COVID-19: Dalit rights bodies regret, no relief plan for marginalized
In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the National Dalit Watch-National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, endorsed* by several other Dalit rights organizations, have insisted, the Government of India should particular care of the scheduled castes and tribes, trans folks, persons with disabilities and the women and children from these communities, while fighting against COVID-19 pandemic.
Pointing out that these communities are the “outside any social safety net”, the letter regrets, “We are yet to see any immediate relief measures being announced by the government to ensure these communities are protected and enabled to sustain with medical supplies, relief package, social security, livelihood support being announced for people out of work and for Dalits working in unsafe conditions, such as the sanitation workers.”
Appealing to the government to take measures that are “inclusive and non-discriminatory”, keeping in mind that “several of these communities will be disproportionately affected”, the letter wants the government to take “effective actions” to also ensure that during the lockdowns “people without homes, child labourers, daily wage labourers, sanitation workers and domestic help” are not left out.
The letter demands the government to:
Ensure that all preventive measures and actions are equitable, inclusive, non-discriminatory, and dignified.
Institute inclusive relief measures through relief packages (food stocks etc), and social security measures (pensions), unemployment allowances – till the pandemic passes for marginalised/informal sector/ self-employed/ casual workers.
Enhance the number of testing centres and its capacity to ensure that samples are taken from all such settlements which typically accommodate marginalised communities so that the scale of infections are detected by the State early enough to make arrangements for quarantine and care/treatment.
Introduce livelihood support compensation packages and undertake a systematic process of enumerating informal/migrant sector workers, together with immediate relief compensation in the form of direct cash assistance as a well-established practice during the times of natural disasters in India and internationally, to enable them to sustain in the absence of (regular) wage work, to prevent them from distress induced indebtedness and exploitation.
Enhance financial assistance for the informal sector workers, those mentioned above and beyond, and create and extend provisions as per the Unorganised Workers' Social Security Act of 2008 and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 to ensure they have access to state entitlements and legal assistance to meet their cumulative needs after having lost or at the brink of losing /restricted livelihoods.
Additionally, integrate the losses of informal/migrant sector workers as recognised and described by the corresponding laws, into the State /National Disaster Response Fund Norms.
Institute alternative means, in coordination with local authorities and civil society organisations to continue the provision of mid-day-meal, Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE)/ anganwadi services to children where schools and ECCE centres have been indefinitely halted.
Introduce innovative digital means of making up for the loss of school days in a safe and confidential manner.
Ensure that the designated public fair price/distribution shops are functioning with adequate stocks of provisions as per schedule but enhance the entitlement till the uncertainty over Covid-19 passes.
Wherever mohalla clinics are established, have their strength increased to reach out to urban poor with correct information and awareness drive. Institute similar local community-based systems to support and complement regular public healthcare systems to prevent, test and treat the Covid-19 issues among marginalised communities.
Ensure the supply and provision of safety kits for sanitation workers in the Government, private sector undertaking at no cost across government and private health institutions.
Ensure provision of basic amenities like water supply and hygiene kits, soaps, sanitisers, masks and other essential commodities to every Dalit, Adivasi, homeless, floating population, inmates in various homeless shelters, night shelters/relief camps and slum dwelling population across India.
Create greater awareness about testing labs, free testing and treatment of Covid-19 to avoid private practitioners and quacks from exploiting and deceiving the poorest sections by charging money.
Put in place accessible and people friendly complaints and grievance registration and redress mechanisms under the designated local authorities to provide and ensure justice along with humanitarian relief.
In a separate background note justifying its demands, the letter says:
According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country is in the second stage of transmissions, i.e. local transmission. The Centre and state Governments domestically have invoked the ‘Epidemic Act’ and ‘Disaster Management Act’ to prevent spread of coronavirus, and issues advisories and awareness drive encouraging private sector undertakings to permit work from home for employees; frequent hand washing, strict hygiene and covering of their nose and mouth while sneezing and coughing; prohibiting gathering of more than 50 people; Covid-19 symptom, guidelines for prevention; and the dos and don’ts of home quarantine, ordering closure of schools, colleges, exams being postponed in addition to various restrictions on international travel.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare also released an elaborate list of things to do and not do while using and dumping masks amidst the coronavirus outbreak.
Emphasis of advisories has been on social distancing, which reminds us of uncivilised practice of untouchability, exclusion
A perfunctory look at all the measures so far reveals a distressing bias against the underprivileged sections, which will invariably be the depressed classes and caste of citizens. They seem to be tailored to protect the privileged citizens but completely inadequate and irresponsive to the marginalised communities particularly the Dalits, who are predominantly engaged in manual forms of occupations, which don’t allow them any safety and hygiene even in normal times.
The emphasis through all these advisories has been on ‘Social Distancing’, which reminds us of the uncivilised practice of untouchability and exclusion practiced viciously over centuries.
According to the Safai Karmchari Andoldan, lakhs of safai karmcharis/sanitation workers are engaged in hazardous occupations without any protection whatsoever. This continues even with the Covid-19 pandemic. They continue working, in all areas affected by the virus, exposed to infections, not provided with the requisite protective medical wherewithal to protect themselves against infections.
Different important sources have estimated 90% of India’s workforce to be predominantly informal employment as self-employed and casual workers. Women’s participation in the informal sector, predominantly as domestic help and sanitation works, and the likelihood of them being engaged as contractual or informal workers in the formal sector have placed their overall health and wellbeing at high risk.
*Endorsed by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch – National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, National Dalit Movement for Justice, RIGHTS-Kerala, Ambedkar Lohia Vichar Manch Odisha, SASY-Tamil Nadu, Prayas Gramin Vikas Manch-Bihar, Bundelkhand Dalit Adhikar Manch-Uttar Pradesh, and the Asia Dalit Rights Forum
Copy of the letter sent to Amit Shah, Minister, Home Affairs; Dr Harsh Vardhan, Minister, Health & Family Welfare; Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister, Finance; Thawar Chand Gehlot, Minister, Social Justice & Empowerment; Arjun Munda, Minister, Tribal Affairs; and GV Sarma, member secretary, National Disaster Management Authority