked meals in the ward, but the access wasn’t equal. “Some people were getting more ration than required, while those who were in dire need could not get access it at all,” said Avinash Madhale, CLAP’s programme coordinator. The survey covered 97,414 people and aimed to understand the impact of the pandemic on education, health, housingrr and water and sanitation, besides livelihood. The initiative has also helped the TISS team to draw out a vulnerability index, mapping the families that were in the worst conditions during the pandemic.
“The urban poor were already in a bad shape, struggling to survive. The pandemic has worsened their condition further,” said Mukta Srivastava, the state’s convener for the Anna Adhikar Abhiyan or Right To Food Campaign.
A survey carried out under the campaign in March showed that a large number of urban poor depended on the rice and wheat given through Public Distribution System as well as the rations kits distributed through NGOs. “Many people we interviewed said that they could not afford to cook vegetables. Fish and chicken was out of question. As we move ahead, this section of the population will face a long lasting impact on not just their health and nutrition status, but also social, economic and psychological, too,” said Srivastava.
“The food insufficiency has blown up to a much bigger problem with the pandemic,” said Jameela Begum, a local resident and facilitator with CLAP. “Not just childhood malnutrition, the cases of adult malnutrition and other diseases are likely to shoot up,” she said.
Another study that looked at malnutrition and deteriorating health of residents of the ward – this one brought out by non-profit Praja Foundation in 2018 – revealed that on average 51% of children were malnourished in the years between 2013 to 2016.
“On days I have nothing to eat, the local vendor gives me one vada pav. I survive on that,” said Laxmi Dhondu Jadhav (70), a senior citizen residing in Patilwadi in Deonar. Before the lockdown, Jadhav worked in the Dana Market in Sanpada sorting food grains. Post-lockdown, she is unemployed.
On days when Jadhav gets a cooked meal, distributed by a non-profit or the civic body, she ensures to save some for the next day.
“I may not be well to do, but I have always earned a salary to feed my family. It’s difficult for me to take charity,” said Sudalai Pillai (27), who worked as an assistant to a tennis coach. When Pillai’s salary of ₹13,000 stopped in April 2020, he asked for money from his employer to sustain. The next few months, he sent messages to the parents of the children he coached asking for money. He took up a housekeeping job on a two-month contract.
“My worst fear is not being able to feed my three-year-old daughter,” Pillai said.