It’s been three and a half years since COVID-19 was first reported in the country. The country and its people witnessed a lack of preparation by the authorities resulting in a dearth of necessary facilities and security. There’s no justice in sight for those who walked kilometres barefoot, those who lost jobs, and those who had no food security in place. Trapped in a loop of suffering so severe it continues to this day, they struggle to find means to survive.

The state refuses to take accountability for its poor planning and its consequences, and encourages people to move past it. At a time when people are trying to get back on their feet and steady their lives, thousands of people were left homeless in the wake of the G20 Summit, as close to 2.5-3 lakh people were evicted. This number is attributed to only a few states. One could only imagine the number if all the states were taken into account. The state is not ignorant of the pandemic-induced struggles. Even so, they are adding to the distress with these evictions in the name of beautification. The message is loud and clear: “Move on, don’t seek accountability.”

While the struggles during the pandemic were primarily related to health and death, both still quantifiable, the distress it caused, especially in marginalised communities, is immense. In order to shed light on the distress continuing to be faced by marginalised sections as the pandemic wreaked havoc in their lives, between 2021 and 2023 the Public Inquiry Committee/People’s Commission conducted 13 public hearings in different parts of India.

Tales of many forms of distress faced by the street vending community in Delhi

According to an article in The Wire, estimates suggest that there are around 3,00,000 street vendors in Delhi. However, according to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s official counts, the number of ‘legal’ street vendors in Delhi is only 1,25,000.

The hearings held amongst street vendors of Delhi revealed that their income from vending came down by 50%-70% since the pandemic and they haven’t recovered from the financial distress. The surge in online shopping further worsened their economic distress. Not having much of a choice but to rely on money lenders, most of them currently face spiralling debts. They also disclosed that the biggest distress they faced and continue to experience is forceful evictions and harassment by the MCD and police officials.

“Even after the lockdown was lifted, police and MCD officials forcefully closed my shop 6-7 times. I have all the documents required for vending. But it doesn’t matter to them if you refuse to pay them a bribe,” said Neeta from Kalkaji. She went on to state that her children’s education was disrupted as she couldn’t afford a smartphone. She took a loan of Rs 1,50,000 during the pandemic to sustain her family which she has not been able to repay yet.

“We were not allowed to work during the pandemic and my shop was closed for eight months. When I reopened, MCD officials ceased my goods 15 times. Officials would keep harassing us and issue challans for no reason. They called me “chuda chamar” (casteist slang) while speaking to me,” recalled Ritu.

The Street Vendors Act, 2014, takes precedence over the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957, and the Delhi Police Act, 1978. Despite this, a complete police state was witnessed during the pandemic. Vendors were mercilessly lathi-charged and arrested and their vending was disrupted even as the lockdown was lifted.

Town Vending Committee (TVC) members said that despite being elected representatives of street vendors, they face hurdles. “We are elected members and have been assigned the role on the basis of the Act. However, we are not informed about meetings. The recommendations and suggestions provided by us are not included in the minutes of the meeting. They mark our presence by referring to the attendance register and by the time we look at the minutes, we realise that notes have been added based on whims and fancies,” remarked a TVC member.

Another TVC member asked, “During the pandemic, we faced difficulties as both street vendors and TVC members. If we as TVC members can’t make any intervention, how can the street vendor community rely on the systems of democracy?”

TVC members also mentioned that the surveying of vendors is not done effectively, which results in a section of vendors not being surveyed and not receiving the documents required for vending.

Ratheesh, a BCom graduate, became a vendor because he couldn’t find a job. He says, “My shop was closed for two years during the pandemic. When I tried vending, police thrashed me, and my leg was fractured.” He went on to say that he hasn’t been surveyed, because of which he has to discreetly run the shop.

Not only were their means of livelihood hanging by a thread, they also incurred additional expenses as the police lathi-charge often caused them injuries.

While the government relief schemes such as the PM SVANidhi loan introduced to aid vendors were well received, vendors say that those weren’t as effective or even easily accessible. During an already tumultuous time, vendors found themselves going from one office to another trying to apply for the loan. Banks often turned their backs and refused to assist those in need. During the Parliament session, the housing and urban affairs minister disclosed that 38 lakhvendors benefitted from the PM SVANidhi scheme. Our interaction with the vendors revealed that while some of them did receive the amount, others struggled to get their loan approved and another section is still waiting for the disbursement.

Waste pickers

India is home to over four million waste pickers and Delhi is estimated to have over two lakh waste pickers. Over 42% of waste pickers in Delhi segregate waste in their homes or by the roadside as they have no allotted space to work in. Waste pickers play a vital role in keeping our cities clean. Yet, they live and work in abject conditions. Living in rag-tag tents with piles of collected garbage all around their living space, they have no water, electricity, sewage or toilet connections.

Hearings held amongst waste pickers of Delhi revealed that they had no income and savings to fall back on during the pandemic. They relied on moneylenders which also increased their debts. Besides, they were charged by the municipal authorities for collecting the waste they were entitled to.

“We had no income during the lockdown as army personnel were around torturing and beating people arbitrarily. This created a lot of fear and we couldn’t work. We relied on moneylenders to make ends meet. We struggle to make monthly interest payments,” Ranjith from Bhuapur said.

While people were told not to venture out during the pandemic and lockdown, waste pickers, whose livelihood required getting out and collecting waste, were caught in a limbo. “We didn’t have any government support in terms of free ration. No scheme was available,” said Nivin from Bhalaswa. He further stated that government officials only visit when they want votes. Another observation from the hearing was that the pandemic was seen as an opportunity to further the trend of MCD privatising waste management and contractualisation of waste pickers. Waste pickers had to find means to survive as they had little to no help from the government.

While COVID-19 didn’t spread amongst the community, the lockdown that was in place made it impossible for many of them to access regular health services. They even had to work without protective gear while segregating used masks, Covid testing kits, syringes, etc.

Weavers being pushed out of traditional weaving

The handloom sector is the second largest informal sector in India. According to the Handloom Census 2019-20, there are 3.5 million workers in the handloom sector.

Hearings held amongst handloom workers across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana revealed that the pandemic had an impact on their livelihood. They went for months without work, getting pushed into abject poverty and starvation. This led some weavers to switch jobs and move places to find better-paying jobs. The exploitation by master weavers worsened during the pandemic. “Since the pandemic, master weavers have reduced our wage per saree. We are looking for other job opportunities as income from weaving isn’t keeping our family afloat,” said Nimi from Andhra Pradesh. She further stated that her husband passed away due to COVID-19 but the family hasn’t received Covid death compensation.

It was disclosed during the hearings that the industry struggled with the GST imposition. Before 2017, handloom products were either not taxed or were taxed at low rates. However, with GST being imposed on handloom products, they are taxed anywhere from 5% and 18%. The GST rule states that aside from the finished cloth, all materials used in the production, including yarn, thread, etc. will attract a tax.

During the pandemic, when the economic crisis was high, weavers struggled to buy materials for weaving because of taxes. They further revealed that as many of them lack education, they struggle with the technical side of filing GST.

Much later, as pressure mounted on the government to relieve weavers from economic distress, the GST was rolled back to 5%.

The sector also faces stiff competition with the powerloom industry as the latter has almost entirely taken over the traditional handloom industry. Handloom workers assert that the powerloom industry is encroaching upon the handloom sector by disregarding the Handloom Reservation Act, 1985. As per the Act, the production of certain products is reserved for the handloom.

“Officials take bribes from powerloom owners and refuse to take action against those violating the Act,” said a weaver. The implementation of the Handloom Reservation Act has been a long pending demand of handloom weavers.

The quest for answers and relief measures from the authorities

The series of 13 public hearings across four states had marginalised sections coming forward to speak in a room full of people. This is testimony to the fact that the distress and impact of the pandemic still linger, and they relive every moment of the pandemic like it happened yesterday. These marginalised sections of society need answers from the government authorities as to why they were not protected and cared for and were thrown to death, debt and distress. They also demand robust relief measures from the government to stabilise their lives impacted by the pandemic. There ought to be accountability and it isn’t a one-way road.

Names have been changed to protect.

V.R. Sreya is a researcher associated with People’s Commission and Public Inquiry Committee process.

This article is the second in a series on the state of the Indian economy co-curated by the Centre for Financial Accountability, New Delhi and The Wire. Read the first part here

This article was originally published in The Wire and can be read here.

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