The world is witnessing a nasty, unprecedented situation since the inception of COVID-19 pandemic that toppled the balance of global health. In developing countries like India, it is not just health risks that are the concerns but also damage caused on delicate economic fabric. Although its adverse effects have been more pressing on Informal sectors their livelihood, cascading effects are on almost all sectors including construction industries, particularly in major metro cities.
This article tries to understand direct and indirect implications of this pandemic on city’s most vulnerable sector, informal workers, through the lens of the economy in the first part and its inevitable impact on city’s construction industry pushing it to a fragile situation in the second. The article attempts to give a perspective of important questions that need to be asked and a pointer to a future, socially and economically viable pandemic safe environment.
Many large-scale outbreaks of infectious diseases, pandemics which spread increasing morbidity and mortality, is not unheard in the world’s history. From the great plague of Athens in 430 BC, there have been several pandemics such as Antonine plague, Cyprian plague, Leprosy in 11th century, black death -1350, smallpox -1520, the great plague of London, 1665, First
cholera pandemic- 1817, Fiji measles-1875, Russian flu1889, Spanish flu-1918, etcetera, all claiming thousands of lives at that time. Many have been eradicated over the years. Today’s context of accelerated global travel, increasing urbanization, rapid change of landform & land use, limitless exploitation of the natural environment can easily lead to high transmission of
even a mild virus strain. More recent ones such as Ebola, HIV/AIDS, E-coli, Anthrax, SARS and Zika have clearly indicated that a world without virus /pandemics is a rare thing as a matter of fact.
The novel COVID-19 Pandemic in India has resulted in a variety of challenges for government, people in both rural and urban areas. Guided by the past pandemics’ preventive measures such as wearing mask, sanitization, social distancing, and containment measures such as quarantine and lockdown were taken up by the government, an appropriate and needed measures in the given situation. However, they affected not only the health sector but also the education sector, Construction sector, IT sector, Manufacturing, Tourism, and other business sectors. Downscaling of economic activities in all these sectors due to COVID-19 resulted in undesirable consequences.
Pandemic’s rupture on Economic fabric of Informal sector
The adverse effect was on the informal sector than formal sectors. Informal sectors’ economy is unregistered, they do not pay tax and have no accountability. They can be broadly categorized into informal workers and informal enterprises.
The informal sectors across the country have been the worst hit in unimaginable ways. The specific health risks when it comes to the Informal sector in urban areas is largely rendered by their living conditions. Vulnerable are the already poor unskilled workers who survive on daily wages. For these people pandemic comes as a shock impeding their ability to even
purchase necessities such as food and medicine. They live in an unsanitary overcrowded area where physical distancing is nearly impossible. Lack of accessibility to water, limits the possibility of handwashing and maintain the hygiene around. Loss of jobs due to pandemic has left them starving or on charity adding to their social, emotional, and economical
distress. Majority of the women from this sector are engaged in nonessential sectors, like shopping malls, housekeeping in modest offices, restaurants, wholesale trade, hospitality, and food services. The denial of salaries and considerable layoff faced by women domestic workers is nothing but harassment.
Informal food markets play an essential role in ensuring food security in most of our cities. The informal source of food in cities are catered by petty food corners, street food carts, modest canteens, whose consumers are migrant and workers from informal sectors. Their closure during early pandemic lockdown times lead to increased food insecurity and poverty.
While in rural India, farmers who produced for urban markets experienced a devastating situation during lockdown when urban markets became inaccessible, in metropolitan cities the logistical challenges due to domestic restrictions of movement added to the disruption of the food chain. Street Vendors and traders who sell products other than food constitute
a sizable part of the Informal sector. Pandemic lockdown on these vendors has significantly slashed their income. Many midsized non-essential, businesses either downsized their employees or closed their franchise or shut their business itself, unable to pay rent or loan in most of their cases.
The informal rag-waste pickers in Metro cities are the critical component in the steering wheel of solid waste management (SWM) despite them being virtually invisible. They sort dry waste in collection centres, scrap shops and itinerant waste buyers. The service provided by them plays a huge role in reducing the cost of SWM. They help in collecting reusable, recyclable dumped solid waste from all over city streets assisting a circular economy to happen particularly in developing countries like India. Their skill and knowledge about different waste streams are of tremendous value to the ecosystem of SWM. Waste pickers whose livelihood depend on this are the risk group by their occupation with more susceptibility to
health conditions. Due to the pandemic fear of the secondary spread of virus and lockdown measures waste pickers were kept at bay. They were left with no choice but starvation or to survive on charity. People from this sector are clearly deprived of all the benefits that formal sectors have like guaranteed access to medical care, health insurance, income security or sickness benefits if they fall prey to the pandemic.
Possible strategies to accommodate the Informal sector in Metro cities
Wearing Mask, social distance, restricted public interactions have become a new normal without doubt resulting in social, physical, mental, spatial, and economic consequences. This condition arising from the pandemic and without adequate health care, improper basic infrastructure the chances of virus spread are high and fatal in the habitats of the Informal sector. Further absence of financial support and alternate source of income without a doubt push them into the most vulnerable category.
Figure 1: Pandemic rupture on Informal sector
– Honestly wonder what happened with the constitution mandated the formation of metropolitan planning committees (MPCs) that all metropolitan cities area over 1 million of the population must have. It is essential now to strengthen the capacity of municipalities in planning, executing, and providing infrastructure and services. State and Central government should not only provide broad guidance, funds to manage disasters & pandemic situations but also empower them with the capacity to self-govern.
– Absence of functional ward committee in metropolitan areas to address such emergency situations is another concern. Perhaps it is time to have a functional funded ward wise committee to deal with emergency situations. For instance in the COVID-19 times to aid contact tracing, adoption of safety measures, monitoring and enforcing quarantine, recruiting volunteers to assist, collaborating with civic society and other such welfare organizations to battle the pandemic, thus ensuring the safety of the most needed social sections of the ward.
– It is time to Non-government but legal bodies such as Resident Welfare Association (RWAs) to shift their focus on safeguarding the rights of people in the domestic working sector. Time to make sure the manifesto of universal registration of both employers and domestic workers thus binding them to protect each other specially in such pandemic situation. This would ensure denial of salary or removing from work without the right reasons.
– The promise made by labour ministry to come up with a bill for a new law to ensure the protection of workers of informal sectors rise a hope. This sector needs “Sustained Investment “Policies.
– It is very essential to integrate informal waste pickers, with formal waste pickers, into the SWM ecosystem ensuring them a safer and more secured working environment. Awareness must be created about the schemes that may benefit by including them.
Pandemic impact on Informal sector and its Cascading effect on Construction Industry in metro cities
Construction industry has been working within the vital global market economy, unreasonable competitions, & inevitable stress of making money. The current economic and demographic structure of cities clearly indicates the role of the informal sector. Roughly about 30% of the construction workers constitute of migrant unskilled labours who have travelled long distances seeking jobs from far of rural areas. These immigrants provide cheap labours. With the advent of pandemic, stringent measures taken by the government, most of the miss informed and confused migrants fled back to their rural villages initiating reverse migration. Following this, the construction industry, no doubt, is facing a survival issue. Many small, medium sized construction and architecture firms, real state builders experienced a near out of work, situation with most of their ongoing projects coming to a halt and no new projects in near sight. Cascading effect of the pandemic are inter-related between Formal and informal sectors. Rental industry in metro cities witnessed a drastic decline due to prolonged work
from home leaving mammoth office buildings vacant along with innumerable houses which were rented by many IT workers and Students as they left cities to their hometowns. This tectonic shift of reverse migration during Pandemic and unexpected drop in income has left a void in Tier-1 cities with many rental building spaces unoccupied. Work from home has not only left large office spaces vacant but also has severely affected the informal sector which depended on them. For instance, housekeeping and maintenance have taken a hit. Small eateries, petty shops food courts who depended on these IT companies have lost their business. Lack of customers around these IT hubs for near future have left them with extraordinarily little choice of either shifting, their business or heading back to hometowns or villages.
– Real estate enables nearly 200 plus allied industries. Hence any support aid to real estate from the government should enable to generate more employment to catalyze economic revival.
– CREDAI’S step to seek an easy registration process for construction workers with the unique ID as they join back for work will hopefully benefit them with some work security and livelihood.
– Few immediate measures on taxation and regulation for instance Loans in par with agriculture for the construction industry, revisiting GST for housing projects for revival.
A few pointers on the way forward
How should our “cities”, our urban habitats-buildings should kick up to make a safe place for the future generation to come? Seeking change perhaps now is inevitable yet not so easy to change the current trend of practices in this construction industry. However, the construction industry is a large collaborative endeavor of professionals’ thinkers like engineers
(structural and Civil) and creative professionals like architects, interior designers, landscape architects who together join hands with the political leaders to build cities. Thus, thrusting our role as city builders we could become the game changers in shaping a new post pandemic construction into a sustainable pandemic free, Socio-economically viable Habitat centre.
We know that with or without lockdown, COVID-19 is omnipresent lurking around posing constant threat at least until a few years after the vaccine. Work from home has suddenly put a question mark to the massive corporate workspaces as a typology. Besides, it is extremely difficult to maintain huge volumes and big spaces for hygienic incurring heavy operating and maintenance costs. Arresting pandemics is a lot easier in smaller spaces. Many big IT companies have announced indefinite work from home indicating possible future working scenario.
This means perhaps an exclusive work nook or an office space at homes. More work-friendly new homes designs could be an opportunity. The current pandemic situation has prodded into us thoughts like frugal living, the importance of natural light and ventilation. It is believed that AC has been the major germs carriers. We must look at both health and aesthetics as an important part of our urban future by building small, designing buildings with more natural light and ventilation with passive cooling techniques and natural traditional time-tested construction materials. Reducing the use of the factory -manufactured materials, prefabricated materials though economically viable to that of natural materials like mud, bricks, stones wood, bamboo such keep germs at bay to an extent. Pandemic has highlighted the issues of urban poor habitats which are unfit for living once again questioning the lack of social development plans of metro cities.
DISCUSSION: Time to reset clock for future pandemic free socio economically viable cities
The risk extended by COVID-19 pandemic is beyond mortality where the economic consequences with unorganized, socially marginalized informal sector particularly the low wage labour category reeling under the brutal impact. Pandemic times are not only to treat the sick but also to introspect, how to fight this vicious battle of pandemic and to pull ourselves out of this economic fallout. Thus, the questions we need to ask now are crucial.
1. Are the migrant workers tolerated in the metro cities because they provide cheap labours? From the above argument, we understand that our cities are potentially built on the foundation of the unorganized sector. In Indian governance structure for such quintessential migrants still holds on to the outdated Habitual offenders Act, 1952, which treat them either as threat or nuisance which, clearly, they are not. They too deserve the equal claim such as decent housing, pay, health and social protection. It is high time that the policymakers take serious measures to include them as rightful citizens of cities. Planning for future cities must take social development perhaps as diligently as we take up its economic development. Fig 3 represents a conceptual scenario of the mutual support and inevitable link that formal and informal sectors share.
2. The next question would then be how do we build pandemic safe cities? Whether the existing system of be it governance, Market trends rooted in the global economy, is it possible to scale up the production back without causing further loss of life on livelihood. To deboard from the system, which is GDP model based on private property, engaging cheap labours, consumer-based market it is essential to look at cross-country patterns of transition towns, eco-communes, and co-living communities etc. whose approach is holistic and certainly are progressive and inclusive approach.
Figure 3: Dichotomy between Formal and Informal sectors & their inevitable interdependency.
CONCLUSION & WAY FORWARD
COVID-19 pandemic is only a trailer of future threats from climate change and natural disasters to come. With the size and complex urban layers, COVID-19 in India is largely a metro battle. The scale of the challenge is remarkably high. Learnings from the past may not be helpful for, pandemic challenges today are vastly different. India needs a homemade recipe
to solve this problem. In the book The Great Leveler, Australian economic historian Walter Scheidel, lends us hope by arguing that the decline in inequality is a result of excess mortality that raises the price of labour. Informal sectors did manage to survive 2008 financial recession and recent demonetization so perhaps with inclusive planning approach they may prove their resilience and bounce back post-pandemic impact as well. It is important to see this Pandemic as a warning and introspect to reform the way metropolitan cities are governed, to reduce the gap between formal and informal sector in terms of socio-economic and spatial infrastructures and more importantly the way we build our cities.
1. Sarkodie, S.A., Owusu, P.A. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on waste management. Environ Dev Sustain (2020)
2. Mukhtarova Turkan, Policy brief, COVID-19 and the informal Sector, GIWPS, July 2020
3. ILO brief- Covid-19 crisis and the informal economy, Immediate responses and policy challenges.