Arjun Kumar, Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Sakshi Sharda, Swati Solanki, Mahima Kapoor, Annu Chaudhary
The Covid-19 Pandemic has had devastating effects on the world alike. However, its impact has been disproportionate across gender, class, and caste. With this in mind, the IMPRI Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi organized a #WebPolicyTalk on Impact of the First and Second Waves of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women Vendors and Small Business Owners of Puducherry by MS. Jagriti Shankar as part of The State of Gender Equality – #GenderGaps series.
Prof Vibhuti Patel, Former Professor, TISS, Mumbai, thanked Dr. Arjun Kumar and the IMPRI Team for giving a platform to discuss such important concerns of women vendors under the pandemic-triggered lockdown. Being a vendor or small business owner is not opportunity-driven, but distress-driven. It was in 1974, with the Towards Equality Report, that this question of women who are at the margin of the economy was highlighted and paved the way for a very systematic study and the national profile with the Shramshakti Report in 1988.
In India, only nine percent of women are into enterprises, which is again not opportunity-driven with low capacities to invest, such as after selling their gold or borrowed money from parents, in-laws, or husband. Banks do not even consider them bankable and creditworthy. In India, it is estimated that fifty percent of vendors sell cooked food and over thirty percent of them sell fresh fruits and vegetables catering to one-third of the demand of urban India.
Years of advocacy lie with the landmark legislation of Street Vendor’s Protection of Livelihood Regulation and Street Vending Act 2014. The law protects the livelihood through street vending sought to establish a mechanism for improved special acuity for vendors, participating in decision making and regulatory arrangements at the city level.
The major problem comes with the registration, some states like Maharashtra they’ve started the process of registration but most of the states have not even begun. The kind of paperwork that is required is difficult for women to procure. Street vending is often the first resort for any unskilled migrant with an aspiration to progress.
There is nothing called a free source of market, there’s the intersectionality of caste, ethnicity, religion, region, and gender which plays the dominant role at the level of success, social capital, state support, and also security. The harassment they face, face from the local self-government bodies, officers from there, and the police.
Now, with the wide usage of digital transactions and availability of access to credit to street vendors to register themselves with local bodies which is a dedicated and encouraging drive of the urban local self-governing bodies are supposed to mainstream the informal vendors and help build data based on urban poor. In the future, this data can be used for convergence of PM SWANidhi Yojna and other government programs with common target beneficiaries.
Ms. Rajkala Partha, Founder, Sharana, Puducherry gave a brief of Sharana, a social and development organization based in Puducherry, and its goals and visions. It was established in July 2000 to address the critical educational needs of socio-economically disadvantaged children and communities in urban Pondicherry and its surrounding villages.
Sharana’s foundational belief is that all human beings are equal in rights and dignity, and everyone is entitled to food, clothing, and shelter. It has joined hands in Covid Relief and Food Distribution services during 18 months of lockdown.
The Impact of Covid-19
Ms. Jagriti Shankar, Programme Director, Sharana – Social and Development Organisation, Puducherry brought different organizations and programs into the light of social work during Covid-19 lockdown months, like Sharana. Women’s Social Entrepreneurship program started in 2018 with the goal of providing financial and business development support to women from lower socio-economic strata to start a small business or upscale their existing business.
Additionally, therapy and counseling to the most needed were given one for over a few months. She gave an idea of what slum looks like and the socio-economic pressure of women and young girls and the unhygienic conditions with which they’re bound to live. Further, under Covid-19 further led to severe conditions like domestic violence, covid hotspots at basic necessity space. She also shared some case studies showing the grieve and plight of underprivileged women.
High-interest private loans like daily, hourly loans, or speed, rocket interests, which amounted to 200-300/- for daily wage workers to survive in this period. It impacted women’s food intake and nutrition because of a lack of social security, such as no mid-day meal for poor children.
Increased reproductive work and gendered workload further led to mental health issues and increased fees at private clinics hindered women from health rights as well.
One woman exclaimed, “I did all the work while my husband watched TV, and kept getting frustrated due to not being able to go out, and not getting alcohol.” Another shared, “Our daughters are helping out in household chores like drying out the laundry, filling up water and washing vessels. The boys only sometimes help in small outside work.”
In rural areas, due to reverse migration and unemployment, men are starting to claim women’s livelihood and income sources causing deeper gendered implications on women’s economic security, decision making, control over resources, etc.
Ms. Jagriti Shankar concluded her remarks by stating that no crisis is ever gender-neutral. Uncertainty still looms around women’s heads about their work and life, living under fear about the future, about predictions of the third wave of the disease.
But on the other hand, the strength and resilience of women is something worth celebrating. We need more efforts and resources towards gender-sensitive planning and systems in place to ensure that such catastrophes do not exacerbate gender-based inequalities.
Prof Vibhuti Patel asked what her analysis was on the predicament of women’s vendors in the first and second waves in the context of India, whether the State has taken adequate measures for social protection and security of women as small business owners, the response of the State and how does she see the trade unions such as self-employed women’s organizations and the application of the PM SWANidhi scheme.
Social Security and Legal Framework
Ms. Lavanya Shanbhogue Arvind, Assistant Professor, Centre for Disasters and Development, Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, began answering questions with the idea of heterogeneities of identity under gender. And how the informal sector has failed to provide the basic security under state and the national lockdown that have amplified the pre-existing vulnerabilities.
The wage gap, inadequate market accessibility, formal sources of credit, and limited power to bargain in the social and private sphere. The first lockdown pushed them to solely depend on savings. After it, the reverse and distressed migration at the national level worsened, leaving them at the mercy of State governments in micro-enterprises in the next. The number of distress cases for women in rural India rose by 21% to 44% in 2020 and April 2021 consequently.
Several legislations like The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008, Contract Labour Act of 1970, Street Vendor’s Protection of Livelihood and Regulation Act of 2014 provide unprincipled protection. But, they do not procure and reach beneficiaries. National Human Rights Commission and National Commission of Women have issued advisories regarding safeguarding micro women enterprises, but advisories do not legally bind them.
So with the near failure of state mechanisms, we need to look for other avenues like trade unions, development, voluntary sector, and organizations like SEWA, which is the largest trade union in India with currently around 2 million members.
The SWANidhi Yojna, to facilitate the working capital loans up to 10k to incentivize regular payments. But, the problem lies with the documentation work and the implementation. The digital divide and commercialization with private banks for marginalized sectors in times of lockdown put in a massive crisis.
Dr. Neha Shah, Associate Professor – Economics, L J Institute of Management Studies, Ahmedabad, asked about her analysis on female street vendors in western India, especially in cities like Ahmedabad, whether the State taken adequate measures for protecting the interests of small business owners and vendors, the efforts of SEWA in Ahmedabad and the Aajeevika Bureau, which has done a lot of work in supporting the same field.
What we’re facing today is a fundamentally deep-rooted structural issue. It starts with a fundamental objective with which the entire political economy has been designed where there is a central focus only on GDP. All the other humanitarian objectives are considered secondary which shifts regular employment to casual employment in the last three decades.
Though Gujarat is one of the richer states, the wages in the informal sector have been very suppressed even before Covid-19. Employment opportunities are highly competitive, with no entry barriers because it requires less scale and investment. Since this category is highly vulnerable, what we require is a welfare state which India is committed to providing state protection in times like this.
Our primary focus has always been on high growth though on paper and though on principle. Many legislations claim to protect the interest of poor and marginalized people but in the case of its implementation that has always been very weak. They have never been linked to the mainstream economy and they’ve remained left out. And what Covid-19 did is just tried to surface more aggressively this entire situation already prevailing.
Poor implementation of lockdown by assuming everyone has living places, digital access, savings, and stored grains gives a reflection of how policymakers perceive society that finally led to a major collapse. The philanthropic organizations came to active participation but the state was far behind in providing security.
Challenges faced due to Covid-19 related measures were the same as in other parts of the country like it affected mobility and customer interaction as markets were closed, not allowing to enter residential areas, and lack of demand with the constant fear of catching the infection. 98% reported an absolute loss of employment for three months and change in occupation often at lower pay. As per SEWA, for survival only 77% of women borrowed money and 0.006% are able to repay the installments.
Cash transfers to Jandhan Accounts reached many but making KYC norms mandatory and to those people who are at the lowest strata and severely affected questions the procedure. Case of Construction Workers Welfare Board which is central legislation in which each state is supposed to have Construction Workers Welfare Board, in Gujarat it has about 3020 crores of welfare fund and even after 7-8 months post first lockdown only 40 crores of rupees were distributed to the needed one.
The other pre-existing Social security schemes have gone completely defunded which supports the death of a worker, widow support program, or support for educational purposes. The system should have worked without affecting social securities.
Unpaid domestic work and domestic violence raised at bombarding levels. With 71.4% increased burden and 69% in case of a husband lost income. 60% reported an increase in domestic violence. Based on a survey done in Ahmedabad
The Covid-19 shock has pushed many back ten years in their lives in terms of their savings, income, and possibility to be able in the near future. Urging policymakers to strengthen the measures of the policy framework.
Dr. Aruna Chinnappan, Associate Professor in Sociology, and Head, Centre for Women Studies, Pondicherry University, Puducherry, stated that Puducherry being the tourist spot and having a fishery market faced the burn of covid. It mostly had stereotypical businesses and imposed a long time of lockdown affecting the economy and social spheres also shifted a step back. According to her observation, money lending brought a different kind of kinship during this tenure.
Depletion of the social network, women believed to have a better social capital banking in times of need that also got affected further leading to mental stress and illness. Healthcare facilities were delayed which also influenced the other kind of activities. The widow and the old pension are better compared to other places but not the small businesses and small vendors. Organizations have been working in collaboration and working in the direction to make an impact.
Dr. Vibhuti Patel enclosed the session by asking how organizations like Sharana can work like bridges and help the masses and what the condition is of vaccination for women in the frontline as they’re doing the essential services of selling vegetables and fruits.
Ms. Jagriti Shankar summarised with Puducherry being a very small place, the relief system has been quite efficient. People from neighboring states come to take the medical facilities as well. The gendered impact on the Covid-19 pandemic is very much real and clearly visible in all the areas of life be it physical, mental health, economy, poverty, debt, mobility, and violence.
Going forward, the first security to provide is food security for the poor, the survival. After that financial stimulus, low-cost sources of capital, and protection services of abused children and women. Specific interventions with the physical health of women and innovative ideas are needed for the continued education of underprivileged children.
Acknowledgment: Annu is a Research Intern at IMPRI