Covid has not impacted all equally. In fact, it’s made inequalities worse

How the social evil of caste reared its ugly head even in the middle of a pandemic.

WrittenBy:Mayank Jain Parichha& Nibedita Saha
Article image

When PM Modi announced the nationwide lockdown on March 25, it resulted in a huge humanitarian crisis — abrupt unemployment, dislocation of migrant workers and food insecurity. Many labourers who decided to walk back home faced a lot of difficulties — police brutality, harassment for breaking lockdown rules, and increased exposure to the virus. Those who stayed back faced problems like non-payment of wages and indefinite layoffs.

The impact of the lockdown, however, has not been the same across all social identities. Though the threat of unemployment and infection cut across all social identities, some are more vulnerable to the risk and badly hit by the impact of the lockdown.

Caste groups who traditionally work in caste-based professions also faced difficulties during the Covid lockdown. But the challenges varied; for instance, Brahmin pujaris were invited to homes even during the lockdown but in a limited manner. Now they are slowly resuming their work.

Self-employed tailors, barbers and potters are still struggling with the inability to resume their professions. So-called “lower castes” and Dalits were hit the worst due to the vulnerable nature of their jobs.

A recent paper by Ashoka University on the critical role of social identities on lockdown-induced job losses says, “Socially marginalised groups would be at higher risk of mortality due to Covid-19. The risks extend beyond mortality as the economic consequences of the current pandemic are likely to be most concentrated among the low wage earners and less educated workers, segments of the labour force where racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented.”

The paper examined the impact of lockdown on various caste groups but as is the global trend, job losses were high among those communities with low levels of human capital and no security of tenure. “All caste groups lost jobs in the first month of the lockdown, the loss was the lowest for upper castes (6.8 percentage points). The stigmatised caste groups — OBC, SC and ST — all lost significantly more compared to UCs [upper castes]. The gap was the highest between SCs and UCs; the probability of job loss for SCs was 14 percentage points higher than that for UCs, in other words, the rate of job loss was three times higher for the SCs.”

This crisis has left the marginalised communities to bear the brunt of the pandemic. Besides the loss of livelihood and basic necessitites, lower caste groups, SCs, and STs also had to deal with identity-based discrimination. Many people we spoke to complained about the fear among upper castes that the lower castes are carriers of the virus. Domestic workers, for instance, were barred by gated communities even after the lockdown was lifted.

The unorganised sector, self-employed, migrant and homeless, including sexual minorities and people with disability, mostly belong to stigmatised caste groups — Dalit, Adivasi, Pasmanda and Bahujan communities. Only three percent of the upper castes are daily wage earners while among SCs they are 16 percent.

We visited a village called Kunwarpur where migrant labourers from the Saharia community had returned. They told us that they are dependent on the government for rations and work, as they don't have seasonal employment of plucking tendu leaves this year.

Puran Adivasi and his family go to Agra every year to work on potato farms during harvest season. But this year the sudden lockdown left his family with no work and completely dependent on the state.

Puran Adivasi, a footloose migrant from Sahariya tribe in Kunwarpur village.

Chaturbhuj, a member of the Gadia Lohar community (a Ghumantu tribe), and his family are also facing a host of problems caused by the lockdown. Unlike the Saharia tribe that largely consists of labourers, the Gadia Lohar community’s traditional occupation has been severely impacted. They are not being allowed into localities due to the lockdown and cannot sell their wares.

Chaturbhuj with his family

Some Jatav (a Dalit caste) youths who were working as labourers in Rajasthan's Pali district decided to return home as the factory has been shut since March 22. Vinod Jatav, 22, told us, “I was there till March 29 but since everyone was going home I too decided to return. Therefore, I started walking with my friends. It took us two days to complete the journey and we arrived here on March 30."

He, along with two of his friends, are still in his village without any scope for future employment. Vinod told us over the phone that he is planning to go back as the factory owner is asking them to return, "Our savings have dried up and we want to go back there, there is nothing for us here."

We spoke with members of the Pal community, a branch of the Kumbhakar (potter) caste in West Bengal.

Artists from the idol-making Pal community in West Bengal are facing similar issues. The labour force is drastically reduced, some have left their jobs, while the rest are working for reduced wages.

Idol-making work amidst pandemic

Ananda Pal is a resident of Abdalpur, North 24-Parganas. He has a family of four members: two children, one in college, one in school and a wife. His family also helps him in idol-making. But this year there is no need, as there is hardly any work. “I have been making Durga idols since 1983. This place is 10 years old. I sell around 50 Durga idols, which go to different places including Madhyamgram, Barasat, Salt Lake and Kestopur. This year I don’t even have 50 percent of the work. I have only received 12 orders so far, that too at a very low rate, only getting Rs 2,000 as advance. I am not even sure that they (puja organisers) will come to receive the idols.”

"We usually start making idols in March but this year I started the work in June. Normally, I get orders for making Durga idols worth Rs 60,000-70,000 for big clubs but this year they have ordered small idols worth Rs 10,000-12,000. All this happens at a time when work is usually at a peak, with many festivals in a row like Annapurna (March), Manasa puja ( mostly organised in homes but good money is spent on idols), Loknath Puja (August), Durga Puja (the biggest one) and then Kali Puja. And we earn only in this season to survive the rest of the year.

“But this year, we didn’t earn a single penny for three consecutive months. I am not able to feed my children and family and that makes me angry and helpless.”

"The government is not thinking about us (referring to the potters community). We haven’t received any help except some kilos of rice through the central government scheme. There is no business."

The labourers who help potters in building the idols are facing tougher times. Pal, who usually hires labourers to assist him, now has no plans to call them this year.

"I can’t call them since I have no work to give them. I used to have around twelve to fourteen labourers but now I only have three because there are no orders. I should be paying each of them at least Rs 500 per day (usually wages vary from Rs 1,000 to 1,500 per day) but I only manage to pay Rs 1,000 per week. And they also have no other option. We all are helpless."

Sameer Pal runs a small unit making idols for 28 years now and lives in Kumartuli. He usually hired 20-35 small artists or labourers but this year he has given work to only three.

"We started making Annapurna idols in March only like every year but the government announced lockdown and Annapurna puja was cancelled amid Coronavirus outbreak in the city. That time all the labourers went back to their respective hometowns. Since then, for three months, everything was shut, we had nothing to do. Now conditions have improved a bit. We have started working. Since Mamata Didi has assured us of Puja this year; we are hopeful that we might earn something. If there is no Durga Puja, it will be a disaster for us. It is Bengalis' biggest puja — everything is associated with this festival in Bengal. However, we have started working. This year we got orders for small idols. Before that, even small clubs used to order 12- to 14-foot idols but they are now ordering 7- and 8-foot ones."

In such a scenario, a lot of labourers belonging to Scheduled Castes are facing relatively more hardships. Many among them have been fired.

Vikas Mondol, a resident of Madhyamgram belonging to the SC community has a family of six: wife and four school-going kids. He has been working with Anand Pal for more than eight years as a labourer.

"I make a good amount of money during this festive period to sustain the feast of the year. This is the only work I know. I used to think that an artist will never die of hunger but these days I find it difficult to eat well and each day is a struggle. We had no idea about Covid, and lockdown happened so suddenly, everything just stopped. I can't do other work to feed my family as there is no source of income for us."

"I am at least getting something because I live nearby and can come to work. My friends (referring to his fellow colleagues) do not even have this option. I don’t know what I will do if things go on like that. I am worried about the future, about people not spending money on festivals and how we will earn."

Vikas Mondal and his friends.

Sukanta Mondal, a resident of Burdwan district of West Bengal works with Sameer Pal as a labourers artist says, "I usually come in March but due to lockdown and since there is no work also, I came in June. For three months, I didn’t earn a single rupee. This lockdown has destroyed people like us. We have slept hungry for nights during lockdown. I never imagined that I would see this day in my life. If not Corona, I would have made some earnings but because of it I couldn’t.”

“Here also I am not getting enough money but at least I am able to send something home. No one thinks about us. There is no financial assistance from the government."

The impact of lockdown was more on labourers, mostly belonging to Scheduled Castes, while artists who are OBCs are relatively safer because they own the business and are relatively better positioned.

Similarly, barbers, most of them belonging to the Nai community, were not allowed to open shop for over three months and customers are still hard to come by. Their profession is slowly getting back on track, especially in small towns where people are visiting barbershops more frequently than in metro cities.

Ramesh Sen, a 40-year-old barber who recently re-opened his shop, had two helpers, Rinku and Hemant, working in his small establishment. Rinku stayed behind while Hemant was forced to return to his village. "I was initially going house to house because I had to pay rent for this shop," says Ramesh, who doesn't pay fixed salaries to his helpers. They earn as per the work they do.

Rinku in Ramesh Sen's shop.

Rinku told us that Hemant has started working in his village, after three months of unemployment. “I was doing nothing in the last two months and the police was not even allowing us to move. Thankfully, our work has started now.”

Raju Mistry, 32, a construction worker from Burdwan district of West Bengal has started working again after four months of inactivity. He was dependent on the government for ration as he is a BPL card holder belonging to SC category.

“I got married last year and came to Kolkata for work. I have been working with senior constructors for more than 10 years. I started working when I was 12 years old with my father. Now I have mastered the art and take my own house contracts. And this is the season of our work from March to Mid-July ( before monsoon). The whole season I sat at home and did nothing. I then decided to go back home in April due to unavailability of work,” he said.

The construction site at which Raju Mistry is working.

Mistry has returned to work now and is building a tw0-room house in the Madhyamgram area, he added, “This is the only project I have right now. I might go back again if I don't get anything else. Right now these people ( house owners) are providing me a place to stay and two meals. I never thought that I would have to see this day. I left my hometown because I thought I would earn more here. But this Covid has changed everything.”

In April, we spoke with Sarwan, a harmonium player from the Chamar community. He is still at home waiting for normalcy to return. “I made my house by hard-earned money through my music and now five months have passed without work. I have land but my soul resides in music.”

In cities, people are firing their maids due to fear of Covid infections. Students and unmarried professionals have either returned to their hometowns, and those who are staying are not hiring maids, which has caused a spike in unemployment for domestic help.

We spoke with Kamla Devi, an OBC who hails from Patna, Bihar and in her late 30s. She works as a maid (mostly cooking) in Delhi. She is married and has a kid. "I have been a cook in houses for more than 3-4 years. I mostly cook in bachelor’s houses as they generally are in need of a cook. When lockdown was announced, initially I did not feel the pinch. But as a month passed, 3-4 of my clients said that they are going back to their hometown, citing work from home. I lost my job. Now I don’t have work.”

“I asked my few clients (who only went home for a few months and will come back) for half of my salary. I had no other option. I have no job. A few of them agreed and are sending me some amount of my salary even though I’m not working for them. They understand my problem. I am just surviving. Even if this lockdown opens, I think we won’t get a job. Because everyone is scared of coronavirus. So, many of us (referring to maids in general) lost our jobs because of this reason. Even those who were living with families were asked to leave. I am hoping that the vaccine will come soon. Otherwise, what will we do?"

Caste matters

The national average annual income of the country stands at Rs.113,222, according to the paper titled Wealth Inequality, Class and Caste in India, 1961-2012, released in 2018. It says that marginalised castes earn much less than the national average, the average annual income of ST and SC stands at 21 percent and 34 percent respectively, lower than the national average. OBCs and Muslims are relatively better positioned, earning 8% less than the national average.

Among upper castes, forward castes earn 45 percent more than the national average while Brahmins earn 48 percent more than the national average.

This chasm in caste-based wealth inequality was widened furthered due to the pandemic, causing widespread devastation among the lives of lower-caste people.

“Caste is an important social factor, as it is a basis for discrimination in our society. The majority of migrant labourers are from SCs and STs and during the lockdown when they returned, the treatment with labourers belonging to dominant castes was different from treatment with Dalit labourers. So when we study catastrophic events like Covid, we can’t ignore factors like caste, class, religion and gender,” explained Ravi S Srivastava, an economist and former Chairman of the Centre for Regional Studies, JNU.

Various states are demanding comprehensive caste-based census. There is a growing demand for including caste as a category in the 2021 census. A study of this type last happened in 1931 and given these inequalities, it seems the need of the hour.

Education matters

The Ashoka University paper also says that layoffs among lower caste groups are higher due to their over-representation in unskilled and precarious jobs. "A prima facie look at worker characteristics suggests that the higher negative impact on SCs might be accounted for, one, by their five times higher representation within the precarious, vulnerable daily wage jobs, and two, by their lower levels of human capital. Consistent with this, we find no caste differences in job loss rates when comparing individuals who do not hold daily wage jobs and have more than 12 years of schooling."

As per the India Human Development Survey for 2011-12 (IHDS-II), 51 percent of SC adult women and 27 percent of males have zero education. This explains why the lower caste community was the worst hit in terms of employment.

Ajit Ranade, a Mumbai based academician, told Hindustan Times, “Researchers find that there is a difference between upper caste and lower caste, especially the Scheduled Castes, in terms of the severity of the negative impact on employment. The upper castes are endowed with higher human capital, i.e. educational achievement, and are in jobs less vulnerable to pandemic disruption. What is surprising is that the impact on SCs is three times worse. Not only has the pandemic exposed the pre-existing inequities but has amplified them. Hence relief and welfare measures have to pay extra attention and compensate for this unequal impact across caste divisions.”

A month ago, a man belonging to a Scheduled Caste, Kuldeep Kumar, sold his cow to fund the education of his daughter Anu and son Vansh, who are studying in Class IV and Class II. The story received widespread attention and he received help from a number of well-wishers. During this critical time, another crucial determining factor is access to the internet. Internet access among upper-caste households is 20 percent, while only 10 percent of households of SC community have such access. Education is at a standstill, it will not restart in the majority of the country until the government allows schools to function. Access to the internet is still very crucial, in terms of access to multiple benefits.

In rural India, especially in tribal villages, that we visited we found that kids in poor families are not involved in any kind of learning. Though private schools in villages are not closed, they don't have any infrastructure for online education. Those families whose kids are studying in cities are only arranging facilities for their kids for online education and most of them are OBCs, forward castes, and Brahmins.

We spoke to Shyam Sonar, a National Executive member from All-India Forum for Right to Education (AIFRTE), who stressed upon this issue of access to online education, “As per the NSSO data in Maharashtra, only around three percent of rural households have computers and almost 19 percent have internet access and in urban areas 52 percent have access — this implies that around 77 lakh families in Maharashtra are deprived of online mode of education in the time of Covid. If you multiply it with just four, that roughly means over three crore families are deprived of access to education. Since the majority of students belong to lower caste groups, whose families have been badly hit by lockdown, are faced with a double whammy.”

Sonar also said that since caste-based professions like that of Mali, Nai, Chamars castes are hit badly they can’t pay the hefty private school fees for their children. “The honourable Maharashtra high court said that the government cannot ask private schools not to charge fees. This is not favouring the poor especially from marginalised communities as they are already facing financial difficulties and now their kids are being deprived of education which is against their fundamental right to education.”

Covid and caste-based violence

The pandemic has heightened untouchability practices, resulting in violence against Dalit communities. In Maharashtra, a 20-year-old Dalit youth named Hrishikesh Vhavalkar was beaten up on the false pretext of being Covid positive. In Haryana, a family was allegedly attacked for not switching off their lights at 9 pm on April 5, according to PM Modi’s directives. There have also been reports of Covid-linked sexual discrimination and violence.

“At a time when communities around the world are experiencing severe health and economic issues due to the Covid-19 pandemic, acts of violence on the basis of caste have continued on a massive scale against Dalits and Adivasis in India. While the Covid-19 pandemic affects wider society, in India those, who face existing structural discrimination and social and economic exclusion are particularly vulnerable to its most devastating impacts.” said a report by National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), an NGO, on the impact of Covid on Dalits.

Not just that Covid also caused racial violence against the North-eastern community. Between February 7 and March 25, 22 cases of hate and racial discrimination against people from North East were reported which tells volumes of the discrimination — a Manipuri girl was spat at and verbally abused.

Now slowly, as things are getting back to normal, India’s workforce is returning to their jobs and everyone is hoping for a return to pre-Covid conditions. It is clear that Covid-19 has not impacted all equally — in fact, it has exacerbated existing inequalities. Further studies will tell us the true extent of the impact but for now, the picture is extremely grim.

This story was first published on The Patriot


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like