On a cold winter afternoon in the Indian capital, New Delhi, a group of auto rickshaw drivers huddled outside a metro station hoping to pick up passengers. Since the city shut schools, colleges, restaurants and offices to cope with a third wave of the pandemic fueled by the omicron variant, though, they know their wait could be long and probably futile.
“We work on the streets and depend on people being out,” Shivraj Verma said.
“Now I will not be able to earn enough to even buy food in the city. We get crushed when the city closes.”
This is the third consecutive year that tens of millions of workers in India’s vast informal economy are confronting a loss of livelihoods and incomes as megacities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, which are the epicenter of the new wave, partially shutter.
While India has not enforced a stringent nationwide lockdown as it did in 2020, Delhi has closed offices, imposed a weekend and night curfew and restricted large gatherings. In the business hub of Gurugram, markets shut early as part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.
For those that work on the street, though, contracting the virus is of little concern — their masks hang loosely on their faces, only to be pulled up when a policeman, who might impose a fine, passes by. Their pressing problem is to earn enough money to feed families, send children to school and pay rent for their tiny tenements.
In the lives-versus-livelihoods debate that has posed one of the pandemic’s greatest dilemmas, their vote is squarely with the latter.
“We don’t worry about the virus, we worry about how to take care of our families. I will have to return again to my village if the situation stays the same,” auto rickshaw operator Mohammad Amjad Khan said.
Khan was among millions of migrants returned to their villages when India witnessed a mass exodus in 2020. He only picked up the courage to return to Delhi after a year and a half in September. At that time India had recovered from its devastating second wave.
Its cities were humming, restaurants and markets were packed, and businesses saw a revival. As India’s economy picked up pace briskly, Khan made a decent living from the auto rickshaw he took on hire to ferry customers and could send some money home. The pandemic appeared to have become a distant memory.
The good times lasted for four months. From less than 7,000 new cases a day in mid-December, India has been counting more than a quarter million in recent days. As cities like Delhi hunker indoors, earnings have again plummeted.
“Now I don’t even make enough money to pay for the daily hire of this vehicle. It’s really tough,” Khan said with a despondent shrug.
Indian policymakers have underlined the need to protect jobs.
At a meeting with chief ministers this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that there should be minimal loss to the ordinary people’s livelihoods and related economic activity as the country battles the latest wave.
“We have to keep this in mind, whenever we are making a strategy for COVID-19 containment,” he said.
Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has reassured migrant labor that a lockdown will not be imposed.
On the ground however, even partial curbs hit hard the tens of thousands of vendors who line Indian streets – vegetable and fruit sellers, small kiosks selling chips, soft drinks and cigarettes, and food carts.
Anita Singh is allowed to operate her street cart that sells hot meals and snacks till 8 p.m., but in the last two weeks, there have been very few customers to serve.
“Most of my sales were to college students or in the late evening when people left offices. Now they are shut,” she said.
Employment has not returned to its pre-pandemic level since the Indian economy was battered by COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a recent report by the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy. The report said that there are fewer salaried jobs, whereas daily wage work and farm labor has increased – a sign of economic distress.
“There has been a drop in average wages and daily earnings across sectors because of COVID stipulations,” said Anhad Imaan, a communication specialist with several nonprofit organizations working with migrant labor.
“Even in the construction and manufacturing sectors which have remained open, there is less work available per worker.”
That means the quality of lives of those in the informal sector has taken a huge hit.
“They used to spend much of what they earned on food and a place to stay and sent home whatever they saved,” he said, “Now they are down to subsistence levels.”
Although estimates vary widely, studies say millions in India have slipped below the poverty line during the pandemic. A study by Pew Research Center in March pegged the number at 75 million. Another one by the Centre for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University in May after India experienced a second wave put it at 230 million due to “income shocks.”
Whatever the numbers, it is a reality that the group of auto rickshaw drivers waiting for passengers knows too well. As they talked to each other, their top concern was whether there will be a lockdown and whether they should be heading home for a third time.