This three part weekly series by Harshita Sinha brings forth the narratives and voices from the invisible workers in the Indian Informal Economy during the Covid-19 lock down. In the second of this series we look at the story of Raju*, a mason, and his wife Jai Devi*, a domestic helper. 

The Indian informal economy accounts for roughly 90% of India’s total workforce, with the degree of informality varying across indices of gender, urban-rural location, nature of sector and jobs. While some employed in this sector are visible, others face uncertainty and precarity because of social and institutional factors which curtail their recognition and entitlements. This series aims to highlight the gap through the lived realities of segments in informal workers face based on conversations with the workers in light of the COVID-19 Lockdown.

Source: Clicked by the Author

Raju, 29, a mason from Bihar, works at a construction site.  He and his wife Jai Devi migrated to Delhi 6 months back. While Raju works as a mason and his wife as a domestic help to sustain and feed a family two kids; three and one year old respectively. With their joint income, Raju could remit some money to his mother in the village. Living in unauthorised colony in Delhi, Raju and Jai Devi rent a small 6×8’ room. Raju has worked for 10-15 days a month since his arrival in Delhi in last three months, while Jai Devi worked in three houses for a cumulative of seven hours a day for roughly 25 days in a month.

Before the lockdown, living in an unauthorised settlement for Raju meant relying on his landlord to ensure electricity and water supply in the house. Raju recalls being able to sustain the initial two weeks of the lockdown from their income, however since Jai Devi was a recent hire in two households, she was amongst the first of many to be fired. While Raju’s contractor himself found himself struggling to sustain the waged hires, thereby only being able to help those who had been working for him for a longer period of time.

Raju recalls, how the period of lockdown being unsettling, due to a conflict with this landlord. While having paid the rent for his flat for the month of march, Raju and Jai Devi found it extremely difficult to sustain their family and pay the rent for the month of April. Though the Government had asked landlords to be sensitive towards tenants for rent during the lockdown. However, Raju says there is no electricity and water supply in my house. Even though he requested the landlord but all in vain. The landlord was adamant for the rent or evict the house.”

He said “I have been humiliated, called names and abused, with my wife and children having to stand outside the house even in the lockdown, because it became unbearable to stay and listen to our landlord taunt. Having had to rely on our landlord for water and electricity, we found ourselves without choice.”

Seeking help, “In desperation, I spoke to Seth (contractor) who had told us to rent this flat from this landlord who is his acquaintance but in the last few weeks even he refused to speak to him or negotiate on my behalf. I am a nobody, but the landlord would have definitely budged if the Seth spoke to him.”

Talking about his landlord, Raju says, “I came to this city for a better life, but now, I can’t wait to go to my ghar (house in Bihar). This city is nobody’s, at least back home someone would have helped out of good faith but here I am disposable at the mercy of people, be it for my dihadi, ghar aur zindagi (Wage, house and life)” (Raju)

Over the last month, migrant workers in India have found themselves in extremely precarious situations. This precarity that we see, is not merely a result of their position in the job market but also in terms of their presence in the city. Like Raju, many migrant workers find themselves relying on intermediaries such as their landlords, employer or contractor to negotiate access to even the most basic necessities in the city. While relying on informal cliental networks are a mode of subsistence for workers in the city, the struggles and hardships have accentuated in the last month for many. The threat of eviction and having to constantly bargain access to even the most basic necessities such as water, have pushed many migrant workers on the brink in urban spaces. Along side the health concerns of the pandemic, the major concern for many migrant workers in the cities who haven’t moved back to their state of origin is the means and methods of their struggle to negotiate their safety and household in Delhi.

Even with the state’s advisory for relief on rent, the lived reality of many workers is far from it. Raju and Jai Devi’s situation highlights the multi-dimensionality of informality being created and reinstated across board in the lives of informal workers. The domino effect of network dependency which the migrant workers find themselves facing in the city during the pandemic, is reflective of the structured absence of the workers and their realities in the conceptualisation of needs for the city.

Note: All members part of these series are successfully in touch with NGO’s working on ground to provide food relief materials to informal sector workers, who are facing hardships due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

* All names have been changed to ensure anonymity and confidentiality.

Harshita Sinha ( a PhD Candidate at the Department of International Development at LSE. Her research looks at migrant workers in the India informal economy. She holds an MSc. Development Studies from the London School of Economics and her area of interest include migration, gender, informal economy and South Asia. She currently volunteers with an NGO, in New Delhi which works to provide relief goods.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.